Morris, Ian 2013 The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations. Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press. 381 Pages. ISBN Cloth 978-0-691-15568-5,TopRight,1,0_SH20_.jpg

The Measure of Civilization is a compendium of data on the leading edge of the emergence of sociocultural complexity and hierarchy over the past 14,000 years. It is very useful for those who do research on long-run, large-scale social change.  But for the general reader The Measure needs to be discussed in conjunction with Ian Morris’s 2010 book, Why the West Rules – For Now. Most of The Measure was originally written as a data appendix to support the story told in Why the West Rules.

            The big idea is that complex human systems, like other complex systems, need to capture free energy in order to support greater scale and complexity, and that the ability to capture free energy is the main variable that accounts for the growth of cities and empires in human history. Morris traces the increasing size of human settlements since the origins of sedentism in the Levant about 12,000 years ago. And he uses estimates of the sizes of the largest settlements in world regions as a main indicator of system complexity. Using this method he notes that there was parallel evolution of sociocultural complexity in Western Asia and Northern Africa, South Asia, East Asia, the Andes and Mesoamerica, and that the leading edge of the development of complexity diffused also from its points of origin. And sometimes the original centers of complexity lost pride of place because new centers emerged out on the edge. The old Mesopotamian heartland of cities now has none of the world’s largest cities. Development is spatially uneven in some regions, with the center moving to new areas.

            In the introductory chapter of The Measure of Civilization Morris provides a useful overview of earlier efforts to measure social development, and he also provides a helpful and insightful discussion of the social science literature on sociocultural evolution since Herbert Spencer.          

            Morris’s research is unusual for an historian because he carefully defines his concepts, specifies his assumptions and operationalizes his measures, and then uses the best quantitative estimates of settlement sizes as the main basis of the story he is telling. His estimates of the sizes of the largest cities utilize and improve upon earlier compendia of city sizes.

            The main focus of the earlier book (Why the West Rules) is the comparison of what happened in Western Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe with what happened in East Asia. Morris is careful to trace the histories of the diffusion of complexity in both areas. He also makes contemporaneous comparisons of the two regions which allows us to see that there has been a see-saw pattern back and forth regarding which region was ahead or behind in the development of sociocultural complexity.  The West (Western Asia) had an original head-start, but the East caught up and passed, and then the West (Europe and North America) passed the East again.  The focus on energy capture is a valuable materialist angle that cuts through a lot of the nonsense one finds in most other East-West comparisons. And the focus on cities rather than polities or civilizations allows us to see the big patterns more clearly.

            While The Measure of Civilization is about the quantitative basis of Morris’s analysis, Why the West Rules adds a lot of detail beyond the basic focus on energy capture.  It is a fascinating story told well. The energy capture idea misses some of the patterns that are of interest to those who want to study whole world-systems over long historical time. The story tends to be rather core-centric with little attention paid to the transformative roles played by peripheral and semiperipheral marcher states in the construction of large empires. Not much is made of the transformation of systemic logics of development over the long period studied, and how differences in the development of capitalism may have been an important aspect of the East/West trajectories. But the foregrounding of energy and cities is a valuable strategy for comprehending both the patterns of history and for considering the present and the future of human development. Morris’s books are insightful contributions to our efforts to penetrate the fogs of sociocultural evolution.

Christopher Chase-Dunn, Institute for Research on World-Systems, University of California-Riverside

Journal of World-Systems Research 2013