To see forward, look back!

Thomas Cole the Course of Empire

“The farther backward you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”  

Winston Churchill

The above quote is taken from Ian Morris’ recent and fascinating Why the West Rules- For Now: The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  Indeed, the whole point of Morris’ book can be seen in Churchill’s quip. Morris, a trained archaeologist and historian, aims to find a pattern in the broad arc of human history beginning with the birth of civilization, take us into the present age, and project current trends outward into the next century and perhaps beyond.

This is, needless to say, a pretty ballsy thing to do, at least if one wants to remain safe in the cocoon of respectable academia where scholars can spend a decade glued like a car door on Magneto to a subsection of one obscure historical text, or stuck for seven years, as Morris himself was, to the excavation of one ancient room.  Writing a meta-narrative like Morris’ is somewhat less ballsy if one intends to enter that rare breed of academic/journalist that has managed to reach the publishing industry’s version of celebrity status. Perhaps the fastest way to reach the top of today’s non-fiction bestseller list is to write a book with the words “America” or the “West” with the verb “decline” attached or- perhaps the flip-side- the words “China” and “Rise”. And who could blame the public for lapping this stuff up, hell, with “Euro-crises”, and “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” all over the news when everything in the rest of the world, and China especially, seems a go-go-go?    

Morris, however, is not some poor soul lost forever to the seriousness of academia and possessed by the spirit of Oswald Spengler, nor is he some dry professor presenting yet another version of those angels- on- the- head- of- a- pin arguments that force closed the eyelids of popular readers. Rather, he has managed the seemingly impossible task of presenting serious scholarship in a way that succeeds in keeping readers not only engaged but entertained. His book is full of creative leaps in which he uses the instruments and insights from one field of human intellectual and artistic endeavor to help understand history in new ways. Above all, Morris takes seriously what are in fact very important questions- problems which modern historians burned by the hubris and prejudice of their 19th and early 20th century predecessors tend to ignore, questions which nonetheless, should be important to all of us as human beings- where did we come from? and where are we going?

The way that Morris frames these questions of origins and destiny is to see them through the prism of the “rise of the West”. Is this Euro-centric? Perhaps, but the facts remain that it was from an obscure corner of Eurasia that the first civilization arose that managed to tie the globe together into one unit, that it was from there that a brand new form of civilization emerged a scientific-industrial-technological civilization that would force all the world to adapt to it or face decline and domination. Why this happened, and where this process unleashed by the West might be leading is not a matter of increasing Westerner’s self-esteem in a period where the two cores of Western civilization- Europe and the United States- seem to be racing one another down the slope of decadence and decline, but are questions that should concern everyone regardless of the accidents of geography.

Morris is trained as an archaeologist specializing in the classical age in the West. One might, therefore, expect him to fall into the category of those 19th century historians who thought there was something very special about the West culturally, or some, with tragic effects argued racially, about the West that made its dominance over the rest of the world’s cultures inevitable. Usually these “long-term lock-in” theories start from something about the ancient Greeks and how they escaped the hold of superstition by the application of reason to both nature and society.

Morris grapples with these explanations from culture only to dismiss them. There are just far too many periods in history where civilizations other than the West hold first place in the realms of science and technology. Think, for example, of what are considered the penultimate technologies that launched the modern age: long range sailing ships, the compass, the printing press and gunpowder. All of these were invented in China.

Something historians attempting to compare civilizations or talking about their rise or decline is by what basis do you say one civilization is more “advanced” than another? How can you tell if a civilization is rising or declining?

It is in coming up with a new way to answer these questions that Morris makes the first of his many leaps found in Why the West Rules, For Now. Morris turns to a model from contemporary development studies- the UN Human Development Index (HDI) which is a combined statistic that compares development between countries on measures such as life-expectancy, education and income as a template for creating his own measure that will allow him to compare levels of development historically between countries and across an historical period that begins with the appearance of civilization in the “Hilly Flanks” of the modern Middle East with the Neolithic Revolution around 12,000 years ago.

