Sunday, October 31, 2010

A very important book

I've begun reading a new book by Ian Morris: 'Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future'. My initial reaction is that this is one of those books that breaks new ground in analyzing the past and how it relates to the present and future. Examples of books that did likewise (at least, in my opinion) would include Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs And Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies', Paul Kennedy's 'The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers', David Landes' 'The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor', and the like. Each of the latter books re-evaluates human history by putting familiar facts and developments into a new context, examining them from a new paradigm or perspective that (sometimes radically) changes our understanding of their import. I submit that Ian Morris' new book falls into the same category.

Morris has summarized some of his findings in two articles for the Daily Mail. Rather than try to make my own summary (yeah, I know, I'm lazy), I'll provide some extracts from those articles. There's much more at the links, for those interested.

One of the most popular theories about the West’s lengthy dominance is that Westerners are simply better than everyone else. However, if we look back far enough we see that this cannot be correct.

Archaeologists and geneticists have shown that our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago. We spread across the world, and by 10,000 years ago, a single kind of human had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. Wherever we go, people are biologically much the same.

Another widely shared idea is that the West has been blessed with better leaders, but that does not hold up to historical scrutiny. A century ago, the humourist Ambrose Bierce defined history in his Devil’s Dictionary as ‘an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools’.

An overstatement, for sure; there have been blameless rulers and clever soldiers, and non-royal, non-military women and men have done plenty of important things.

But when we run through the history of the world, we see strikingly similar mixes of knaves and fools, saints and sinners, great men and bungling idiots in every part of the planet.

For every mass murderer such as Mao Tse-Tung in the East, the West had a Hitler; for every sage such as Socrates in the West, the East had a Confucius. As we would expect if people really are all much the same, no part of the world has a monopoly on virtue or vice.

. . .

For 90 per cent of the 15,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, the West has been the most developed part of the world. Why?

To a great extent, the answer comes down to a single word: geography.

To make sense of this, we need to look at the full story. When the world warmed up at the end of the last Ice Age, climate and landscape conspired to provide a few areas (basically, a band of ‘Lucky Latitudes’ running from the Mediterranean to China) with species of plants and animals which could be domesticated – that is, tamed and genetically modified to meet human needs.

Within these Lucky Latitudes, the densest concentrations of domesticates (wheat, barley, sheep, cows, goats) were at the Western end, in the hills running through what are now the borderlands of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Israel; and so, because people are all much the same and cultures all develop in much the same ways, it was here that foragers first turned into farmers (around 9500 BC). Fed by domesticated plants and animals, they settled in villages that turned into the world’s first cities (around 3500 BC) and empires (around 750 BC).

In other parts of the Lucky Latitudes, like China and India, the concentrations of domesticates were less dense, and so it took people longer to invent villages, cities, states and empires.

Outside the Lucky Latitudes, where there were almost no domesticates, villages, cities and states never developed at all – until conquerors from the Lucky Latitudes brought them. Australians, Siberians and Africans stayed with hunting and gathering not because they were lazier, less clever or better attuned to nature than people elsewhere; geography had simply given them fewer resources.

Geography meant it was likely that some part of the Lucky Latitudes would go on to dominate the globe, and likeliest of all that it would be some part from the Western end.

But geography is full of complicated paradoxes. It shapes the development of societies, but the development of societies simultaneously shapes what geography means. It does this in all kinds of ways. In ancient times, the rise of great empires set off migrations, spread plagues and triggered wars, and by 200 AD all the empires along the Lucky Latitudes were falling apart.

But while Germanic, Arabic and Turkish invaders fought over the ruins of Rome, a great new empire reunited China, and by 700 AD politics began changing what geography meant.

Political division left the war-torn West languishing for centuries in its Middle Ages, while political centralisation let China’s rulers bring together the wealth of East Asia.

This fuelled an extraordinary golden age of artistic, literary and scientific advances – only for these advances to shift the meanings of geography once again.

In the 12th and 13th Centuries, the Chinese came up with two astonishing inventions: ships that could cross oceans and guns that could shoot the people on the other side.

Such self-evidently fine tools leapt from one end of the Lucky Latitudes to the other. The magnetic compass, first mentioned in a Chinese document in 1119, was in the hands of Arab and European sailors by 1180.

The gun moved even faster. The first known true gun, with enough bang to shoot out a lead bullet, was a modest, 12in-long bronze tube made in Manchuria in 1288; by 1327 a manuscript illuminator in Oxford, at the far end of Eurasia, was portraying far superior versions.

For millennia, the lands bathed by the frigid waters of the North Atlantic had laboured under huge geographical disadvantages. They lay far from the real centres of action, in the Mediterranean, and their development lagged far behind.

But ships and guns changed that. Suddenly, sticking out into the Atlantic became a huge plus. A voyage of 3,000 miles would take a 15th Century West European sailor such as Christopher Columbus all the way across the Atlantic to the Americas, while the great 15th Century Chinese admiral Zheng He (a eunuch said to be 8ft tall and 6ft around the belly) would have needed to sail twice as far to get there across the Pacific.

