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RS138 - Ian Morris on, "Why the West rules -- for now"

Release date: July 12, 2015

Ian Morris For several centuries, historians have tried to answer the question: "Why is Western Europe (and later, North America) the dominant world power?" Past explanations cited culture, or "great men" who influenced the course of history. Stanford historian Prof. Ian Morris casts doubt on those explanations, instead taking a data-driven approach to the question that attempts to measure "social development" over history and find explanations for it. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia delves into Morris' method and conclusions, and asks: can we make causal inferences about history?

Ian Morris is Willard Professor of Classics and Fellow of the Archaeology Center, Stanford University. He is a historian and archaeologist. He has excavated in Britain, Greece, and Italy, most recently as director of Stanford's dig at Monte Polizzo, a native Sicilian site from the age of Greek colonization. He is also the author of a number of books, among them: "Why the West Rules--for Now". "War! What Is It Good For?", and "Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels."

Ian's pick:  "Violence: A Modern Obsession" 

 Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (5)

One of the more interesting RS Podcasts in recent memory (not that they aren't all interesting!). I too share your skepticism that humanity may be "unrecognizable" in 100 years, since humanity from ancient Sumeria to today is still recognizable as such. But then, I'm not a historian. I was struck too by how much Morris's book pick's author Bessel echoes Pinker and Schermer (who himself borrows from Pinker). There seems to be growing agreement among philosopher-scientists that humanity overall is growing less violent. For all of our sakes, I hope they're right.
July 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Schloss
Interesting conversation. 3 brief pts:

1) The guest rolls all theories of the preeminence of the West over the past 250 years or so into a single, quasi-racist and self-serving bag. This is quite a disservice to scholars like Weber, who can hardly be glossed over in these dismissive terms. Makes me immediately suspicious of the conclusions of the guest.

2) The measure of social development (as described) seems strikingly like a version of Leslie White's from the 1950s

3) His conclusions are pretty wishy-washy. For instance, he doesn't explain why two similar societies in the same geographic conditions behave differently. Why did the industrial revolution occur in the 18th century in Europe and not 1st or 2nd century Roman empire? Ultimately, this book adds an interesting description of development in terms of 'social development' but tells us little about casusation (you would think that he might mention the term 'dynamic system' at some point, but does not. He is not transcending the traditional paradigms that he gently mocks at the start of the podcast).
July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterR Mahaney
I think a more convincing theory that explains why some civilizations fall or rise is found in multilevel selection. See Peter Turchin's Ultrasociety for a solid intro. The geography based theory presented here seems ad hoc to me. I don't think it can explain why places like Papua New Guinea never got out of the stone age where as places with a similar climate like Indonesia were able to build large scale temples. I think the missing ingredient is competing cultures and multilevel selection acting on these societies. Still interesting.
August 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge
In next century, our society could progress four times from our current level of development. Sort of an exponential Moore's Law for Anthropology. Certainly, the per capita decrease in violence will benefit humanity.
December 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
I enjoyed this episode greatly. It's fascinating to think about how we ended up here and all the components that played a part in that. And also to imagine all the different ways our lives and the World could have turned out. Thanks so much.
January 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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