Morris comes up with four key measures that allow him to compare development between civilizations and across time: energy capture (how much energy is taken for work), organizational capacity (measured by the size of urban centers), information technology (measured by literacy rates) and military capacity (measured by the size of armies).  Morris is well aware that he should not give a value judgment to scores on his scale, and he also fully admits that what he has invented is a rather rough instrument. His is a starting point for a larger discussion- not the final destination.

Applying his measure to history since the dawn of civilization here is what he finds:The West, meaning not just Europe, but the western half of Eurasia and North Africa beginning in Mesopotamia was indeed ahead in developmental terms from Eastern civilization, whose core he place in China, for much of its history. Only in the late middle ages from around 900 AD- 1700 AD was the East ahead of the West. Yet, in a version of the theory put forward by Jared Diamond in his landmark Germs Guns and Steel, Morris argues that the fact that the West was for so long more advanced than the East according to his measure is to be explained not in terms of culture but as a consequence of geography.

Intensive agriculture along with permanent human settlements emerged around 12,000 years ago in a region known as the “Hilly Flanks” an area on the edge of the area around the Tigris and Euphrates. Why here? It just so happens that this area has an overwhelming number of that very small group of naturally occurring plants and animals that are suitable for domestication. Agriculture in the Hilly Flanks spread to the nearby Tigris and Euphrates valley in which, under harsh conditions of a new Ice Age it gave rise to what we would recognize as both cities and states which had grown up as solutions to the problem of how to provide food under conditions of intense scarcity.

The West had a further geographic advantage over the East after the center of its civilization moved into the Mediterranean whose sea provided a transmission belt for food, products, people and ideas. Even after China built its Grand Canal it would have nothing to compete with the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire took the West to the very height of social development in terms of Morris’ scale-the number of trees felled for fuel, of cities at a massive scale, soldiers armed for war, or literate persons would not return to those found in the Roman Empire in its height- for Western countries that is- until the 1700s. Rome had hit what Morris calls a “hard-ceiling” and was eventually felled by his “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: climate change, famine, state failure, and disease”.

After 900, China with its Song Dynasty finally caught up to and surpassed the West reaching Roman levels of social development according to Morris’ measure. How exactly it was able to do this isn’t exactly clear, but certainly part of it had to do with the incorporation of rice producing regions in China’s south- perhaps facilitated by climate change. China’s relative isolation would have offered it some protection against epidemic diseases and it had come up with an effective “barbarian policy” that at the very least allowed China to avoid the fate of a city such as Baghdad that around 1200 was absolutely destroyed by a Mongolian horde.

In any case, with the discovery of the Americas in the 1400s the West would begin its crawl back to the levels of social development found in the Roman Empire this time by creating a new version of the Mediterranean world in the Atlantic Civilization and its Columbian Exchange. But by the 1700s when Thomas Malthus realized that all civilizations in the past had collapsed once their population overran their ability to produce food, it seemed like the hard-ceiling was about to be hit again, only this time, as Kenneth Pomeranz pointed out in his The Great Divergence the West would find in the industrial revolution a way not just to poke above the hard-ceiling, but to shatter it.

Here’s what it looks like as a graph:

Ian Morris Great Divergence Graph   

The last 200 or so odd years have essentially been the story of the West taking advantage of this new form of industrial civilization it created to dominate the rest of the globe until non-Western societies adopted and replicated it. Now that countries such as China and India have embraced modernization the fate of the rule of the West is written on the wall. Within a century, the great divergence will have run its course, and perhaps that’s the big story under today’s headlines. But Morris doesn’t think so.

Instead, what he sees is another hard-ceiling out ahead which unless we break through it may result in the end of civilization, what he, borrowing from Isaac Asimov calls Nightfall. If one takes one of Morris measures, say urbanization, and plays out the trend line, what one gets is cities on the order of 140 million people! He sees no way of measuring up to these trend lines unless the hopes of the singularians for radical technological change within the next half century prove correct. The four horsemen of
climate change, famine, state failure, and disease are already out of their stable and only a breakthrough of greater magnitude than the industrial revolution would prove capable of pushing them back in.

