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November 08, 2010


I'd love to read it -- now! I wonder if you've given thought to reading Toby Huff's new book -- Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective, CUP, October 2010. One of its intriguing possible subtitles used to be -- Why the West? I will be interviewing Toby soon, and hope you'll drop in.

You know what's more sophomoric than embracing Kurzweil and the Singularity? Giving an opinion on a book you haven't even read, based on a brief lecture summarizing the highlights.

Your disclaimer does not absolve your idiocy.

I have not read Morris's book but I read his article, "Latitudes not Attitudes: How Geography Explains History," published in History Today (Oct 2010), and I also heard his recent lecture at Carnegie. Let me first make a few comments about his article. It solidifies the negative impression I came with after reading some reviews of _Why the West Rules_. The opening lines are practically identical to Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs and Steel.

Morris hastily brushes aside a century of research calling for yet one more "different kind of history than usual, one stepping back from the details to see broader patterns, playing out over millennia on a global scale". Never mind Diamond, Landes, and countless others who have similarly addressed the broad patterns of history and have emphasized the role of geography. In fact, geographical determinism, in varying degrees, is currently the dominant paradigm in world historical writing, as can be attested by the works of J.R. McNeill, David Christian, Kenneth Pomeranz -- not to mention the influential school associated with Braudel.

Like Diamond, Morris warns against a biologically based, and potentially racist, explanation; but his argument is as advanced as what children hear many times over in elementary school. Really, is there an adult out there currently offering a scholarly argument to the effect that such genetic variations as "the colour of skin, eyes, or hair" are more than "only skin deep" with an "obvious connection to why the West rules"?

Why this persistent need to challenge "racist theories of western rule"? Is this an intentional warning against any student who may be inclined to think that the West was somehow different early on?

Not surprisingly, with this forewarning, Morris takes on theories which "suggest that there is something unique about western culture". His argument is simple: "from the Mediterranean to the Yellow Sea," there were philosophers wrestling with the same questions "and finding similar answers" as Socrates. "Socrates was part of a huge pattern, not a unique giant who sent the West down a superior path".

What can I say? Does Morris, a specialized Professor of Classics, seriously believe that Indian and Chinese thinkers were reasoning in ways similar to Europeans? First of all, one of the exceptional qualities about the West is the continuous sequence of original thinkers in ancient Greece, in Rome, in Christian and in Modern Europe. The mere appearance of a Socrates at one point in time is not the issue. Find me in ancient Asia a continuous line of original thinkers such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Leucippus, and Democritus. And beyond the discovery of naturalistic philosophy, find me in ancient China and India someone who wrote tragedy (as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and others), comedy (as Aristophanes, Menander), history (as Herodotus, Thucydides), rhetoric (as Isocrates), oratory (as the Sophists), and dialectical inquiry (as Plato, Aristotle).

Morris brings up the Renaissance only to tell us that there were renaissances everywhere. The revivals ones sees in Asia history were always revivals of the same traditional ways of thinking; imagine Europeans for ever writing textual studies of Plato, and forget that his own disciple, Aristotle, challenged certain core elements of his philosophy.

Christianity? -- well, Morris says that all religions are the same. Christianity and Islam are fundamentally different religious traditions, and not only because the former has exhibited a far richer scholarly tradition, which is rather visible in the immediate fusion of Greek philosophy, Roman Law, and Christian theology in the first centuries AD, not to mention the Middle Ages, but because in Islam the idea that Allah has limits to his own powers, by making an everlasting covenant, with human beings, is unthinkable, in that Allah is viewed as absolutely transcendent; whereas for Christianity the authority of the earthly rulers is limited by God's law, which both grants rights to every person and holds that God is conterminous with Reason. There is no self-limitation to the sovereignty of Islamic rulers, and for this reason Islam has faced great difficulties producing a secular political order subject to constitutional checks and balances.

As Robert Reilly argues in _The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis_ (2010), Islam was at first engaged with Aristotle but eventually rejected his reasoning when Abu Hamid al-Ghazali established a theology in which Allah came to be portrayed as the personal and immediate director of the movement of every molecule in the universe through his sheer incomprehensible willfulness. In contrast, with Aquinas and others, Christianity went on to conceptualize the movement of material bodies in terms of natural laws. Reilly cites Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 address at Regensburg, according to which the Muslim theologian Ahmad Ibn Hazm (eleventh century) asserted that Allah was not limited by any natural order, not even by his own word.

If one is to dismiss the role of Chritianity, one should at least take on the extremely rich literature associated with such names as Edward Grant, Toby Huff, James Hannam, and others, of which Morris shows not even a minimal awareness.

Morris writes: "If we think about culture in a broader, more anthropological sense, the West's history again seems to be one example of a larger pattern rather than a unique story." The key word here is "anthropological" -- in other words, if we think of culture as the beliefs, attitudes, values that are characteristic of the average members of a society, then there are no differences in intellectual achievement.

