Over the Easter break, I read Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules- for Now. Morris seeks to develop what might be called a “unified theory of history” that can shed light on why the West rules the world and not the East. He covers from the emergence of the first members of the genus homo in Africa, through the development of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution to modern times.
Morris looks at his question through the lens of biology, sociology and geography. In this post, I’ll focus on Morris’s treatment of the biological factors, as his conclusions on biology make it obsolete for his central claims. I’ll offer my thoughts on the rest of the book in another post later this week (which I should note are more positive than what I am have written below).
In Chapter 1, Morris describes the history of human development. Starting from the emergence of homo habilis in Africa, Morris walks the reader through the various migrations of early humans out of Africa and their spread across the globe, the discovery of “Peking man” and finally, the Out of Africa migration that occurred 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. For Morris, the final migration from Africa and the fact that this migration generally swept away humans from earlier migrations is the nail in the coffin for any biological theory of why there is a difference between East and West. He states that:
If modern humans replaced Neanderthals in the Western Old World and Homo erectus in the Eastern regions without interbreeding, racist theories tracing contemporary Western rule back to prehistoric biological differences must be wrong.
Morris then looks at some of the evidence for interbreeding. While DNA evidence shows some interbreeding with Neanderthals, the similar, low proportion of Neanderthal genome in modern Easterners and Westerners suggests that this could not be a reason for the difference. He concludes that:
Racist theories grounding Western rule in biology have no basis in fact. People, in large groups, are much the same wherever we find them, and we have all inherited the same restless, inventive minds from our African ancestors. Biology by itself cannot explain why the West rules.
I find it odd that Morris tackles this 1930s argument, which can now only be described as a straw man. Morris should have addressed the modern argument that biology matters, which tends to focus on evolution in the last 60,000 years – that is, since modern humans left Africa. Differing selection pressures in the last 60,000 years and in particular, since the dawn of agriculture, has shaped human traits. This was the argument that Morris needed to discuss before he could ignore biology as it relates to his question.
Further, Morris’s statement that while people are different, you take large groups of these people and the mean traits of the group will be similar, is a sound statistical concept, but to hold it relies on you drawing the groups from the same sample. If you consider that different groups of humans have faced differing selection pressures, then measuring the mean traits of each group won’t bridge the difference.
Some of Morris’s other references to biology were also unsatisfactory. Through the book, Morris uses an index of social development as a framework for discussing development. His index suggests that between (about) 541 and 1773, Eastern development was higher than that in the West. On this basis, he states that:
[I]f Westerners really were genetically superior to everyone else, the graphs of social development that fill Chapters 4–10 would look very different. After taking an early lead, the West would have stayed ahead.
A biological explanation requires nothing of the sort. Through the book, Morris talks of “the advantage of backwardness”. This refers to the idea that in a more backward area, the pressures faced by that population may give them incentive to develop solutions to their particular problems that may lead to that area becoming more developed. In some ways it is an evolutionary idea, with different ideas working better in different times and places and the successful ideas being shaped by the relevant environment. Sometimes harsher environments are better for developing these ideas.
We can apply this same concept to biological explanations. Whether one group’s biological traits lead to a higher state of development than another depends heavily on the environment the group is in. The shifts between violence, disorder and peace that Morris describes through the book would change whether a violent disposition, health, patience or intelligence were more beneficial traits for an individual to have. Based on this, it is possible to argue that there are biological factors relevant to development without requiring linear growth in development. Was it between 541 and 1773 that certain traits in the West, which were particularly conducive to economic growth and the reproductive success, spread (as Gregory Clark suggests was the case for England in his book A Farewell to Alms), leading Europe to an Industrial Revolution before the rest of the world? Unfortunately, Morris does not address this point.
Update: Part II of my review can be found here.