If we fail to achieve a breakthrough our particular civilization’s collapse- accompanied by nuclear weapons- will likely, according to Morris, be the last. For him, like the title of this blog the future is one of either utopia or dystopia.


Van Gough Starry Night

When I was fourteen, or thereabouts, one of the very first novels I read was the Foundation Trilogy of Isaac Asimov. Foundation is for anyone so presumptuous, as I was and still am, to have an interest in “big history”- the rise and fall of civilizations, the place of civilization within the history earth and the universe, the wonder at where we will be millenia hence, a spellbinding tale.

The Foundation Trilogy tells the story of the social mathematician, Hari Seldon, who invents the field of psychohistory which allows him to be able to predict the fall of the Galactic Empire in which he lives. The fall of the galaxy spanning empire will lead to a dark age that will last 35,000 years. Seldon comes up with a plan to shorten this period of darkness to only a millennium by establishing foundations that will preserve and foster learning at opposite ends of the galaxy.

My understanding of the origins of the  Foundation Trilogy was that it was one of the greatest examples ever of a writer breaking free from the vice -grip of writer’s block. In 1942 Asimov was at a complete loss as to what he should write. Scanning his bookshelf he saw a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and started to read, and soon had the plot of all plots, an idea that would see him through not just the Foundation Trilogy,  but a series of works- fourteen in all.

I found it strange, then, when I picked up a book that represented our 21st century version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall , a book by Ian Morris entitled Why the West Rules- For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future,
that Morris made reference not to Foundation,  but to a short story by Asimov that was written prior, which I had never heard of called Nightfall.  *

Next time I want to do a full review of Morris’  fascinating book. For those so inclined, please do not be put off by the title. Morris is something much different from Eurocentrists who usually write books with such titles, and if he has the courage to write a meta-history in an age when respectable scholars are supposed to be more humble in the face of their ignorance and deliberately narrow in their purported expertise, his is a self-conscious meta-narrative that fully acknowledges the limits of our knowledge and of its author.  Morris is also prone to creative leaps, and he borrows and redefines for his purposes two concepts of the human future. The first is one often talked about on this blog, The Singularity, and the second an idea from Asimov- the idea of social collapse found in Asimov’s  aforementioned,  Nightfall.

Like Foundation, Nightfall is also a tale of a civilization’s end, but it is not the gradual corrosion and decay found in Gibbon or Asimov’s other stories but of swift and total collapse. (The reason, no doubt, Morris chose it as his version of a negative future Again, more on that next time).

Nightfall, too, has a story around its origins. Asimov was discussing a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson with the editor of Astounding Stories, John W. Campbell, that:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!

Campbell thought instead that people would very likely go mad.

Nightfall takes place on the imaginary world of Lagash. The planet is located in a star systems with six suns to the effect that it is always daytime on Lagash. The plot centers around a group of scientists at Saro University who discover that their civilization is headed towards a collapse that has been cyclically repeated (every 2049 years) many many times.

The most unbelievable  element of Nightfall isn’t this cyclical collapse, which looks a lot like the “Maya Apocalypse” that a host of poor souls got sucked up into just last month, but the collaboration between scientists from different fields within the university, indeed, bordering on what E.O. Wilson has called “consilience”. You have a psychologist studying the psychological effects of darkness on Lagashians, an archeologist who has found evidence of repeated civilizational collapse, an astronomer who has discovered irregularities in the orbit of Lagash, and a physicist, and one of the main characters, Aton, who puts the whole thing together, and realizes that all of this fits with an invisible (because of the light) body orbiting Lagash that causes an eclipse and a brief night every two millennia that results in the destruction of civilization.

