At 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, the back of Kepler’s Books was packed. Most of the crowd was older – people who likely never had the good fortune to take a class with classics and history Prof. Ian Morris – but upon cracking his new book, “Why the West Rules – For Now,” one could see why they came. And upon hearing him speak, one could see why they stayed. The event was reminiscent of the days when “Ancient Empires” was one of the most popular IHUM classes; Morris is, as ever, a maestro of the lectern.
Morris opened with a thought experiment: what if China had colonized Britain, rather than Britain colonizing Hong Kong? He read from the first chapter of his book, where he envisions an alternate history in which the Emperor of China dispatches the governor Qiying to accept Queen Victoria’s fealty and to administer Britain. (Morris later confessed an obsession with science fiction, which is apparently a source of consternation in certain academic circles.) He challenged the audience to consider why history unfolded as it did in reality, with the Western world coming out on top. After all, from about 550 to 1750 A.D., he said, China was significantly more advanced than any of the various post-Roman Western states.
He spoke about his experiences teaching at the University of Chicago, where he found enough problems with the prevalent doctrine of intrinsic Western superiority (he was careful to note that the mentality of the time was very much influenced by the Cold War) that he decided to make up his own answer.
Morris proposed, in “Why the West Rules,” that a combination of biology, sociology and geography could explain all of human history, calling it, in that particular British accent of his, a theory of “chaps and maps.” Geography drives society, he argued, but society changes the significance of geography; even today, even now, the meaning of geography is changing, which is why the title ends in “For Now.” Morris told a rapt audience that he predicted – by means of projecting each side’s “social development score,” a calculation he devised especially for this project – that the East would catch up with the West in 2103. He also argued that, perhaps more significantly, the distinction between East and West would no longer be important then – an especially relevant idea in this age of increasing globalization.
The book is equally engaging (his particular brand of humor translates well onto the page) and makes equally grand, cosmic predictions about the future of our world. He spins a cohesive narrative of Eurasian history in 600 pages and devotes the rest of the book to similarly vivid projections of the world as it might become. Morris confessed himself much enamored with the Winston Churchill quotation, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.”
Given his background in archaeology and classical history, manifest in the extraordinary scope of his work, it comes as no surprise that Morris can see very far indeed.