Will China or India overpower the West in the future and take the lead? Ian Morris sets out to answer this question. By looking into the past, he’s convinced that we can understand how western dominion came about. He’s also convinced that by understanding this, we’re able to predict what comes next.

In essence, biology and sociology tell us that humans are mostly the same. All have the same nature and need energy to survive. Unfortunately, Food and energy sources are unevenly distributed. To overcome geographical resource limitations the typical “lazy, greedy, frightened” human looks for “easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. That, according to Morris, is the source of innovation.

The paradox of this social development is that with increasing success, the resulting complexity becomes harder to manage and creates new challenges. If a society can’t overcome them, which happened multiple times throughout history both in the east and the west, the five horsemen of the apocalypse come visit: famine, disease, migration, climate change, and state failure.

In the first part of this book review, we’ll look at Morris’ framework of social development to measure societies success. It follows a brief highlight reel of eastern and western development with a focus on the turning points of history. In part two, it’s all about the future. We analyze if the framework is of any predictive value to figure out where we’re going. Will the west continue to rule? Will the east with China as a new super power take over in the near future? We’ll find that these are by now the wrong questions to ask.

Part I

The highest social development rules

Social development is, according to Morris,

a group’s ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done. He measured this key metric over 3’500 years of human history by summing up civilizations

  1. energy capturing capabilities,
  2. organizational capacity,
  3. information processing and,
  4. capacity to make war.

These are the factors that determine a civilization’s success. With more energy capture, there are more resources. Through organizational capacity, these resources can be put to use, while information processing is a multiplying factor. Lastly, without the capacity to make war, even the richest and technologically most advanced nation will fail against an aggressive neighbor. Someone who has high measures in all will rule.

How to measure it?

Knowing the determining factors is well enough, but how to measure them across history? Records before the 19th century are spotty at best and before the Middle Ages we’re almost flying blind, relying on just a few sources. However, Morris believes that by tapping into anthropological and archaeological evidence together with finding the right representative metrics, we can get a fuller picture. Each dimension to measure the above key metrics should be

  1. relevant
  2. culture independent
  3. independent of each other
  4. adequately documented
  5. reliable
  6. convenient

For each of the four dimensions of social development Morris looked at representative measures that fulfill these criteria.

Energy capture = per person energy consumption.

Organizational capacity = urbanism, measured by the size of the largest city.

Information processing = number of people who can read, write, and count.

Capacity to make war = estimates of military power based on weapon capabilities and army sizes.

Such an numeric index might create the illusion of objectivity bun in fact, a lot of these depend on subjective estimations by Morris. He admits that this might create a bias in the results, but since he’s the only person measuring, he argues that the bias is at least consistent. The broader trends he identifies are valid. Now, with all the basics out of the way, let’s look at what Morris came up with.

The history of social development

Social development over time

There are four most notable periods or turning points in this graph. The attentive reader will notice the cycle of the introduction in these periods of history. For most of the time there was a ceiling of social development at which both the west and the east bit their teeth out. It took until the 18th century for western civilization to break through thanks to the new era of industrialization. From then on, social development went up almost vertically, making a farce out of humanities struggles the thousands of years before.

The cradle of humanity

For most of history, humanity barely registered on the social development index. It took the agricultural revolution for the first civilizations to appear on the map. Roughly 15’000 years ago, there were two areas with especially favorable circumstances. In the west it was the so-called Hilly Flanks and in the east the region between the Yangzi and Yellow River.

But why the change? Why give up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which would turn out to be much healthier and comfortable for hundreds of years, for a stationary farmer’s life? The answer, according to Morris, lies in a sociological principle he calls the Morris Theorem:

change is caused by lazy, greedy, frighteded, people (who rarely know what they’re doing) looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things.

Through tinkering, early humans probably got the idea that instead of going out and searching for crop, they could just plant it near their village. A similar logic is most likely behind the domestication of animals. The amount of work that must be put into domestication of plants and animals was never a conscious decision. Rather, it crept up on our new agricultural society like the frog in slowly boiling water.

Why was the west in the lead from the beginning? Was it a genetical advantage? Not at all. Biology, Morris writes, found that

all humans are mostly the same.

Any genetical differences across ethnicities barely register compared to the vast commonalities. Anthropology shows that we’re all stemming from the same cradle and hence, biology can only describe the similarities of human societies across the world, not their differences. This is mirrored in the fact that both western and eastern history went through similar development steps in state building, innovations, and dominant thought schools.

