Ian Morris, *The Measure of Civilization*

Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fates of Nations (Princeton University Press, 2013).

I have been reading this book which is full of fascinating data on four key dimensions of social development:

  • energy capture (including productive capacity);
  • city size (as a proxy for social organization);
  • war-making capacity;
  • literacy/information technology.

Highly informative in all these areas.

Nothing is perfect, though, and two things I would have liked to be included are:

  • a measure of levels of science and technological capacity;
  • more regions – not just “the West” (which Morris idiosyncratically defines as including the Middle East) and “the East” (actually Northeast Asia).

I have a couple of conceptual disagreements with Morris.

First, I am not sure that an index of social development (welcome as it is) will entirely do what Morris claims it can, namely resolve what Morris calls “the why-the-West-rules debate” – his term for the “rise of the West” debate. This is because the debate is not just about why the West “rules” (has more social power or more social development) but also about why the West pioneered all sorts of unusual arrangements. Why did the West have so many accomplishments, successes, and innovations in areas not directly about power?

Second, Morris says (here and in his previous book Why the West Rules–For Now) that social development was initially kick-started by the geography of the “lucky latitudes”: 20°-35° north in the Old World and 15° south to 20° north in the New World.


But note how the lucky latitudes vary so much between Old and New worlds. Note also that the two leading edges of social development (Morris’s “West” and “East) move northwards from the Middle East out of the lucky latitudes to Northwest Europe and Northeast Asia. The rise of the North or, in Morris-like terms, “why the North rules” is a major puzzle, yet there is no “why-the-North-rules debate”.

I am sure I will be returning to consult and learn from this book again.


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