Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Shape of History: From Predictable West-East Oscillations to Mind-Boggling Singularity (or Nightfall?)

(Below is commentary on a history book worth reading:  Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now:  The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future.  New York:  Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010.  The well-written work offers valuable historical and geographical insight, providing indispensable background reading for any investors trying to make sense of global investment opportunities today.)

Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules—For Now is the most engrossing, expansive, evidence-based, single-volume story of humankind written to date.  The author’s personable presentation is an interdisciplinary magnum opus of big-history theorizing rooted in essential bean-counting analysis, running from the beginning of observable space-and-time over 13 billion years ago to our present-day global village, and even boldly projecting our (accelerating) development out into the foreseeable future (year 2103).  No work better bridges the gap between the humanities and the sciences—the book should be required summer reading for all freshmen entering college.
Morris’s thesis can be expressed in three words:  “Maps over chaps.”  That is to say, for measuring human “progress” (defined, following Herbert Spencer, as:  when the simple becomes more complex), geography (maps) has more explanatory power than biology and sociology (chaps—O.K., the author is British, and “humans and their relationships” hardly has the same snappy ring that “chaps” does).  Morris systematically tracks a “morally neutral” social development index (additional detail available) consisting of four components—energy capture, urban population, information processing, and war-making capacity—for both a Western core (SW Asia/Europe/U.S.) and an Eastern core (China/Japan) from 14,000 BCE to the present.  His thorough analysis explains how any historical West-East developmental differences are best attributable to geography, not race and culture, and how both long-term lock-in (West always ahead) and short-term accident (change driven by one-off flukes) models fail to explain the (oscillatory) patterns of history.  “Each age gets the thought it needs, dictated by the kind of problems that geography and social development force on it. . . . [P]eople accommodate their culture to the needs of social development,” says Morris.  (Note:  Jared Diamond explained how geographical advantage led to Eurasia’s socioeconomic domination over other continents.  Morris uses geography to explain differences in development between the Western and Eastern cores within the Eurasian continent.)
Keeping Score
Archeology reveals how biologically “modern” Homo sapiens walked out of Africa about 60,000 years ago, replacing Neanderthal, Peking Man and other varieties of humankind who had left Africa earlier.  Morris’s historical account “keeps score” as leadership oscillates between West and East, impacted by semi-hard ceilings on growth, paradoxical disadvantages of development, and oxymoronic advantages of backwardness:
  1. 14,000 BCE to 600 CE:  West is ahead of East for almost 15,000 years.  Following the receding of the Last Glacial Maximum around 14,000 BCE, humans transition from roaming hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists, beginning in the most fertile areas (Hilly Flanks and Mesopotamia, and Yellow-Yangzi river valleys) of the Eurasian continent.  Villages become cities, then kingdoms and empires.  Megalomaniacal monuments include King Khufu’s 450-foot-high Great Pyramid in Egypt and the First Emperor’s 6,000-strong clay-soldier Terracotta Army (discovered only in 1974) in Chang’an (now Xi’an).  During the Axial Age from around 500 BCE, the moral foundation of “Man, as we know him today, came into being” (Karl Jaspers), with Confucian and Daoism (East), Buddhism and Jainism (South Asia), Greek philosophy and Judaism, Christianity and Islam (West).  By 1 CE, core population soars:  Rome (population 1 million) and Chang’an (pop. 500,000) in the Roman Empire and Han China, respectively;
  2. 600 CE to 1750 CE:  East moves ahead of West for about 1,000 years.  Completion of the Grand Canal during the early 7th century Sui Dynasty catalyzes growth, continuing into the Tang and Song Dynasties with Empress Wu Zetian in sprawling Chang’an and ironmasters in coal-rich Kaifeng (pop. 1 million each), the Yuan Dynasty with Marco Polo at Kubilai Khan’s court in the 1270s, the 15th century Ming Dynasty with admiral Zheng He’s 300-vessel Treasure Fleets carrying 28,000 men, and the middle of the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century.  During this time, the Roman Empire crumbles, Western development shifts to peripheral areas with expansion of the Habsburg, Holy Roman, Ottoman and Russian empires, and growth later returns to Italy during the Renaissance with Leonardo da Vinci, followed by Kepler in Germany and Newton in England (*); and