"Humans are all much the same," Morris writes, "wherever we find them; and, because of this, human societies have all followed much the *same sequence* of cultural development. There is nothing special about the West." Morris postulates a common cultural humanity which varied only in terms of its geographical location.

Morris's emphasis on a common cultural humanity is consistent with the officially established academic ideology of "diversity" (see Peter Wood's book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept), which is intended precisely to do away with the notion that Western nations have a distinctive, particular identity. There is no such thing as Britishness or Germanness. The humans who inhabited this island for millennia developed a culture no different from the ones who inhabited Vietnam; humans are all the same, interchangeable and malleable. The British national culture does not really exist (by which multiculturalists mean that it should not exist).

To continue, his lecture at Carnegie reinforces the misgivings I have felt about his book. In this lecture we learn that the book does indeed open in the same way as Diamond's. Now, I don't want to jump to conclusions about the book, which I hope to read in the near future. Why the West Rules has first-rate editorial reviews, written by eminent scholars, one by Diamond no less. One could quiver about editorial reviews written on the run, so to speak, as books are about to be released; but I will rather concentrate on the actual transcription of this lecture at Carnegie -- though let me make two points about the book.

(1) I checked the index to see whether he acknowledges or engages Diamond's work, and I saw only two references with some innocuous remarks. I also read about 15 pages of the book from Amazon, and my impression is that Morris writes like a journalist rather than a historian or a scholar; the book is filled with overtly facetious statements, similar to the ones we hear in this lecture, such as "it is maps, not chaps," "we are no more than clever chimpanzees". I was also surprised not to find a single reference to Toynbee, Spengler, and Vico in a book that purports to address the rise and fall of civilizations.

(2) Morris reads in his lecture the following "opening question" from his book:

"Why did history follow the path that took Looty to Balmoral Castle, there to grow old with Victoria, rather than the one that took Albert to study Confucius in Beijing? Why did British boats shoot their way up the Yangtze in 1842, rather than Chinese ones up the Thames? To put it bluntly: Why does the West rule?"

-- which is, of course, the same, similarly framed question the local politician in the island of New Guinea, Yali, asked Diamond (see the prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel).

But let's stick to the lecture, where he sums up the thesis of his book as follows:

"What I want to do is just quickly illustrate the thesis in the book that geography has shaped the development and the distribution of power and wealth in the world over the last 15,000 years, but at the same time the development of societies has changed what the geography means across this period. This is the core thing in the book."

It might be that Morris is putting a new emphasis on how the development of societies in turn changed the way geography came to determine this development. But this emphasis is quite evident in Diamond too, as when he explains why the Near East was unable to sustain its initial geographical advantages due to the changed character of this area brought by over-development, and the new opportunities which arose with the coming of iron in the exploitation of the colder lands of Europe.

All in all, what we have is a journalistic version of Diamond's readable account: "...geography dictates that there were about half-a-dozen places around the world where wild species of plants and animals had evolved that could be domesticated by humans. Geography dictated this. They simply couldn't evolve in other parts of the world. As a result of that, these places where these species have evolved is where the domestication of plants and animals begins. This was in half-a-dozen places around the world."

One difference is that Morris completely misplaces the location of the "West". For some one who has a subheading in the book with the words "Location, location, location", it boggles the mind that he locates the West originally in what we know today as the Near East. "Mesopotamia and Egypt rapidly become the major cores in the West."

Accordingly, when the areas we now know as "European" start to rise, he misinterprets this movement as if were "a kind of a drifting of the center of gravity in the West into the Mediterranean basin, because that allows you to do all this stuff that you couldn't do without a sea."

How does all this stuff about the changing meaning of geography results in the rise of the West? Well, the ocean ship technology China engineered eventually allowed "Western Europe" to make geographical use of the Atlantic; the geographical meaning of the Atlantic change with the onset of ocean-ships and this made possible the rise of the West. He writes: "Once you get the ships, this changes everything. All of a sudden, this becomes the most important fact in the geography of the world."

Basically, Morris's point is the same as James Blaut's emphasis on the nature of maritime travel in the Atlantic, the wind patterns and the relative proximity of the Americas.But one has to ask: what's the big deal about the changing geographical role of the Atlantic? Morris's answer is the all too simple one that the "plundering and colonization of the New World" were responsible for Europe's rise, which is the same argument countless academics have made, and which is particularly the one Blaut draws out of the geographical character of the Atlantic in relation to Europe and China.

What is most striking is the wording Morris uses to make this original point: "There are other factors as well involved of course, but the Europeans are the ones who settle in the Americas, take it over, and kill the enormous majority of the native population with their *disgusting European germs*."

Recently an article from the NYT noted recent findings pointing to the fact "that all three of the great waves of plague originated from China", including the so-called "Black Death" which killed about 30% of the European population. I wonder what the reaction of an audience would be if someone had stated that there is now confirmation that the Black Death was brought on by "disgusting Chinese germs".

