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The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations Hardcover – January 27, 2013
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"Stanford University classicist and historian Morris follows up Why the West Rules--for Now with a sophisticated volume designed to add quantitative muscle to his earlier arguments. A big-history theorist working in a vein similar to Niall Ferguson or Jared Diamond, Morris measures societies' historical 'abilities to get things done in the world.' With an impressive data array, he calibrates energy resources, social organization, war-making capacity, and information technology over time to compare the East and West. In the 21st century, he foresees a shift in global power and wealth from West to East, much as it shifted from East to West in the 19th. . . . The ingenuity and style of his arguments will make economists and historians stand up and take notice."--Publishers Weekly
"Buttressed with numerous graphs and engagingly written, this work provides much food for thought."--Choice
"Using a groundbreaking numerical index of social development that compares societies in different times and places, award-winning author Ian Morris gives a sweeping examination of Eastern and Western development across 15,000 years since the end of the last ice age. He offers surprising conclusions about when and why the West came to dominate the world and fresh perspectives for thinking about the twenty-first century. . . . Resolving some of the biggest debates in global history, The Measure of Civilization puts forth innovative tools for determining past, present, and future economic and social trends."--World Book Industry
"Quantification is an invaluable tool for understanding the patterns of history. This book is to be applauded for thinking about how to measure the social competence of earlier societies."--Gregory Clark, American Historical Review
Praise for Ian Morris: "Morris is the world's most talented ancient historian, a man as much at home with state-of-the-art archaeology as with the classics as they used to be studied."--Niall Ferguson, Foreign Affairs
Praise for Ian Morris: "Morris is a lucid thinker and a fine writer . . . possessed of a welcome sense of humor that helps him guide us through this grand game of history as if he were an erudite sportscaster."--Orville Schell, New York Times Book Review
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"The Measure of Civilization is a superb model of operationalizing the social sciences. A wonderful achievement."--Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel
"The Measure of Civilization is a terrific book--it will inform, stimulate, and challenge you. Beautifully summarizing and quantifying the major developments in energy capture, social organization, war technology, and categorization, storage, and communication of information over the last sixteen millennia, this book shows how far we have come and how this journey has been a cumulative process."--Daron Acemoglu, coauthor of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
"Ian Morris has done it again. He has enriched the argument about 'why the West rules' with a treasure trove of information about social development over the last sixteen thousand years. No one seriously interested in world or 'big' history can afford not to read this book. It clearly and consistently told me what I needed to know about the social resources that provide the indispensable context for the interpretation of culture. And it is an enormous pleasure to read. I cannot think of another book from which I have learned so much."--Robert N. Bellah, author of Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
"This is a superb book. Measuring how societies learned to harness energy better, improve their organizational and war-making capacities, and accumulate usable information, Ian Morris has developed a terrific index of social development. His fascinating conclusions and use of data will be controversial, but this book will become a classic source for anyone studying the nature of progress from sixteen thousand years ago to now."--Daniel Chirot, author of How Societies Change
"For all those interested in why the West, not the East, industrialized first, this succinct and intelligent book provides new data, a new conceptual tool, and a promising new approach to this major question. It is a valuable, critical guide to Morris's quantitative index of social development and important for his observations about what we can learn from existing work, what features of societies matter most, and what future research is needed."--Philip T. Hoffman, California Institute of Technology
"Morris's work is part of a resurgence of materialist, scientific approaches in archaeology and history. As such, many will be interested in the data and methods made available by this important book. The Measure of Civilization contains valuable and useful ideas and insights."--Michael E. Smith, Arizona State University
Praise for Ian Morris: "Ian Morris has returned history to the position it once held: no longer a series of dusty debates, nor simple stories--although he has many stories to tell and tells them brilliantly--but a true magister vitae, 'teacher of life.'"--Anthony Pagden, author of Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle between East and West
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More generally he sets out to explain how the "core" areas of both the East and the West shift over time (p. 35). More narrowly Morris's analysis can challenge such controversial statements such as Gregory Clark contentious pronouncement that "the average person in the world of 1800 [CE] was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC" (p. 57).
In this review I have remained neutral and attempted to function as a reporter. The five stars are for his explicit details in the development of his "social development index" and not offered as an endorsement. This book is important and is sure to generate even more reaction than did his "Why the West Rules - For Now."
In his book "Why the West Rules - For Now" addressed the relative importance of material and cultural forces shaping history. This book rigorously upholds the findings of the earlier book (p. 255 - 7). Namely culture is a relatively passive or dependent variable in shaping history.
