Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why did the West rise? 

I am a third of the way through Harvard historian Niall Ferguson's latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, and thought the principle question posed so interesting that it warrants reproduction below. Of course, we hope the link to Amazon above will induce sufficient click-throughs that Professor Ferguson and his publisher will forgive the long excerpt:

If, in the year 1411, you had been able to circumnavigate the globe, you would probably have been most impressed by the quality of life in Oriental civilizations. The Forbidden City was under construction in Ming Beijing, while work had begun on reopening and improving the Grand Canal; in the Near East, the Ottomans were closing in on Constantinople, which they would finally capture in 1453. The Byzantine Empire was breathing its last. The death of the warlord Timur (Tamerlane) in 1405 had removed the recurrent threat of murderous invading hordes from Central Asia -- the antithesis of civilization. For the Yongle Emperor in China and the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, the future was bright.

By contrast, Western Europe in 1411 would have struck you as a miserable backwater, recuperating from the ravages of the Black Death -- which had reduced population by as much as half as it swept eastwards between 1347 and 1351 -- and still plagued by bad sanitation and seemingly incessant war. In England the leper king Henry IV was on the throne, having successfully overthrown and murdered the ill-starred Richard II. France was in the grip of internecine warfare between the followers of the Duke of Burgundy and those of the assassinated Duke of Orleans. The Anglo-French Hundred Years' War was just about to resume. The other quarrelsome kingdoms of Western Europe -- Aragon, Castile, Navarre, Portugal and Scotland -- would have seemed little better. A Muslim still ruled in Granada. The Scottish King, James I, was a prisoner in England, having been captured by English pirates. The most prosperous parts of Europe were in fact the North Italian city-states: Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Siena and Venice. As for fifteenth-century North America, it was an anarchic wilderness compared with the realms of the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas in Central and South America, with their towering temples and skyscraping roads. By the end of your world tour, the notion that the West might come to dominate the Rest for most of the next half-millenium would have come to seem wildly fancifal.

And yet it happened.

For some reason, beginning in the late fifteenth century, the little states of Western Europe, with their bastardized linguistic borrowings from Latin (and a little Greek), their religion derived from the teachings of a Jew from Nazareth and their intellectual debts to Oriental mathematics, astronomy, and technology, produced a civilization capable not only of conquering the great Oriental empires and subjugating Africa, the Americas and Australasia, but also of converting peoples all over the world to the Western way of life -- a conversion achieved ultimately more by the word than by the sword.

There are those who dispute that, claiming that all civilizations are in some sense equal, and that the West cannot claim superiority over, say, the East of Eurasia. But such relativism is demonstrably absurd. No previous civilization had ever achieved such dominance as the West achieved over the Rest. In 1500 the future imperial powers of Europe accounted for about 5 per cent of the world's land surface and at most 16 per cent of its population. By 1913, eleven Western empires controlled nearly three-fifths of all territory and population and close to three-quarters (a staggering 74 per cent) of global economic output. Average life expectancy in England was nearly twice what it was in India. Higher living standards in the West were also reflected in a better diet, even for agricultural labourers, and taller stature, even for ordinary soldiers and convicts. Civilization, as we have seen, is about cities. By this measure, too, the West had come out on top. In 1500, as far as we can work out, the biggest city in the world was Beijing, with a population of between 600,000 and 700,000. Of the ten largest cities in the world by that time only one -- Paris -- was European, and its population numbered fewer than 200,000. London had perhaps 50,000 inhabitants. Urbanization rates were also higher in North Africa and South American than in Europe. Yet by 1900 there had been an astonishing reversal. Only one of the world's ten largest cities at that time was Asian and that was Tokyo. With a population of around 6.5 million, London was the global megalopolis. Nor did Western dominance end with the decline and fall of European empires. The rise of the United States saw the gap between West and East widen still further. By 1990 the average American was seventy-three times richer than the average Chinese.

Moreover, it became clear in the second half of the twentieth century that the only way to close that yawning gap in income was for Eastern societies to follow Japan's example in adopting some (though not all) of the West's institutions and modes of operation. As a result, Western civilization became a kind of template for the way the rest of the world aspired to organize itself. Prior to 1945, of course, there was a variety of developmental models -- or operating systems, to draw a metaphor from computing -- that could be adopted by non-Western societies. But the most attractive were all of European origin: liberal capitalism, national socialism, Soviet communism. The Second World War killed the second in Europe, though it lived on under assumed names in many developing countries. The collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 killed the third...

