Monday, March 28, 2011

Ian Morris writes big history

I have always been drawn to books about "big history" -- books that explain major developments in human history. It seems to me that big patterns and major developments are things that archaeology has data on and should make contributions to general knowledge about. The problem, of course, is that most books that try to explain big developments in history and society are not written by archaeologists, and they tend to be either so simplified or so full of errors (conceptual and empirical) that they are worthless. So over the years I have paid less and less attention to such works.

Sometimes books about big history make a real stir. Jared Diamond's two books (Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Collapse) are recent examples. The first of these won a Pulitzer Prize, and both are bestsellers. Scholars have weighed in about both, some praising Diamond and some attacking him. Some archaeologists got so upset at his book Collapse that they compiled a whole edited volume (Questioning Collapse) that critiqued Diamond's book. I am more than a little skeptical about their critique, but it is easy to understand its motivation. Diamond is encroaching on our turf, he makes mistakes, and he has some negative things that we don't like.

A typical reaction to Diamond's books, which I share, is to ask why scholars who really know something about the topic don't write this kind of big history. Well, now Ian Morris of Stanford University has done just that. His book Why the West Rules--For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future was published in October, 2010. Morris argues that much historical change is generated by the actions of ordinary people, and that major developments (such as the current dominance of the West) are not at all inevitable. He says, "Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways of doing things. And they rarely know what they are doing."

I haven't read the book yet, but I plan to read it soon. You can find some very nice reviews in places like New York Times, in  The Economist: and in  Foreign affairs. It's about  time that a productive and respected archaeologist steps out of the trenches to become a public intellectual. You can find video and print interviews with Morris around the internet, and I'm sure that lots more buzz will be generated by this. I have always been a fan of Ian Morris's scholarly work, and I have found him a helpful, and generous colleague. Unfortunately his Stanford Webpage does not have his articles posted, but it does have his CV, or some searching on Google-Scholar will turn up a bunch of papers. But it is especially gratifying to see such an outstanding scholar jump into the public ring and really try to bring some archaeological insights to the field of big history.

I am quite a bit less sanguine about Morris's Stanford colleague in Political Science, Francis Fukumana, who has written another book of big history: The Origins of Political Order From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.  This book has not been published yet, but I did read a review in the NY Times by Nicolas Wade.  While I am willing to see what Fukuyama's ideas are and give them a chance, I am brought up short by the statement in Wade's review that "Dr. Fukumana emphasizes the role of China because it was the first state."  Huh? Come again? Sounds like the old archaeological cluelessness again (if that is indeed what he claims.....).

Anyway, now that I have thought a few big thoughts (or at least I've talked about some authors who think big thoughts), I will head off to the SAA meetings in Sacramento and think small detailed archaeological thoughts for a few days (although after a few beers, some big thoughts will probably emerge from the aether).


Marcus said...

The book by Morris is good because it is discursive with the primary data. I do not necessarily agree with the way he quantifies some cultural phenomena, especially information technology. But he makes the case in such a way that it can impact one's understanding of the subject under consideration. That makes it not only a good popular work but can also contribute to academic work. Think about the impact of Gordon Childe's works, they had a similar dual function. The more scholarly background of his book is available in an ebook and online here:

Fukuyama has had this foolish enterprise ever since 1989 to mix a philosophical understanding of history with empirical inquiry. I have nothing against philosophy, ethics etc. You should just not let it mix with the practical inquiry of reconstructing the pattern(s) of the past.

Michael E. Smith said...

Marcus- Yes, Morris's book does bring to mind Gordon Childe, although Childe's books for the public were quite compact, not the 768 pages of "Why the West Rules -- For Now." To me, the simple "for now" in the title is a very nice touch.

Ryan Anderson said...

"But it is especially gratifying to see such an outstanding scholar jump into the public ring and really try to bring some archaeological insights to the field of big history."

Agreed. I would definitely like to see more of these kinds of publications. Thanks for posting this.