Geographical head start and state innovation

So, what is it then? If both biology and sociology just seem to confirm the similarities, what accounts for the differences between east and west? Turns out that the west simply started earlier with better climate and ecological conditions and got a geographical head start. The Hilly Flanks just had more potentially domesticable plants and animals than its eastern equivalent.

Geography determines the course of social development

With agriculture, social development increased and so did the related metrics. This meant populations grew, there was greater wealth and larger military power. It also meant more problems.

The paradox of social development claims that the higher social development rises the more complex society becomes and the harder to manage.

With higher complexity comes more fragility. This explains why there are natural ceilings to the index and why, without innovation, it can’t be overcome. Through innovation, social development can in turn influence and change the limiting geography and hence, change the rules of the game. Think of the compass that allowed for transatlantic trade, or the invention of the steam engine, powered by coal, which made Britain an empire.

What brought about the first empires and pushed the social development index to new heights in antiquity was, according to Morris, the switch from low-end to high-end strategies for running a state. In a low-end strategy, rulers don’t spend much to create an army or raise many taxes, instead they rely on local rulers to raise troops and share the gains of war with them. In high-end strategies, rulers centralize power and strike a balance of a powerful, though expensive, army that helps take in higher taxes. In the early times states followed a low-end strategy but after hitting a slump in trade and expansion possibilities they hit a limit. Only with the switch to high-end strategies could larger states exist.

These larger states were brought to a new level with the Roman Empire which managed to rule over the whole Mediterranean. In the east, it was the Han empire that pushed the boundaries of social development and started to get close to the hard ceiling of social development. However, this didn’t last.

The fall of the west

Another principle identified by Morris is the law of backwardness, which states that backward societies quickly pick up innovations of others and adapt them to fit their circumstances. Often they find better ways or applications for them and gain an advantage in turn. In addition, it becomes more lucrative for backward societies at the peripheries to push forward into the wealhty cores. With the expansion of the Roman and Han empires, suddenly nomads of the steppe were bringing troubles. Migration, disease, famine, climate change, and state failure. These are the five horsemen of the apocalypse, according to Morris. If migration, disease, or famine hunt a state, often provoked through a changing climate, the state gets tested. Only if a society can find creative solutions to these challenges it may survive, otherwise what follows are state failure and the fall of an empire.

The nomads of the steppe connected the western and eastern cores and spread disease such as the bubonic plague, which hit Rome. The plague and the dark age cold period that started weakened the Roman Empire considerably. Barbarians from the north started moving in and split up parts of the dying empire. The Han empire fell as well, just less far. After it won the war against its last enemies, the state failed to adapt from a war machine to an institution ruling in peace. Soon bad governance combined with disease and famine led to a civil war which ultimately broke up the empire.

The eastern golden age

In the east, they recovered by building the Grand Canal that connected the inner mainland to the coastal region and made it possible to bring rice and other goods cheaply across the region. Innovations like the first paper bills and watermills together with the agricultural surplus created a thriving empire. The Song empire in the east ultimately hit against the same hard ceiling of social development that the Roman Empire did but couldn’t break through it.

In the west, things looked more grim. The dark Middle Ages were upon us, and Charlemagne’s state was the most socially developed state to speak of but far away from ancient Rome. The church gained influence while the state lost it.

Muhammed and the arabs rapidly became a considerable power in the south and were on a crusade to spread islam. The west split in two, an Arab core and a christian periphery. Christians tried to gain the upper hand agains the arabs and launched multiple crusades, all of which ultimately failed.

In the second millennium history started to repeat itself. Again, the nomads of the steppe brought death and destruction to both the west and the east through war and disease. The east tried to withstand with walls. The west didn’t know what hit them and only survived a complete Mongol overrun because the nomads decided to turn around after invading what today is Hungary.

The Arab core suffered the most and a new core formed in the West which lead to the Wests own renaissance around 1400. New though schools and innovations in ship building brought Westerners to the shores of the Americas and set the stage for a new empire.

Breaking the ceiling – The industrial revolution

In the 17th century, the eastern empire gained power through military innovation and finally managed to eliminate the threat of nomad invasion. With that threat gone, both the west and the east were less constricted in their development, and the west could expand their focus westwards to the Americas.

First, the west just plundered the gold and luxury goods such as fur from native populations (after killing them with diseases they brought with them). Later though, a sophisticated trade network was created spanning the whole Atlantic from Europe, Africa, to the Americas.

The British Empire colonized large parts of the globe. The Dutch created a financial hub, and Spain too got in on imperialism. Social development increased but didn’t get ahead of the eastern empire. What made the difference in the end, was overcoming agricultural limits with the power of fossile fuels.