But Westerners are so used to this ethno-masochistic way of speaking (Morris was born in England), and so the audience let it passed with a compliant, if unsatisfied, laughter.

Morris goes on to say that the Atlantic also afforded Europeans with the opportunity to make advances in navigational science, astronomy and, in the end, in 17th century—physics, chemistry, biology.

He missed the fact that the Portuguese had started all this in the fifteenth century in the Indian Ocean in a more systematic way than Columbus. The argument that the Scientific Revolution was made possible by the "requirements" for new knowledge occasioned by travel and exploration across the Atlantic is true only in the sense that this was part of a much wider set of institutional and intellectual developments with a long background history. Geography always matters; it is always there, but there is no way one can draw a neat line of causation from geographical mobility and colonization to Newtonian physics. For a far better line of argumentation, see the newly release, and more intelligently argued _Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution_ (2010), by Toby Huff.

Notice how the next step in the rise of the West is similarly one in which things happen to Europeans, geography "requires" them to do this and that, and next it is the British who are passively required to become inventive:

"As the 18th century goes on, the British, in particular, find that the new wealth coming in from the new market economy is pushing up wages, making it rather difficult for the British to compete with some other European countries in their manufactures. The British, in particular, start facing the need to mechanize production and, ideally, to tap into new energy sources."

My view is the opposite; the Europeans who colonized the Americas and made revolutions in all spheres of life, in ancient, medieval, and modern times, were the most active, restless humans on earth. (And I might add that this disposition was nurtured by the geographical landscape of the European landmass which runs from the Pontic steppes all the way to the Atlantic). Morris's argument on British good luck in the possession of coal and colonies comes from A. G. Frank and Pomeranz; this is how Morris, apparently, integrates the long term and the short term, and, in this respect, goes beyond Diamond.

But how does Morris explain in geographical terms the alleged "shift from West to East in power and wealth going into the 21st century." Well, read the transcripts, he starts addressing this question and then quickly moves away from it, although he touches on the decline of the West, but this time he does not have anything to say about the way the Atlantic or the American landscape has been bringing about this decline. How did it happen that a geographical setting which brought about the rise of the West is currently bringing about its decline? Not a word. He has nothing to say either on how the changing geography of Asia is now allowing China and India to rise.

But what I find arresting, or perhaps not, since this is a view commonly endorsed in academia and supported by the progressive globalist billionaire George Soros, is the defeatist way Morris welcomes the decline of the West.

He finds it a bit alarming that Americans speak of decline as if it were a terrible thing; after all, "if you just substitute America and China, you get really remarkably similar kinds of things."

It makes no difference if the US or China is the dominant power in the world. Perhaps this is better than what Soros said recently: "I have to say that today China has a more, not only a more vigorous economy, but actually a better functioning government than the United States." (National Post, Nov 16, 2010).

There are many who believe this and look at the rise of China and the decline of the West with great enthusiasm. This way of thinking is conterminous with Morris's geographical determinism and his claim that humans are all the same regardless of cultural background, religious beliefs and intellectual life. Americans and the Chinese are practically (in terms of what matters, economic growth and biological longevity) the same, or at least similarly enough that their difference don't really make much of a difference. The American Declaration of Rights is not exceptional. It is akin to the ideals of the Communist Party in China.

I believe in American exceptionalism. There is no document in the world that compares to the Constitution of the United States with its peculiar imposition of strict limits on the ends of the federal government, and its protection of individual liberty.

Morris says that the British actually came to enjoy a better standard of living after Britain lost its empire. "They live longer and earn far more in real terms than in the nineteenth century." I guess we should now drop the argument that the West rose to dominance thanks to the exploitation of the New World. In any case, it was the dynamism of capitalism, which does not require imperialism, which allowed this prosperity. By the same token, one should not lose sight of what has been happening to Britain in the last four decades. Let me draw attention to Peter Hitchens's _The Abolition of Britain_ (1999), and his argument that since about the 1950s and 60s, there has been a steep decline in the British national character. The very governments which called for progressive change actually brought a decline in all facets of British society, through its control of state-run schools, its management of state healthcare, and its denigration of the history of a one's proud nation, which has been bereft of its traditional ideas of loyalty and patriotism, virtue and service.

Decline is a choice. As Toynbee wrote, "civilizations die from suicide, not murder". And less so are their destinies (at this point in time) controlled by geographical forces. We are currently witnessing a new Conservative coalition government in England which has embarked on an ambitious austerity program, with the intention of eliminating 490,000 jobs in the state sector, including a reduction in government expenditures of about 19 percent over the next four years; the elimination of housing subsidies for middle-class persons, and the reduction of defense expenditures by 8 percent, education spending by 3.6 percent, and the teaching budgets of public universities by 40 percent.

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