Theories abound which argue the West domination is a function of a superior culture, advantageous climate and natural environment, or even that Western people are biological superior to other people of the world (e.g. Herbert Spencer pp. 7 - 9). Morris maintains these theories will not do. The recent rise of Japan, the Asian Miracles (e.g. South Korea, etc.) and China immediately reveal the shortcomings.
Morris maintains this "is a companion volume" to his book "Why the West Rules - For Now" (p. 4). His main aim is to contribute to the "a new synthesis" biological and social evolutionism (p. 16). His effort in "The Measurement of Civilization" is to make the details of this effort "explicit" (p. 252). Morris is working from the tradition of "neo-evolutionary" (p. 12) attempting to theorize and quantify historical progress. Leslie White offers an elegantly simple and rudimentary formula: Culture = Energy x Technology (p. 10). For Morris this definition is too simplistic and too ambiguous.
Thus, Morris reformates the neo-evolutionary efforts around four "minimum" traits: Energy capture per person, social organization, information technology and war-making capacity (pp. 39 - 40). He details both the measurement and historical analysis of each of these traits in its own chapter, energy capture (pp. 53 - 143), social organization (pp. 144 - 72), war-making capacity (pp. 173 - 217), and information technology (218 - 37). Each of these will be sure to generate controversy. Morris's detailed analysis will be highly useful to his critics and supporters.
Morris is well aware of the problems and shortcomings of his efforts. Quantification is not meant to be the definitive account of social development and history, but a tool to merely assist in historical assessment.
The problems with Morris' efforts include the fact that quantification imports ethical hazards. His definition of social development may not be precise enough. His minimum of four traits may be overly reductionist. History is also a very troublesome business, so facts and measurement will always be controversy.
The heart of Morris's book is to be found in the detailed analysis of his measurement in chapters 3 - 6. Reviews in professional journals are sure to take issue with much of his analysis. However, he has been very careful to suggest rather modest applications of his quantification of "social development" (p. 238).
The main result, echoing his deductions from "Why the West Rules - For Now" is the "unequivocal" conclusion that there is one and only one path to modernity, namely energy capture/use and technological development (p. 258). Morris' "reveals not only a very clear progression from foragers to farmers to factory workers and beyond but also a series of hard ceilings limiting how far development could go under each broad form of organization" (p. 258). Such bold and provocative conclusions will be sure to lift the interests of critics and champions.
If the "one path" conclusion is not controversial, the second conclusion will be. For Morris the path to modernity is one (energy capture/use and technological development). How a nation or regions develops toward energy capture and technological development may be more variable. Nonetheless, Morris prefers to call it a "qualified unilinearity" (p. 260).
Morris maintains culture, individuals, and "accidents" play a relative minor role in history. These conclusions are sure to rankle many historians and social theorists. Morris' book demands deep scrutiny and sincere criticism. However, he also deserves to be applauded for explicit historical and theoretical detail he provides. He should be commended for a thoughtful and thought-provoking book which will once again find a very wide, and well-deserved, audience.
There are some minor and major defects. In a book covering such a broad range of topics, some details are wrong. There is no Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics. In his information technology metric, Morris uses Japan as the year 2000 benchmark, when South Korea would have been more appropriate. Anyone expecting that this book addresses the subtitle, "How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations," is going to be disappointed. This book is not about nations and one of Morris' themes is geographical determinism of social development. In at least one important aspect, Morris' index is potentially misleading as it really doesn't capture the discontinuous nature of some major events, such as the transitions to agriculture, and particularly the scientific-industrial revolution.
Finally, Morris continues some of the substantial errors of interpretation found in WTWR. In both WTWR and this book, Morris compares the "West" (the Ancient Near East and its cultural descendents in a very broad sense - including the modern West) and the "East" (essentially China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam). Morris' definition of the West, however, is the zone of Western culture produced either by conquest or emulation of Western institutions. In the modern world, however, this (correct) definition requires inclusion of China et alia as Western states. Morris' attempted comparison of East and West may be valid for the pre-modern world but for the modern world, its fatuous.
Morris commits another logical error in his discussion of unilineal versus of multilineal social development. Given appropriate biogeographic conditions, Morris supports a broadly stereotyped sequence of hunter-gatherers to agriculture to simple polities to empires, etc. This is reasonable in the sense that the multiple independent emergence of agriculture, followed by the multiple independent emergence of imperial states, supports this model. But, Morris implies that the same kind of inevitability underlies the emergence of scientific-industrial society. Given that the latter is a unique event, no definitive statement can made about its inevitability in the sequence, and there is good reason to think that the emergence of scientific-industrial society is a highly contingent event.
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