Measure of Civilization

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* Book: The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations. By Ian Morris. Princeton University Press, 2013.


"A groundbreaking look at Western and Eastern social development from the end of the ice age to today."


"In the past thirty years, there have been fierce debates over how civilizations develop and why the West became so powerful. The Measure of Civilization presents a brand-new way of investigating these questions and provides new tools for assessing the long-term growth of societies. Using a groundbreaking numerical index of social development that compares societies in different times and places, award-winning author Ian Morris sets forth a sweeping examination of Eastern and Western development across 15,000 years since the end of the last ice age. He offers surprising conclusions about when and why the West came to dominate the world and fresh perspectives for thinking about the twenty-first century.

Adapting the United Nations’ approach for measuring human development, Morris’s index breaks social development into four traits—energy capture per capita, organization, information technology, and war-making capacity — and he uses archaeological, historical, and current government data to quantify patterns. Morris reveals that for 90 percent of the time since the last ice age, the world’s most advanced region has been at the western end of Eurasia, but contrary to what many historians once believed, there were roughly 1,200 years—from about 550 to 1750 CE—when an East Asian region was more advanced. Only in the late eighteenth century CE, when northwest Europeans tapped into the energy trapped in fossil fuels, did the West leap ahead."


Thomas Currie:

"Morris argues that what is needed is a clear, empirical measure of long-term social development in the East and the West. Such numerical indices are commonly used in the social sciences to compare contemporary societies, e.g., the United Nations Human Development Index ( Morris extends this approach by developing an index of social development for the East and West, going back to the end of the last glacial period. The idea is that by making explicit assumptions and definitions, and quantifying things in this way we can go beyond the futile and frustrating back-and-forth misunderstandings that have dominated these debates. The results of this endeavor are presented in WWR. There, Morris focused on the big picture of the conclusions that can be drawn from developing and interpreting this index, and the potential for projecting these patterns into the future. The general pattern that emerges is that according to this measure social development was indeed higher in the West from the earliest times. The East began catching up sometime after 2000 BCE, but did not overtake the West until around the middle of the first millennium CE. The East then remained more developed until the 18th Century, when the industrializing West pulled ahead once more. Since the conclusions reached in WWR depend on this index of social development, it is important to understand the nitty-gritty of its construction. This is the role of the book.


The undoubted strength of Morris’ work is the synthesis of an enormous body of information ranging across multiple different disciplines and world regions. Although the decisions that are made in deciding on particular values can be questioned and sometimes involve making guesses or applying arbitrary scaling factors, they have the virtue of being made explicit. Anybody that disagrees with a particular decision can see the effect of making an alternative decision or arriving at a different value. Furthermore, the extensive citing of sources and pointing towards the sources of information on which these judgments are based is also to be applauded. The breadth and depth of knowledge is truly impressive, and shines through in this book. Morris is also admirably aware and upfront about the limitations of his approach. In attempting to develop measures of important variables, and trace them back through deep history in very different parts of the world, the impressive collation of information exhibited in this book is probably about as far as one person can get alone. Morris’s decision to take on this challenge by himself is probably partly due to the fact that the majority of archaeologists and historians have tended to shy away from broad, comparative questions, and focused on describing particular regions at certain points in time.


Overall, The Measure of Civilization is a really interesting book, which serves as a great companion piece for Why the West Rules. Morris writes in an engaging style and his enthusiasm for the questions at hand shines through. Refreshingly, the reader is invited to engage critically with the information presented, and not merely take the arguments presented at face value. My only grumble about the book is that the way the data are presented can be quite frustrating at times. Often the information about the index is plotted as a line chart with the y-axis on a linear scale. Because the scores for the present day are often well in excess of earlier scores this has the effect of creating a series of “hockey stick” graphs, where interesting differences in earlier periods are difficult or impossible to pick out. To be fair, the issue of how the data are presented is raised by Morris, and the data are sometimes presented on a logscale. While he rightly points out that there is no neutral way to present the index, a clearer presentation of the data would help the reader to extract more of the information that is present here, particularly in these earlier periods. This is a minor point though, and shouldn’t detract from what is an extremely thorough piece of work. The book really makes you engage with the assumptions behind our attempts to interpret the information left to us from past societies. The overall project highlights both the difficulties and opportunities for attempting to quantify social development in the present, past, and future. In doing so, it makes a convincing case that such quantification is vital if we are to have a better understanding about how the present came about and where we are going in the future. In short, the Measure of Civilization should provide stimulating reading for anybody interested in understanding the long-term patterns of history and the forces that may shape our destiny. "



Social development indices in neo-evolutionary anthropology

Ian Morris:

The "Human Relations Area Files (HRAF; ) were established at Yale University to create a database for global comparisons of human behavior, society, and culture (Ember 1997; Ember and Ember 2001), and in the 1950s a number of anthropologists began using HRAF or other datasets to build cross-cultural indices of social development (e.g., Bowden 1969; Carneiro 1962, 1968, 1969, 1970; Erickson 1972; Freeman and Winch 1957; McNett 1970a, 1970b, 1973; Murdock and Provost 1973; Naroll 1956, 1970; Sawyer and Levine 1966; Tatje and Naroll 1970). These indices received severe criticism in the 1970s-80s (e.g., McGuire 1983; Shanks and Tilley 1987). Much, though not all, of this was justified (I expand on my views in Morris 2009), but regardless of the theoretical and methodological shortcomings of some of their writings, the early neo evolutionists did identify most of the basic problems in index building (e.g., how to reduce a mass of information to a small number of traits, how to weight the traits, how to define key terms like differentiation, and how to define the unit of analysis). They rarely agreed on how to solve these problems, but nevertheless developed sufficiently robust techniques that they could agree on scores 87 - 94 percent of the time (Carneiro 2003: 16768)."



