Digging Deep into History to Glimpse the Future

In Weighing History in Stanford Magazine, Joel McCormick reviews Why the West Rules–For Now, a book that took a decade for Ian Morris to research and write.

Morris is a Stanford classicist-prehistorian-archaeologist (that’s quite a mouthful).

There are charts in the Stanford piece (first link above) and in this video that compares the rate of development between the West and East.


In his book, Morris challenges scholars to look at the bigger picture. He uses information and statistics from biology, sociology, and geography to conclude that geography has more of an impact on history than humans do (which includes a political system such as democracy).  That doesn’t mean humans have no impact–just less than geography.

The questions his book asks and attempts to answer deals with why the Western world dominates, and what happens as the East catches up.

Morris looks back thousands of years to compare the rate of development and social progress of the West to the East and shows that the West domesticated animals, cultivated plants, developed fortifications, and full farming in some cases thousands of years before it appeared in the East.

Then the Roman Empire collapsed, and the East advanced socially to hold that position until the 19th century—for almost two thousand years.

Morris was quoted saying, “Scholars with old points of view will hold onto what they believe until one morning you wake up and say, ‘This anomaly is just too big to ignore anymore.'”

What Morris came to believe while writing his book was that China will be the world’s largest economy in 19 years and No. 1 in terms of GDP by 2103 at the latest and possibly earlier.

He points out facts that even during Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, China was moving slowly forward because Mao rid China of the warlords that were stopping progress of any kind.

McCormick writes, “China’s economy got a huge break when Mao expired (died) in 1976, clearing the way for Deng Xiaoping…”

“In the way we define great men,” Morris says, “Deng Xiaoping counts as a great man. But he didn’t have to be all that great. He just had to prevent people from doing really stupid stuff.”

Princeton historian Harold James called Morris’s book, “the first history of the world that really makes use of what modern technology can offer to the interpretation of the historical process…a path-breaking work that lays out what modern history should look like.”

McCormick’s review ends with a quote from Morris, who says that maybe something unforeseen will happen and America will rule for a few generations more and maybe bungling idiots will interrupt China’s rise… or maybe we will incinerate ourselves in a Third World War.”

In fact, examples of bungling leaders may be seen recently in the US and China prior to 1976 and for most of the 19th century. The US elects its leaders due to popularity while China, since the 1980s, has appointed leaders through merit while China thrives and America sinks into debt and political bickering.

However, that does not mean the situation might not reverse as Morris suggests. All it would take for America would be another Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt or George Washington.

In China’s Greatest Emperors, we may see how empires collapsed when great leaders did not appear often enough.  This same factor was one reason the Roman Empire vanished.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

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