Why, asks historian and archaeologist Ian Morris, were British ships able to force China to accept opium, trade and missionaries in the early 1840s, instead of Chinese junks sailing up the Thames to receive Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s submission? Why did Queen Victoria receive a dog called Looty, found by British troops during their looting of the Summer Palace in 1860, instead of Prince Albert being taken to Beijing to pay homage to the Emperor?
Explaining why Looty went to Britain and Albert did not go to Beijing requires Morris to delve back to the dawn of human history. And he argues that consistent laws have been at work in determining the rate of social development since the first humans abandoned hunter-gatherer lifestyles and began to farm in the “Hilly Flanks” around the Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan Valleys in about 12,500 BC.
Critically, the “paradox of development” has meant that a society’s success creates the forces that undermine it as it grows larger, more complicated and harder to manage. And Morris points out that both East and West have always been menaced (and often attacked) by what he calls the five horsemen of the apocalypse – famine, disease, migration, state collapse and climate change.
The West has not always ruled, and the lead in Morris’s index of social development has changed hands over the millennia. But for all their success at different times, the Roman Empire and Song dynasty China came up against the same “hard ceiling” – they were both agricultural empires that could not capture more energy than human and animal muscle power – as well as some water and wind power – would yield.
Harnessing fossil energy for steam in the 18th century was the breakthrough that enabled the West to burst through that ceiling and rule until now. When this was surpassed by oil, Western development skyrocketed and the East has been playing catch-up ever since. But Morris attributes the West’s advantage to geography rather than anything intrinsic to people in the West. People in large groups are all much the same, he says. But 18th century Britain was particularly well-endowed with coal, as well as the incentives for engineers and entrepreneurs to seek out new forms of technology that were provided by the growing Atlantic trade.
Distinction between East and West may become irrelevant as we approach the hard ceiling of what is possible with fossil fuels. Morris sees two possible futures for humanity. The first is “Nightfall” (in homage to Isaac Asimov’s novel), in which any combination of resource depletion, pandemics, food shortages, nuclear war or climate change could cause catastrophe for humanity.
The other – possibly – more hopeful future is the “Singularity,” where breakthroughs in areas like clean energy, nanotechnology and robotics enable us to push through this hard ceiling.
But the Singularity may be scary too. Morris thinks the technological changes of the Singularity could also cause profound evolutionary change as humans and machines become increasingly inseparable and artificial intelligence “replaces Homo sapiens as thoroughly as Home sapiens replaced all earlier ape-men.”