Before seafaring ships existed, this was a trivial geographical detail, but now it was the most important fact in the world. Given time, East Asian sailors would surely have run into the Americas eventually, but it was Columbus rather than Zheng He who opened up this new world to colonisation and plunder.

Chinese sailors were just as daring as the Spaniards, its settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but the new meanings of geography stacked the deck in the West’s favour.

It was therefore the Europeans who went on to create a new kind of maritime market economy in the 17th Century. They swapped guns for slaves in Africa, sailed to the Caribbean and traded slaves for sugar, then headed home to sell the sugar and buy more guns – promptly setting out on their triangular trade route all over again, reaping profits at every point.

Wi th so much money being made, European labourers flooded into new factories, and European thinkers saw what gains would come from explaining how winds and tides worked, measuring and counting in better ways and cracking the codes of physics, chemistry and biology.

Europeans, not Chinese, hurled themselves into these tasks, not because they were smarter but because geography was thrusting new questions on to the West. Europe, not China, had a Scientific Revolution, and Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights back on to society itself.

Voltaire, the sharpest wit in this 18th Century Enlightenment, remained convinced to his dying day that Europe had more to learn from China than the reverse; but by then it was clear to everyone else that something very special was happening in the West.

Europe’s success was raising entirely new questions. In some countries, particularly Britain, the demand for factory workers was pushing wages up to levels that made exports uncompetitive. British entrepreneurs responded by bringing together science and the new market economy, unleashing the awesome power of fossil fuels.

In 1776, the same year that Adam Smith finished his masterpiece The Wealth Of Nations and America’s founding fathers signed the Declaration Of Independence, James Watt launched the first really effective steam engine.

By 1870, Britain’s steam engines would be generating four million horsepower, equivalent to the labour of 40 million men, who would have consumed more than three times our entire wheat output.

Between 1500 and 1900 wheat yields had roughly doubled in the Western core, thanks to better organised farming and more draft animals and manure.

But by the 1890s farmers were reaching the limits of ingenuity. Adding animals could only drive up productivity so far, and by 1900 a quarter of America’s farmland was being used to feed horses.

Thanks to the new meanings of geography, Britain was responsible for the world’s first Industrial Revolution and was the first nation to be able to project power globally. Britain’s population boomed, spreading across the planet in what the historian

Niall Ferguson has vividly called a ‘white plague’; and Britain, not China or Japan, carved out an empire on which the sun never set.

Unfortunately for Britain, however, geography did not stop changing its meanings. As the 19th Century wore on, the British-dominated global economy drew in the resources of North America, converting the United States from a rather backward periphery (like Britain had been half a millennium earlier) into a new global core.

Between 1850 and 1900, Americans felled 168 million acres of forest, more than ten times Britain’s total farmland, and put it under the plough. The U.S. economy was half the size of Britain’s in 1840. By 1904 it was twice as big. But the United States was no more able to stop the ancient interplay of geography and social development when it was on top than Britain had been.

In the 20th Century the American-dominated global economy drew in the resources of Asia just as Britain had once drawn in those of America.

Japan cashed in first, doubling its share of world production between 1960 and 1980. Next came the so-called Asian Tigers: the economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

And then, most spectacular of all, the People’s Republic of China. Its share of world production tripled in the 30 years after Mao’s death in 1976; rare indeed is the Westerner who does not now put on at least one piece of made-in-China clothing every morning.

Chinese industry has sucked 150 million countryfolk into cities – the biggest migration in history. According to Businessweek magazine, ‘the China price’ now represents ‘the three scariest words in the English language’.

So, whatever the analysts may think, the West’s global dominance and ongoing crisis have precious little to do with flukes, great men, or bungling idiots – and nothing at all to do with racial or cultural superiority.

Rather, they are the entirely predictable outcomes of the complicated interaction of geography and social development across the last 15,000 years – an interaction which, in just the past 200 years, has given the West unprecedented wealth and power. And which, within our own lifetimes, has begun tilting the playing field in China’s favour.

. . .

When we imagine what life will be like over the next century, many people worry how the rise of the East will affect our lives in the West. They need not bother: the reality is that by the year 2100 our planet will have changed out of all recognition and even the concept of East and West may be meaningless.

In an interview in 2000, the economist Jeremy Rifkin suggested that: ‘Our way of life is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next several decades than in the previous thousand years.’

But this is, in fact, an understatement.

By my calculations, social development will rise twice as much between now and 2050 as in the previous 15,000 years; and by 2100 it will double again.

By 2100 we can anticipate cities of 140 million people – picture Tokyo, Mexico City, New York, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, New Delhi and Shanghai all rolled into one.

We should imagine armies with five times the destructive power of today’s, which probably means not more nuclear arms but weapons that make our intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombs and guns as obsolete as the machine gun made the musket.

