Civilization: The West and the Rest


It’s fairly undisputed the West has led the world in practically everything for as long as anyone can remember, but as we approach a time when other world powers appear to be rising to threaten that dominance, Ferguson looks back at why the West has been so successful.

It wasn’t always the case with the likes of the Middle East, Byzantine, India and China being significantly advanced cultures at times when Europe was busy fighting amongst itself.  So what led to our rise in dominance?  Well Civilization lays out six ‘killer apps’ (his terminology) that Ferguson believes paved the path to our success, things which are now being copied by the others to reach ever greater status on the world stage.

The ‘apps’ he states are: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.

The book covers a vast amount of history, focusing in on certain time periods, events and discoveries to help highlight his points.  The breadth of information covered and the detail is breathtaking, each period or subject could easily cover its own book.

Something I think Ferguson missed was the impact war had on society.  He mentions the competition wars provided, which drove innovation in science and medicine, but he fails to point out that WWI had an impact on education (when it was found how few soldiers could write it spurred the ‘Three Rs’ to be adopted), or women’s suffrage as they were suddenly shown the freedoms men enjoyed as they worked for the war effort.  The same happened after WWII with changes in the status of single and working women.

He also fails to mention things like how wars and pandemics often switched the power from the landed classes to the working class as the labour pool was reduced so drastically those who were left could demand higher wages and better conditions with more freedoms.

Having said that, the discussion is wide and aside from covering how civilization developed and changed I also found myself learning more than a few nuggets of history I hadn’t previously been aware of.  I’m not sure we can ever truly say what led to the dominance of the West, it’s too big a subject spread over too vast a timeline to distill down, but I found the book very interesting and a great listen.

Ferguson reads the book himself, and reads it well, investing energy that some professional readers seem to lack.  One thing that did bug me after a while were the quotes from various sources, some of which are very long.  They’re read in different voices and seem to drag on.

Overall, I’d certainly recommend it.

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This was an copy of the book

Reviewed: 24th June 2012