Posted by: aboutalbion | April 20, 2012

World History

Having made friends with history over the past few years, I have been trying to find a perspective from which to integrate all that I read. I started with British history, and then considered European or Western history … but none of these seemed wholesome.  But now I have discovered that there is a sub-discipline of world history.  And I have just finished reading a stimulating and very satisfying book by Ian Morris, entitled “Why the West rules – for now”.

 Let me try to summarize his approach to world history.

 His premise has at least two parts to it.  First, human beings in large groups exhibit the same basic behavioural characteristics.  Second, since at least 10 000 BCE, there have always been two basic spheres of influence – an ‘eastern’ core and a ‘western’ core whose centres of power are not geographically fixed over time.

 Morris then sets aside historical explanations based on ‘culture, beliefs, values, institutions, or blind accident’ (36) in favour of explanations based on biology, sociology, and geography.  He argues that explanations based on biology and sociology account for the shape of world history, and that explanations based on geography account for the differences between ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ development over the millennia.

 He is at pains to make his assessment of ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ development as objective as possible.  He develops an index of social development which has four components in it – components which he believes he has been able to calculate for human groups across the millennia.  These components are energy capture, organization, war-making, and information technology.

 In the last chapter of his book, Morris changes his historian’s hat for a futurologist’s hat.  I decline to follow him when he speculates that the patterns of the past (which he has so carefully catalogued) will continue in the future.  For me, the future is not determined.

 However, above all else, Morris’ book is a delight to read.  And if Morris’ book is representative of the approach of world history, then I think the standpoint of world history will do for me.

 [Morris, Ian (2010) Why the West rules – for now: the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future London: Profile]

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