As for non-economic institutions, there is no debate worth having. All over the world, universities are converging on Western norms. The same is true of the way medical science is organized, from rarefied research all the way through to front-line healthcare. Most people now accept the great scientific truths revealed by Newton, Darwin and Einstein and, even if they do not, they still reach eagerly for the products of Western pharmacology at the first symptom of influenza or bronchitis. Only a few societies continue to resist the encroachment of Western patterns of marketing and consumption, as well as the Western lifestyle itself. More and more human beings eat a Western diet, wear Western clothes, and live in Western housing. Even the peculiarly Western way of work -- five or six days a week from 9 until 5, with two or three weeks of holiday -- is becoming a kind of universal standard. Meanwhile, the religion that Western missionaries sought to export to the rest of the world is followed by a third of mankind -- as well as making remarkable gains in the world's most populous country. Even the atheism pioneered in the West is making impressive headway.

With every passing year, more and more human beings shop like us, study like us, stay healthy (or unhealthy) like us and pray (or don't pray) like us. Burgers, Bunsen burners, Band-Aids, baseball caps and Bibles: You cannot easily get away from them, where you may go. Only in the realm of political institutions does there remain significant global diversity, and with a wide range of governments around the world resisting the idea of the rule of law, with its production of individual rights, as the foundation for meaningful representative government. It is as much as a political ideology as a religion that a militant Islam seeks to resist the advance of the late twentieth-century Western norms of gender equality and sexual freedom.

So it is not "Eurocentrism" or (anti-)"Orientalism" to say that the rise of Western civilization is the single most important historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ. It is a statement of the obvious. The challenge is to explain how it happened. What was it about the civilization of Western Europe after the fifteenth century that allowed it to trump the outwardly superior empires of the Orient? Clearly, it was something more than the beauty of the Sistine Chapel.

Release the hounds! (Or buy the book and read along -- it is great fun, especially if you incline to the un-PC.)


By Blogger Ray, at Tue Dec 13, 10:56:00 PM:

I blame the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars, actually. The Reformation set off a frenzy of intellectual inquiry, and it occurred within a political context where victory wasn't possible any side, so things settled down into an arms race following some bitter stalemates.

By the time the questions became more or less moot, the pattern of opposing nation-states relying on continued militaristic and economic innovation to fight each other was fairly well established.

Place that into a context of expanding and competing international trading empires, and you get a fairly fascinating combination.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue Dec 13, 10:59:00 PM:

At some point, I'll post Ferguson's proposed answers, which are multi-faceted. Suffice it to say that he does not specify the Protestant Reformation directly, but two of his six distinguishing Western advantages are "competition" and "work ethic," both of which overlap, at least, with Protestantism.  

By Blogger K. Pablo, at Tue Dec 13, 11:04:00 PM:

will get Kindle version via your Amazon link. see if that works...  

By Anonymous tyree, at Tue Dec 13, 11:54:00 PM:

In olden days in jolly olde England, the man was the lord of his castle. And when he was out, his wife was the boss. From 1500 onwards the Europeans treated women much better than in most other places on the planet. Over a few hundred years, that starts to make a difference.  

By Anonymous Margin of Safety, at Wed Dec 14, 12:03:00 AM:

Private property rights;
Free markets and trade;
Free political and religious institutions;

The freedom to become rich affords civilizational advantages.

All information is dispersed and evanescent. Only decentralized free agents are able to exploit information efficiently (Hayek's insight; probably the greatest contribution in all of economics). The more efficient exploiters of information in the west soon trumped their eastern counterparts.  

By Blogger JC, at Wed Dec 14, 03:42:00 AM:

I'd say a wider and better application of the original Christian principle that all men are inherently free and equal..

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"

Couple this with the difference between Islam and the big Oriental religions where fatalism is/was so prevalent. The notion that God held all men "in the palm of His hand" and was above his own laws is not one that encourages the believer to strike out on his own and create real and new value.

From the upper Middle Ages Catholicism and thus Christianity had the luck to have competition from within, and that broke it out of its confines.

More pragmatically Europe had the land that could be plowed, made fertile and sustainable.. so whilst the political and religious situation might have been horrible at times.. the tools were there for efficient and sustainable land use.

Also, I think the petty nobles and kingdoms and nations of the West were fighting over real assets like farmlands, ports, waterways, the seas and mining sites.

Not to mention the Medieval Warming Period, a lot more innovation than previously thought during that and the notion of food surpluses, trading, the printing press and the development of the middle class.. put it all together and the dominance of the West was almost inevitable.


By Blogger W.LindsayWheeler, at Wed Dec 14, 08:35:00 AM:

Niall Ferguson is a leftist academic.

"Race" never figures in. He is an academic and so he has to steer clear with political correctness. He is also politically correct to a tee.

His conclusions are flawed in his last book, Guns Steel etc. because he can't, won't admit the racial factor.

Why do you take leftists seriously? All their answers are politically correct and materialistic.

