Social Development

This section will contain supporting materials for Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules—For Now.

The complete Social Development e-book (© Ian Morris 2010) is also available as a free PDF download. This file is large (8.9 MB) and requires Acrobat Reader, Mac OS X Preview, or similar software to read it.

[1.0] Introduction

For more than two hundred years, western Europeans and their intercontinental colonists have been asking themselves why they seemed to be taking over the world, and for at least the last century, people on the receiving end of western commerce, colonization, imperialism, and acculturation have often wondered the same thing. Yet even now, there is little agreement on answers.

At one end of the spectrum of proposals are long-term lock-in theories, suggesting that the West has been fated to dominate the rest since time immemorial, thanks to its culture, its climate, its resources, or its beliefs; at the other are short-term accident theories, arguing that nothing at all distinguished the West even as recently as 1800 CE, when lucky breaks suddenly gave it access to the power of fossil fuels and transformed the global balance of power.

The reason there is so much controversy, I suggest in Why the West Rules—For Now, is a lack of clarity over exactly what it is we are trying to explain. Because there is no agreement on the starting point, different analysts tend to focus on different periods of the past, using different kinds of evidence, and defining the terms in different ways. It is not surprising that they come to different conclusions.

The question is really about social development, a group’s ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done. Long-term lock-in theorists tend to argue that Western social development has been higher than that in other parts of the world for many hundreds or even thousands of years; short-term accident theorists tend to argue that Western development only pulled ahead in the last half-dozen generations. If we really want to explain why the West rules, we need to measure social development and compare it across time and space. Only when we have established the basic pattern can we start asking why it takes the form it does.

In Chapter 3 and the Appendix of Why the West Rules—For Now I briefly describe the methods I used to calculate Eastern and Western social development scores from 14,000 BCE through 2000 CE, but a full account would have made a long book even longer. In the past, some historians have supported their books with supplementary volumes of statistics and sources (e.g., Fogel and Engerman 1974), but it now seems more sensible to provide a website as a technical appendix supplementing the book by explaining the methods in more detail, discussing possible objections to this approach, and providing references for the evidence behind the calculations.

The complete Social Development section is coming soon.