Published by EH.Net (February 2013)

Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations.? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.? xvi + 381 pp.? $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-15568-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.

Ian Morris is one of the most energetic researchers around, one of the most ambitious and one of the most talented.? Not content with narrative observations on world history, he tries in this book to ground them by measuring four traits: energy capture (the output of food, fuel and raw materials), organization, the capacity to make war, and information technology.? Of the four, energy capture bulks largest in the combined result, which he calls a Social Development Index.? Data, or proxies for data, are identified and graphed at regular intervals over the entire 16,000 years since the Ice Age.?
Social development is defined as an amalgam of material production, organization, culture (elsewhere dismissed), and offense and defense.? Morris?s gloss is that his index charts what people have accomplished in the process of ?getting things done? in the world.? It is total history, based on a colossal effort at consistent measurement.? There are further purposes, chief of which is comparing the performance of East and West, the latter being something of a double-yolked egg since it includes the Middle East.? Power, notably the West?s supposed domination of the world, is treated as going hand-in-hand with economic success.? There is a bow towards the fashionable downplaying of the West?s achievement.? Rather more elliptical is the intoning of its bleak future relative to China, as if world affairs must be a zero-sum game.

Beyond these aims lie other, historically more important, goals that become possible, or at any rate conceivable, only when the canvas is stretched as far in space and time as it is here.? Formerly, economic history did not range so widely and Alexander Gerschenkron derided working in latum et in longum as using the easy dimensions.? As an archaeologist of the classical world, Morris does not feel bound by the parochialism of economics, which in any case has gone out of style in economic history.? He shows that real questions arise from total history, because all more restricted enquiries must nest within global trends.?

To my mind, the most interesting passages are of two types.? His acknowledgement of fluctuations within pre-industrial periods replaces the smooth graph of (hypothetical) world population so often substituted for scholarship.? Even more informative are discussions of the long swings of fortune.? The conclusion is that, once inanimate power became general, the course of world history stood revealed as unidirectional.? The extent to which Morris?s truly herculean efforts at quantifying history?s undulations are successful ? or justify the opportunity cost ? is what we have to consider.? The sporadic finds from archaeological digs used to track early conditions are hard to integrate, while twentieth century experience breaks away from the longer trends.

Travelling through absolutely all periods and places, Morris is obliged to present comparable evidence for each one.? His range of reference is exceptional, and his candor and methodological awareness remarkable, but he openly admits a profusion of lacunae and ambiguities.? Morris cannot be accused of pressing on regardless but, once embarked on a roller-coaster ride through the millennia and over the continents, press on he must.? Hence, although he provides scores for each trait at every period and in every region, they are spattered with hesitations, caveats and guesses.? At least he is frank enough to admit the frailties and attempts to deal with them by submitting his conclusions to a stress test.?

The difficulty is that errors from pressing insecure evidence into sometimes uncertain boxes may not be additive, but multiplicative.? Disputing individual items would be tedious.? Morris offers readers the chance of replacing his evidence but to do so would be far beyond the resources of most academics and out of the question in the space of a review.? Whether the effort of treading in the author?s tracks would anyhow be worthwhile is unclear, since the data are used to measure some slippery concepts.? The Human Development Index may have been an inspiration for Morris, but it lacks appeal.? For example, it is thoroughly obscure how meaningful transformation ratios can be established between biological indicators of well-being and social indicators such as, say, literacy.? Definitions of literacy are always troublesome; some modern developed countries make the incredible claim that 100 percent of their citizens are literate.? Index-makers have slid towards citing years of schooling, though doing so measures inputs, not output.? In any case for most of human history we have no pertinent information.

That example can touch only tangentially on the host of problems arising when trying to construct a whole-history Social Development Index.? Nothing I have said is meant to take away from the skill, breadth of knowledge and open-mindedness with which the task is approached here, but the endeavor is surely overwhelming.? It means swallowing the whale.? Agreed, Morris does anticipate the criticism that deficiencies in the data may nullify his conclusions, candor that ? in principle ? puts him streets ahead of most scholars.? Yet the practice is more vexing than the principle.? He decides that if the trend of his index is more than 20 percent awry, it is insufficiently robust.? Notwithstanding whether this is fair, it blurs an exercise that Morris begins with extreme claims for precision.? At one point he questions certain conclusions because they do not accord with the mass of historical evidence, which seems to be having his cake and eating it too.?

It remains an open question how far solidifying any individual?s reading of historical sources in this way improves on a careful narrative presentation of the same material.? This is especially so if one takes into account the diversion of effort away from scrutinizing the sources even more attentively.? Frank Knight recommended quantification to economists by saying, ?measure, and if you can?t measure, measure anyhow.?? There is more than a little of measuring anyhow in Ian Morris?s otherwise remarkable effort at constructing a Social Development Index.?

Eric Jones is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and sometime Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School.? He is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010) and (with Charles Foster) The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013).

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