Just a bunch of junk.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Dec 14, 08:38:00 AM:

Mr. Wheeler, not only is Ferguson not leftist, *especially* by academic standards but actually by most standards, but he is *not* the author of Guns, Germs and Steel and even takes issue with it.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 14, 09:11:00 AM:

Is there a more wonderful couple anywhere than Ferguson and Ayaan Hirsi Ali? With those two leading the conversation what a dinner party one could have!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 14, 09:36:00 AM:

@ Wheeler, you are confusing Ferguson with Jared Diamond, whose work is seriously flawed not so much because he ignores race issues but because he compares closed, insular societies trapped on small islands with relatively open, fluid, and mobile societies. Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I bought and read, was crap. Collapse, which I could not be bothered with, appeared to be even worse.

Just bought it on Amazon.com through your link. Thanks for the tip.

-Anon Attorney  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 14, 12:21:00 PM:

Why did the Europeans succeed in dominating so much of the world? Well, they got there first.

The Americas were semi-full of savage societies who were gasping and flailing about in the Bronze Age, at best.

Polynesia was similar.

Africa was worse.

India was fractured into dozens of tiny kingdoms.

Really, ANY of the more advanced civilizations could have done what the Europeans did. But The Europeans got there first. Why?

Their backs were to the wall. Europe is bounded on three side by sea, and the fourth by Russians and (at the time) Turks. Some Europeans were convinced that the Turks, who ruled North Africa, Arabia, the Levant, much of Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor and were invading Hungary and Austria were going to eventually kill them all. Trade routes east were severed as well.

So it's perfectly natural that those European powers who could would turn to the seas. And, to their good fortune, they discovered backward, easily conquerable societies dripping with gold which were far beyond the reach of their enemies and lots of empty land to dump their more troublesome elements into (Puritans, Huguenots, etc.). Then it was off to the races.  

By Blogger Stack Trace, at Wed Dec 14, 12:28:00 PM:

"Race" as a concept needs to be abandoned. It should be replaced with a focus on Culture.

I say race is flawed because it confounds biological traits (genetics) with cultural traits. There is ample evidence that biological traits are largely irrelevant in large societies. That is, the distribution of good and bad physical traits, in any large society, has a normal distribution that is indistinguishable from the normal distribution of any other large society. There are some outliers who excel at particular physical traits (such as east African runners), but even those are entangled with society and culture.

If you criticize someone based on race, you are labeled a racist, no matter whether your criticisms are true or not. At that point, the conversation has effectively ended. It may continue, but only on an apes-flinging-shit level.

If you criticize someone based on culture, you are much closer to the mark. First, you are much more likely to actually be correct. Second, you protect yourself from accusations of racism. It's just good basic critical thinking.

The left has spent the last 50 years or so raising the importance of culture, to an almost absurd level. (Culture, culture, culture, that's all they yap about in college. That and diversity.) This actually makes it easier to spear bad thinking from the left. Some leftists make the mistake of thinking that all cultures are worthwhile, are equivalent. However, that idea is quickly debunked. Pick your favorite culture that leftists hate (e.g. white-bread middle class WASPs), and ask your opponent to believe that this culture is just as special, equivalent, etc. as their own favorite culture. They'll change their toon.

Then you have an in-road -- they will be open to the idea that cultures *are* comparable, that some cultures can be judged better than other cultures. THEN you can return to the issue of why Western culture has dominated the world, and not always with force but often by choice.

At that point, launch into the reality of societies that are dominated by non-Western cultures. For example, Saudi Arabia just beheaded a woman for "sorcery and witchcrift," in the 21st century! Focus on women's real status in non-Western cultures, which is usually far, far worse than that of even Stepford Wives-era America. (Which to most spoiled lefties is the deepest, darkest pit of existence that they can imagine.)

Then watch their head explode.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Wed Dec 14, 01:02:00 PM:

I'll try to look at this book. Does it cover these points of difference:

1) The West inherited a lot from Rome, including how to create a dominating, expansionist government that wasn't just dependent on a Strong Man and the chance of orderly heriditary succession. Some might call it the seeds for the Rule of Law, and

2) The Catholic/Christian Church. Which was the initial vehicle for how much of #1 got carried forward to Europe after the fall or Rome. Today it's PC to ridicule the Church and it was by no means perfect. But it created and disseminated a philosophy that all men were equal, ultimately, and was a buffer on the excesses of worldy princes. The Church slowly developed an answer to the "Render unto Caesar" problem that bedevils fundamentalists to this day. It even opened up to science: It was momentous when the Catholic Church changed its calendar in response to the teachings of science. The Eastern orthodoxies could never do this, and haven't. With the Protestant Reformation we got the space for the rights of Individual Man.