Before that time, humans used mostly wood to capture energy. There were some water mills and sails that made use of different power sources. However, only when fossile fuels (coal at the beginning) were discovered, the necessary power to run the most important machine that would catapult the west ahead could be used: the steam engine. The British started industrialization, but eventually the US perfected it and rapidly became the dominating world power. Industrialization was such a social development boost that not even two world wars and a hundred million dead could stop the large jumps of urbanism, information processing, and energy capture.

Morris writes that theoretically the east could have discovered the Americas before the west, however, that because of the geographical situation it was just much less likely to do so. Furthermore, without the vast trade network it would’ve taken the east just more time for having its own industrial revolution as it happened in the east. Here again, geography explains the differences and why the west rules.

What’s striking about Morris argument is the inevitability of it all. According to him, there couldn’t really be any other way things turned out. He dismisses the influence of both culture and great men for explaining the direction of history. People, in the grand scheme of things, can only increase or decrease the pace of a development that is already under way. He argues the same for cultural differences. Each age gets the thought and culture it needs. In his view, culture is not some driving force that determines the course of history, but an adaptive reaction to the challenges geography and social development pose. As evidence, he points to the similar cultural development of thought schools in the east and west over the last 5000 years.

Does that mean the future is already written? We basically just have to follow the pattern and if we know the geographical factors and projections of social development we can basically determine if the west will continue to rule?

Part II

Breaking the cycle – The information age

In the last chapter, Morris draws comparisons between the development of the US and China and projects possible futures. The conclusion he arrives at is that a race between the west and east stops being the central question in the new era. Threats and opportunities are no longer local but global. The race is no longer about east and west but about humanity against extinction.

With the atomic age everything changed. Before, when a society failed to adapt to the challenges of migration, climate change, famine, and disease, there was simply a drop in social development. At some point, there was a recovery and a new attempt at breaking the ceiling. The same was true for the two world wars. While social development dropped worldwide, the technological advances offset most of it. In the middle of the 20th century, however, the stakes changed. With the atomic bomb, war between empires could mean total extinction of humanity. The cycle of history no longer applies. Game over. The US and Soviet Union came close already during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It can easily happen again.

Another modern threat is climate change. The industrial revolution who catapulted our social development to never seen heights is also causing a climate change with severe and partly unpredictable consequences. It will inevitably lead to massive migration from zones that are no longer inhabitable. Our crops will suffer worldwide and could cause potential famine.

Morris also talks about potential disease. In the light of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, this foreshadowing feels especially poignant. We managed to deal with it, although it took more than a year for nations across the world to find an effective response. The blundering and unpreparedness stands in stark contrast against the fact that this book was written in 2011 and many other voices before warned of inevitable pandemics. Knowing about a threat doesn’t necessarily seem to make us much better at dealing with it.

On the opposite side, Morris talks about AI as an equivalent to the atomic bomb. Over the last 50 years, the computer changed technology and society fundamentally and catapulted social development further. But its potential is far from exploited. By reaching true AI, we could bring social development from 900 points to 5000 points! As he so poignantly describes, 900 points brought humanity from cave paintings to the atomic bomb, what does 4000 points more look like? The word he uses is singularity. Morris quotes Ray Kurzweil, which describes it as

the point at which technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep… that technology seems to be expanding at infinite speed.

For Morris, the singularity is the only chance humanity has to overcome the many global challenges for good. It is a race where climate change, atomic wars, and pandemics stand on one side and the singularity on the other. Having institutions that find solutions for these global problems can buy us time in this race. But ultimately, if we want to get out of the hamster wheel and win, we’d have to reach singularity and break the cycle of history.

I think the framework of social development is an interesting one to analyze history. The factors of energy capture, organizational capacity, information processing and capacity to make war encapsulate well what makes societies successful. It’s a simplification, of course, and many of the metrics Morris uses have to be estimated somewhat pseudo-numerically in a largely subjective way. However, the cycle of boom and bust, as well as the principles, depicted ring true and can be a useful lens to look at history and the development of societies. Even though now, thanks to our technological development, it appears that the cycle is in danger of breaking in one direction or another.

I agree that the race between east and west isn’t the central one we should care about. The game has already changed somewhat, and global problems need global cooperative solutions. The difficulties have become larger and more impactful, although I can only see two potential game-over-level threats to humanity. An atomic war and, in contrast to Morris, the singularity itself. I think he underestimates its potential dangers. Yes, it could very well be the savior for most of our issues. However, AI could equally destroy humanity like the atomic bomb can. Hence, the race becomes more nerve wrecking with the car we’re rooting for having a bomb inside that potentially explodes at the finish line. Unless we figure out a way for it not to go off by then, of course.