  3. 1750 CE to Present:  West surges ahead of East for about 250 years.  Factors driving the rise of the West are:  the relative ease of traversing the Atlantic (the Pacific is broader and more difficult to sail round-trip), closure of the steppe highway by Romanov and Qing gun power (incidentally protecting Europe from disruptive invaders), and the higher economic incentive the West has to go East (appetite whetted by Marco Polo’s tales) than the East has to look West (China stops funding voyages showing little to no economic payoff).  The 18th century Enlightenment is propelled by science and technology (Boulton and Watt’s efficient steam engine) and finance (banking hub in the Netherlands), and growth shifts to northwestern Europe (factories in Britain), followed by the U.S. (industrialization, stock ownership, and consumerism).  In the East, the core shifts to Japan (Tokyo is now the world’s largest urban area with 27 million people) before returning most recently to China.  The result is our present-day, precarious, China-as-creditor/America-as-debtor arrangement (coined “Chimerica” by historian Ferguson and economist Schularick).
Next comes Morris’s educated guess about what will happen next:
  1. Future:  East again catches West.  “As surely as geography dictated that the West would rule, it also dictates that the East will catch up, exploiting the advantages of its backwardness until its social development overtakes the West’s.”
“But here we encounter another irony.  Rising social development has always changed the meaning of geography, and in the twenty-first century, development will rise so high that geography will cease to mean anything at all.  The only thing that will count is the race between a Singularity and Nightfall.” (p. 619)
If the “five horsemen of the apocalypse” (climate change, famine, mass migration, epidemic, and state failure) trample humankind during the next few decades, we will succumb to Isaac Asimov’s terrifying Lagashian Nightfall before reaching Ray Kurzweil’s enthusiastic vision of the Singularity, when human and machine intelligence (are projected to) merge by around 2040.  Morris’s extrapolation of his social development numbers shows East surpassing West around 2100; however, ironically, if we are “fortunate enough” to reach the Singularity before Nightfall, the distinction between West and East will no longer matter.  By that time, as “machine-enhanced, post-biological creatures,” we will come to realize the irrelevance of the quaint “West vs. East” squabbling that once preoccupied us when we were “mere biological humans” earlier in our evolutionary history!
If Morris’s informed wisdom is right, our future will be even weirder than Thomas Friedman’s “global weirding” (which itself is weirder than global warming).  Get used to it.  Prepare to see a warping of the shape of history over the next few decades as social and technological change accelerates to infinite speed! (**)
Towards a More Inclusive Theory
But, wait a minute.  Is Morris right about our future?  What if, instead of experiencing a Singularity, we continue to muddle through at conventional evolutionary speed?
Surely, Morris is a unifier.  By analogy, he is archeology and history’s Newton (classical mechanics) or, better yet, a Maxwell (classical electromagnetism), but not yet an Einstein (seeker of a complete unified field theory).  Similar to Maxwell, who taught us that light is a combination of electric and magnetic phenomena, Morris provides a way of viewing humanity across the West-East divide.  However, extending beyond Eurasia-centric West and East, a more comprehensive theory would need to include at least South and Southeast Asia (with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines), South and Central America (with Brazil and Mexico), and Africa (which by 2100 is projected to have 11 of the top 20 countries by population, including Nigeria, Tanzania, DR Congo, Ethiopia and Uganda in the top 10).  In a sense, Morris’s focus on Eurasia is an example of what he elsewhere calls “chainsaw art,” making crude cuts to exhibit gross features, while ignoring finer detailing.  Because in science a single exception is sufficient to invalidate a theory, the greater diversity of our world requires a broader scope encompassing the developmental history of all geographical regions, not just Eurasia.