Robots will do our fighting. Cyber warfare will be decisive. Nanotechnology will turn everyday materials into deadly weapons.

The 20th Century took us from hand-cranked telephones to the internet; the 21st will probably see everyone (at least in rich nations) gain instant access to all the world’s information, their brains networked in the same way as – or into – a giant computer.

All this, of course, sounds like science fiction. Cities of 140 million surely could not function. Nano-, cyber- and robot wars would annihilate us all. And merging our minds with machines – well, we would cease to be human. And that, I think, is the most important point.

. . .

Europeans and Americans live 30 years longer than their great-grandparents and enjoy an extra decade or two before their eyes and ears weaken and arthritis freezes their joints.

And in most of the rest of the world, life spans have lengthened by closer to 40 years. Even in Africa, plagued by AIDS and malaria, people live 20 years longer in 2010 than they did in 1910.

The human body has changed more in the past 100 years than it did in the previous 100,000 years. Our life spans and general health – not to mention our easily available augments such as hearing aids, artificial joints, Botox, and Viagra – would have seemed like magic to anyone who lived in an earlier age. But the changes over the next 100 years will be even greater.

. . .

Politicians can ban stem cell research, but outlawing therapeutic cloning, beauty for all (who can pay), and longer life spans does not sound workable. And banning the battlefield applications of tinkering with Nature is even less plausible.

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA – the people who brought us the internet in the Seventies) is currently working on molecular-scale computers built from enzymes and DNA molecules rather than silicon.

These will be implanted in soldiers’ heads, giving post-biological infantrymen some of the advantages of machines by speeding up their thought processes, adding memory, and even providing wireless internet access.

In a similar vein, DARPA’s Silent Talk project is working on implants that will decode preverbal electrical signals within the brain and send them over the internet so troops can communicate without radios or email. One recent National Science Foundation report suggests that such ‘network-enhanced telepathy’ should become a reality in the 2020s.

As early as next year IBM expects to have an array of Blue Gene/Q supercomputers running that will take us a quarter of the way towards a functioning simulation of a human brain.

Some technologists, such as the inventor Ray Kurzweil, insist that in the 2030s neuron-by-neuron brain scanning will allow us to upload human minds on to machines.

Kurzweil calls this ‘the Singularity’ – a stage of history when change becomes so fast that it seems to be instantaneous.

I have suggested that while geography drives social development at different rates in different parts of the world, rising levels of development also drive what geography means.

But if something such as Kurzweil’s Singularity comes to pass, development will not just change geography’s meaning: it will rob geography of meaning altogether.

The merging of mortals and machines will mean new ways of living, fighting, working, thinking and loving; new ways of being born, growing old, and dying. It may mean the end of all these things and the dawn of a world beyond anything our unimproved, merely biological brains can imagine.

. . .

When political pundits talk about what the future will be like, they imagine it as being much like the present, but shinier, faster, and with a richer China. They are wrong.

This is Star Trek thinking, assuming that we can change some things about the world without changing everything.

The 21st Century is going to be a race between some kind of Singularity and Armageddon. This means the next few decades will be the most important in history.

If Singularity wins the race, we will experience technological change so extreme that biology will be transformed; if Armageddon outruns it, we face the destruction of the civilisation we have built up so painfully over the last 15,000 years.

Either way, our rising social development is going to change everything. By the time the East overtakes the West, neither East nor West may matter very much any more.

You can read both articles in full at the links. Highly recommended - as is Morris' book. This is one to read slowly and carefully, with plenty of pauses to think. I submit everyone who takes history seriously should read this volume at least once. It's that good.



Jenny said...

For every mass murderer such as Mao Tse-Tung in the East, the West had a Hitler; for every sage such as Socrates in the West, the East had a Confucius.

citations, please.

East Berlin, West Berlin.
North Korea, South Korea.

Ideas matter. Culture matters.

Now that said, the whole "Singularity vs. Armageddon" take is an interesting one. This is gonna be a fascinating century.

Anonymous said...

The whole idea of networking our brains is an interesting concept but is this really desirable? Would you want Jeffrey Dahmer, Mao Tse-Tung, Hitler or Stalin intruding into your thoughts? Will we be able to shut off the flood of intrusions. Indeed, will we be able to shut this off at all?

In practical application, I suspect we will continue much as we have; muddling along, aspiring to some Utopia but never achieving it and killing huge numbers as we attempt to force human nature into a mold that simply doesn't fit.

Anonymous said...

"Archaeologists and geneticists have shown that our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago. We spread across the world, and by 10,000 years ago, a single kind of human had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. Wherever we go, people are biologically much the same."

Is incorrect. And where I stopped reading the snippets.

Humans are NOT the same, world over. Evolution did not magically stop once we stepped out of Africa. Toss in cross-breeding with Neanderthals in Europe and there is a great deal of genetic diversity. Enough to account for a great many differences.

Oh, I don't mind claims to universal equality in my secular religious/patriotic rhetoric. Just don't make scientific claims for utter nonsense that has been shown to be false.