Societal Neo-Evolutionism

Thomas Currie:

"In seeking to examine the long-term history of social change this endeavor is located squarely within the tradition of cultural evolution in anthropology and archaeology (also known as neo-evolutionism; Carneiro 2003). This approach argues that human societies have tended to increase in complexity over time, with societies going through broadly similar sequences of change. It should be noted that the intellectual lineage of this evolutionary approach can be traced back to Herbert Spencer rather than Charles Darwin (Currie and Mace, 2011). Social evolutionary theory has gone in and out of fashion over the years, and has received criticisms of varying degrees of validity. Morris’s aim is to construct a measure of social development, which he defines as “social groups’ abilities to master their physical and intellectual environments and get things done in the world” (p. 3). In seeking to boil down the evolution of human societies to a single measure, this approach follows most closely that of the anthropologist Leslie White. White proposed that the defining feature of human social evolution was the ability of societies to harness and utilize increasing amounts of energy over time (White, 1959). Therefore, the social development index used here includes a measure of energy capture as one of its contributing variables. Morris’s approach also owes a debt to researchers such as Raoul Naroll and Rober Carneiro who developed indices of social development using cross-cultural data. While noting their importance, Morris claims that his index improves on these earlier efforts. These are issues to which I will return later.


A criticism often leveled at traditional social evolutionary theory is that it merely offers descriptions of the pattern of change, rather than saying anything much about the process by which this change has occurred (Shennan, 2008). In many ways, the same criticism can be made of the procedure Morris has followed. In fact, collapsing everything into a single measure gets rid of important information that could indeed be used to address questions of process. Crucially, although the data presented here clearly show that social development goes through the roof as a consequence of the industrial revolution, the approach taken does not allow us to assess competing explanations about why this occurred, or what role institutions or other aspects of culture played in this process (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012; Ferguson, 2012). In general, approaches to investigating cultural evolution which derive more directly from evolutionary biology and ecology, with their focus on developing formal statistical and mathematical models of social and cultural change, offer a broader perspective with which to address these questions (Mesoudi, 2011; Spencer and Redmond, 2001; Turchin, 2003). While sometimes seen as incompatible (Dunnell, 1980; Lyman and O'Brien, 1998), in previous work I have demonstrated how these Spencerian and Darwinian approaches can be reconciled (Currie and Mace, 2011). None of this is to say that the index developed here is without merit. It does indeed serve the intended purpose of clarifying the relative development of East and West over the long-term of human history. Morris does not conduct any statistical tests in this work but it is possible to see how such an index could be employed in further analyses that formally tested various hypotheses about human social evolution. This would be particularly valuable if it was extended to other regions of the world, too. Approaches that retain information about the individual traits and combine them with statistical analyses that reveal the relationships between different variables and the order in which they change would also be more powerful in addressing questions about social evolutionary processes "


How the Index is constructed

Thomas Currie:

"The majority of the book describes in admirable detail exactly how Morris arrived at the values he uses in his index. The overall index is constructed so that the maximum value East or West could obtain in the year 2000 CE would be 1000 points. Each one of the four variables can achieve a maximum of 250 points, so in theory, each variable is given equal weight in the overall index. The construction of each variable relies on different sources of data and employs slightly different approaches. The energy capture variable attempts to measure the amount of energy that societies use per capita, and is composed of the energy that humans get from food (including the amount of energy required by any animals in the diet) as well as non-food sources of energy used in heating, cooking, transportation, etc. Much of the work here is based on historical estimates of production in past societies and sensible rules of thumb about the types and degree of non-food sources of energy in different types of societies. The values are first estimated in terms of kilocalories (kcal) using a variety of sources of information, before being scaled and converted into the index score. Social organization is based on estimates of the size of the largest human settlement in the East and West at the different time periods. This seems like a reasonable proxy as maintaining large group sizes requires the cultural evolution of forms of social organization that enable groups to solve collective action problems and prevent them from falling apart (Turchin et al., 2013). These raw city population sizes are scaled to create the index score. The next variable, war-making capacity, follows a slightly different approach in that Morris first decides whether East or West had the highest value for this variable in 2000 and assigns it the maximum value of 250. Subsequent scores (i.e., those for earlier time periods) are then estimated relative to this score and also other subsequent scores derived from it. The war-making capacity variable takes into account information about army sizes, military technology, and effectiveness in battle, but does not use quantitative estimates directly to calculate the scores. Finally, the information technology score derives from estimates of literacy rates and the technological capacity for societies to communicate and share information (e.g., the presence of electric or electronic forms of communication). Morris makes clear that his aim is not necessarily to produce objective measures of these variables, but to make clearer and more explicit the decisions made and the reasoning behind them. This general strategy is understandable given the fragmentary nature of the historical and archaeological records."