Perhaps a more inclusive theory would shed light on the likelihood of some other region of our world rising to global leadership as we muddle along, “rarely knowing what we are doing,” as Morris says.  If it is true that “people—in large groups—are all much the same,” what is to prevent a crowded India, resource-rich Brazil, or quickly expanding Nigeria from one day leading the pack?  After all, they too must be as “lazy, greedy and frightened” as Eurasians, also “looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things,” right?  As technology becomes more available and affordable (ever ponder what happens when 3D-printing extends to food?), more rapid oscillations in development and shifts in world leadership could conceivably lie ahead.
Maybe a Singularity (or Nightfall) really is the most probable outcome, but from my humble perspective, claiming that cultural distinctions will be erased through a Singularity appears to be the “lazy” way out of a messy, multi-continental analysis—one that, if done properly, should embrace all of the greater complexity inherent in the colorful history and cultural diversity of humankind.
In Morris’s recounting, both “Albert in 1848 Beijing” and “Zheng in 1431 Tenochtitlan,” of course, were only fictional.  How about “Morris in the 2040 Singularity”?  Ian Morris was born in Stoke-on-Kent (also called Potteries—think “Wedgwood”), England, in 1960, and as a teenager in 1970s Britain “sat around wearing American jeans, watching American films, and playing American guitars.”  In the early 2000s, when Professor Morris was busy at Stanford researching and writing Why the West Rules—For Now, “the China price” became “the three scariest words in U.S. industry,” as made-in-China anything and everything hollowed out American manufacturing.  By the time the 2040s come around, will Chimerica prove to be reality or chimera?  By 2050, I hope to read Professor Emeritus Morris’s sequel, Why the West-East Divide No Longer Matters—For the Singularity is Here!  Or, might it be, Why the East Now Rules—For the Singularity Will be Late in Arriving?  Or, maybe even, Why Africa Rules—A Fortuitous 60,000 year Homecoming?

(*)  On p. 113 of Why the West Rules—For Now, Morris mentions Leo Tolstoy’s “odd excursus denying free will in history.”  He offers a slightly modified quote from the Second Epilogue, Chapter 11, of Tolstoy’s War and Peace that cites the laws of Kepler and Newton.  Next, Morris calls Tolstoy’s thinking “high-level nonsense.”  In my opinion, Morris is being (uncharacteristically, for his writing is otherwise quite level-headed and gentlemanly) too harsh and judgmental here.  As the next and final chapter in the Second Epilogue of War and Peace reveals, Tolstoy is posing two viewpoints for understanding history—an older one based on Ptolemaic-style individual free will (what Morris calls, “great men and bungling idiots”) and a newer one based on Copernican-style universal natural law (science-based).  Among these opposing viewpoints, Tolstoy states an intellectual preference for the utility of the universal-law approach over postulating individual free-will-based causes to explain historical events.
Tolstoy mentions an interesting analogy:  Just as we do not feel the earth’s motion (we think we are not moving) but must admit it (our motion) to understand the laws of astronomy, we also are not conscious of our dependence on everybody and every thing around us (we think we have free will) but must admit it (our lack of true freedom) in order to understand the laws of history.  In other words, as Einstein was so adept at showing us through his Gedanken experiments relating to relativity, one’s frame-of-reference matters, especially when theorizing.  Personally, I find more harmony than discord in the philosophy behind Tolstoy’s “odd excursus” and Morris’s own style of analysis.

(**)  As if global weirding and the Singularity are already not weird enough, consider philosopher Nick Bostrom’s “simulation argument” which, for our purposes, essentially states:  Assuming that a) the human species will most likely not become extinct before reaching “post-human” stage (i.e., we avoid Nightfall), and b) advanced civilizations, including our own, are prone to running simulations of their evolutionary history (and variations thereof), we are forced to conclude that, although we feel that we are “truly real” flesh and bones, we are, like it or not, almost certainly “merely artificial” beings living inside of a more advanced civilization’s simulation.  Now, that’s quite a humbling predicament for any free-willed humanist, isn’t it?