The ascent of Western civilization to worldwide domination is a historical phenomenon unequaled in significance during the past 500 years. Throughout the globe, increasing numbers of people play Western sports, elect Western-style governments, attend Western-style universities, and take Western medicine. Looking back 600 years, however, we find that the kingdoms of Western Europe looked more like trivial backwaters, consumed by constant plaque and warfare. Ottoman Turkey and Ming China were the pinnacle of global civilizations. How was it that these great Eastern empires were overtaken by the backwards West? Is the height of Western influence now behind us?
In Civilization: The West and the Rest, renowned historian Niall Ferguson maintains that, starting in the 15th century, the West introduced six important new ideas that the Rest were still lacking: consumerism, rule of law, science, competition, modern medicine and the work ethic. It was these ‘killer apps’ that enabled the West to jump out ahead of the Rest, developing representative government, capitalizing on new scientific breakthroughs, bringing about the industrial revolution, increasing life expectancy, establishing global trade routes, and experiencing unprecedented increases in human productivity. Ferguson explains specifically how twelve Western empires grew to control 60% of the world’s population, and 80% of the global economy.
In the 21st century, according to Ferguson, Western influence is bound to decline as the Rest have finally installed the killer apps that the enabled the West to achieve its dominance, while the West is literally losing faith in itself.
Marking the ebb and flow of governments along with the clashes of cultures, Ferguson recalls global history with humor and intensity. Well reasoned and populated by compelling characters, Civilization is arguably Ferguson’s greatest work.
Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.