When we've respected this heritage, we've gotten episodic bursts of "Hayekian" development that have brought the World out of barbaric primativism. None more so than in the United States. Especially over the last one hundred years, the World has largely been hitched to our wagon.  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Dec 14, 02:37:00 PM:

"China produced a greater share of total world GDP than any Western society in 18 of the last 20 centuries," former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger notes in his book "On China."  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Wed Dec 14, 04:47:00 PM:

"China produced a greater share of total world GDP"

But I'd bet that Europe passed China on a per capita basis sometime around 1550 -1600, coincident with what we're all describing.  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Dec 14, 06:42:00 PM:

There are no reliable figures to enable you to win your bet, Ignoramus. But I encourage you to read Kissinger's book.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Wed Dec 14, 07:31:00 PM:

Just checked. On China has mostly gotten great review. Will try it,  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 14, 08:21:00 PM:

"China produced a greater share of total world GDP than any Western society in 18 of the last 20 centuries."

"There are no reliable figures to enable you to win your bet, Ignoramus."

Wait, what? To know total GDP from 5 centuries ago, you have to have an idea of the population sizes. If there are no reliable figures, there's no way that Kissinger could have written such a thing with any confidence. So, which is it?  

By Anonymous Purple Avenger, at Wed Dec 14, 09:06:00 PM:

The Dutch debuted the notion of a commercial bank around that time, and it spread quickly.

The old growth hardwood forests of Europe allowed technical production of the seafaring navies of (relatively) fearsome power that protected commercial interests that interlocked with the new notion of "banking".

With the notion of banking you got large scale overseas economic ventures. The empires in much of the rest of the world never had the vast hardwood timber resources to develop durable seafaring navies to the extent the Europeans did.  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Dec 14, 09:49:00 PM:

DF82: "So, which is it?"

I don't know any person, any organization, or any document with the details to prove or disprove Ignoramus's guess, DF82. However, Kissinger's contacts in China are far better than mine. He may well have seen research that I and other businesspeople haven't seen. Kissinger usually has his hard facts right. (However, I don't always agree with his opinions.)

Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of his book with me right now.  

By Blogger W.LindsayWheeler, at Thu Dec 15, 11:02:00 AM:

My bust, sorry, It was Jared Diamond who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel. I got the two confused. My bust. I did read both, did not like either one. I read his "War of the World". That was politically correct as well.  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Fri Dec 16, 01:29:00 AM:

"Why? Their backs were to the wall."

That's good, DF. I was going to say "exploration and technology", but it was driven by the fact that there were many nationalities on a small piece of land (Europe) and they had nowhere to go without boldly reaching out.  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Fri Dec 16, 01:47:00 AM:

"There are no reliable figures to enable you to win your bet, Ignoramus."

Or lose it. Kissinger is a smart guy but I think he's overstating his case. As Ig points out, actually the whole point of TH's post, the West started advancing very rapidly around 14-1500 and greatly surpassed other once formidable world societies. Only in the last few years has China begun to reassert itself, and that mostly by mimicking the West after being brutally sidetracked by Communism for many decades.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sun Dec 18, 11:48:00 AM:

Stack Trace, I wouldn't toss the racial aspect just yet. A lot of recent scientific writing is bringing it back in pretty solidly, much as everyone would prefer otherwise.

I agree with several commenters: the changes started before 1400, but Europe was an especially backward set of cultures before 1000, and it took centuries for cultural changes to factor in. The trans-tribal Roman Catholic, and later the internal movements and competitor churches were large influences (value of the individual, forward linear as well as circular time), and brought in other influences, such as the remnants of the great Mediterranean cultures; small example - the Church forbade cousin marriage, encouraging groups to think on a more unified national and regional, rather than tiny tribal level, prompting more organisation; intelligence and planning are selected for in more difficult climates and conditions, so the northwestern Europeans were perhaps well prepared for such changes (see also, East Asians); Europeans not only took to the seas and encountered primitive cultures, their diseases killed off 90% of them; trading in ports requires greater dependence on clear enforceable contracts (double-entry bookkeeping: 13th C Italy); the status and hence the talents of women were higher, as noted, in a feedback loop whose benefits we are still experiencing;  

By Blogger Viking Kaj, at Thu Dec 22, 02:00:00 PM:

As a firm backer of a strong Navy I have one word for you: Boats.

Without boats capable of transversing the worlds oceans, none of the rest entailed by Ferguson would have occured nor would it have mattered. And Jared Diamond's germs, steel and piss (investigate the manufacture of saltpeter) wouldn't have gotten anywhere.

The major difference between 1411 and all that followed was that the Europeans built the boats that worked to cross oceans, other countries didn't or abandoned them.

Trade, and intervention and warfare to protect trade, naturally follow once you can move the goods. If you can't get there, it doesn't matter.

Think about it.  

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