The other main character, Theremon, is a journalist who has written on a religious group, “The Cult” who have a distinct set of beliefs about the end of days handed down in their “Book of Revelation” (ugh). The belief entails the destruction of the world by a darkness in which flames in the sky rain down fire upon the earth and the souls of the living flow out into the heavens. The presentation of Theremon as a hardscrapple reporter, rather than, say, a scholar of religion, is the only thing that dates Nightfall as a story written in the early 20th century. One has no idea that as Asimov is writing civilization around him was in fact in a state of collapse as world war raged.

Why does nightfall bring the collapse of civilization on Lagash? For one, people become psychologically unhinged by darkness. Lagashians,  evolved for eternal day, feel they are being suffocated when darkness falls. Without darkness, they have had no need to invent artificial light. When darkness falls, it is not fire from the heavens that destroys their own civilization, but the fact that they inadvertently  burn their cities to the ground, lighting everything they can find on fire to escape the night.

In some ways, I think, Asimov was playing with all sorts of ideas about technology, science, and religion with Nightfall. After all, it was the taming of fire that stands as the legendary gift of Prometheus, the technology that gave rise to human civilization destroys the civilization of Lagash. The faculty of Saro, like we humans, undergo their own version of a Copernican Revolution. Just as our relative position in the space blinded us for so long to the heliocentric nature of the solar system, and just as our inability to see with the naked eye past Jupiter, let alone out past the Milky Way, blinded us to the scale of the cosmos, Lagashians are blinded by their own position of being surrounded by six suns that hide the night sky. The astronomer, Beenay, speculates in Nightfall that perhaps what the “Cultist” saw with the fall of darkness were other suns more distant than the six that surround Lagash as many as “a dozen or two, maybe”.  Theremon responds:

Two dozen suns in a universe eight light years across. Wow! That would shrink our world into insignificance.


Asimov is also playing with the tendency of all of us, even scientists, to get imaginatively stuck in the world which they know. Beenay can imagine a world like our own with only one sun, but he thinks life on such a strange world would be impossible, because the sun would only shine on such a planet for half of the day, and constant sunlight, as the Lagashians know, is necessary for life.

Whereas Asimov localizes the myopia that comes from seeing the universe from a particular point in space and time the physicist, Lawrence Krauss, in a recent talk for the Singularity University, places such myopia from our place within the overall history of the universe. Before 1910, with Edwin Hubble and his telescopes, people thought they lived in a static universe with only one galaxy- our own. Today we know we live in an expanding universe with many billions of galaxies. Krauss points out that in the far future of a universe such as our own which is expanding, and in which local regions of galaxies are converging, future astronomers will not be able to see past their own galaxy even as we now do into the past of the universe including telltale signs of the beginning of the universe such as the cosmic background radiation. What they will see, the only thing they will be able to see, is the galaxy in which they live surrounded by seemingly infinite darkness- exactly the kind of universe astronomers thought we lived in in 1910.

Asimov’s, Nightfall, and Krauss’s future universe should not, however, encourage the hubris that we are uniquely placed to know the truth about the universe. Rather, it cautions us that we may be missing something very important by the myopia inherent in seeing the universe from a very particular point in space and time.

If all that weren’t enough, Asimov’s, Nightfall,  is playing with the conflict between science and religion. The work of the scientist at Saro threatens to undercut the sacred meaning of nightfall for the Cultists. Indeed, the Cultist appear to hold beliefs that are part “Maya apocalypse” part pre-Copernican Christian cosmology regarding the abode of God and the angels being in the “heavenly spheres”. Whereas the scientists at Saro have set up a kind of mass fall out shelter in which a number of Lagashians can survive nightfall, and intend to photograph what happens as a sort of message in a bottle for the next civilization on Lagash to witness the darkness, the Cultists try to sabotage the recording of night and to destroy the observatory in which the scientists at Saro have retreated. Their own religious convictions being more important than the survival of civilization and scientific truth.

Ian Morris thought the 70 year old short-story Nightfall had something very important to say to us of the early 21st century, and I very much agree. Why exactly Morris, who is, after all, a historian and archaeologist interested in very long cycles of history would see this strange story of immediate collapse as a warning we should heed will be my subject of my next post…

*In 1990, the story was adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg.