Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Rob Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is The 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and why free labour is a great way of avoiding getting your legs broken. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
If you want to understand where humanity stands today and where it might go over the next 100 years, it pays to have some historical perspective.
That’s why I think it’s so valuable to engage with the work of macrohistorians like Ian Morris. They look at history over thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of years, to spot the big trends and piece together what’s driving them.
Zooming out to consider all of human experience since we first came onto the scene helps us to tackle questions like why wars are common in some eras and rare in others, why some societies are hierarchical while others are more egalitarian, and why the Industrial Revolution started in Europe and not elsewhere.
In my view, mainstream intellectual culture is really blinded by its lack of historical perspective. We often can’t understand causes and effects in the present day without a comparison group in which the underlying conditions are very different — which is something history can provide.
Another reason to engage with macrohistorians is that they seem to consistently be really entertaining speakers — and Ian Morris is no exception. We cover so much in this interview, and you’re welcome to skip around using the chapter function, but I expect many of you will enjoy the whole thing.
We open with a brief discussion of Ian’s new book about Britain’s geography and Brexit before moving onto the meat of the conversation. That means talking about:
- Each of the key planks in Ian’s understanding of human history.
- Ian’s expectations for the future given everything he’s learned over his career.
- Ian’s theory of why the way we extract energy may be the main driver of our moral values.
- And then debating whether the methods and evidence used in macrohistory are really up to answering the questions we have.
Without further ado, I bring you Ian Morris.
The interview begins [00:01:51]
Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Ian Morris. Ian is a British historian who is the current Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford University. He originally did his PhD at Cambridge, studying ancient Greek culture before teaching at the University of Chicago, moving to Stanford and directing an archaeological excavation in Italy, among many other projects.
Rob Wiblin: Over the last 15 years, though, Ian has set himself to explaining his model of macrohistory that is trying to understand the big-picture changes in human development and organisation that have occurred over thousands of years, or even hundreds of thousands of years, in some cases. That enterprise has led him to write, in order, first, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. Then The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations. Then, War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots. And, more recently, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve.
Rob Wiblin: Several of those were real hits with the general public, and have certainly been popular among the smartest people that I know — not necessarily because they completely agree with all of the conclusions, but rather because they think they make a real good effort to try to answer some of the most important and most challenging big-picture questions in history that most people steer clear of. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Ian.
Ian Morris: Well, thanks for having me here.
Geography is Destiny [00:02:59]
Rob Wiblin: I hope to talk about how contingent the course of history is, and whether morality is downstream of our economic system. But first, what are you working on at the moment and why do you think it’s important?
Ian Morris: Well, I’ve got a new book that’s going to be coming out in May and June in Britain and the US. It’s called Geography is Destiny. I decided to write this book the morning after the Brexit vote. I woke up, I switched on the computer and everything, and saw, “Oh, they’ve decided to leave the European Union.” That struck me as kind of a bad idea at the time, but I wanted to try to understand why people in Britain thought this was a good idea to do it.
Ian Morris: The way I’ve been working with a lot of my books is by looking at long-term historical patterns and saying, can we identify what the big long-term trends are? Then, if we can, where do they seem like they’re going to be taking us in the future? Then, if we can figure that out too, can we see countervailing forces that might derail them? I’ve written all these books that you just mentioned and they were all basically about starting at the small scale — where historians and archaeologists normally work — and then scaling up and up to make it bigger and bigger, to come up with global-level, long-term explanations.
Ian Morris: It kept coming to me that these global-scale explanations are not really worth a heck of a lot of anything unless you can’t also scale them back down — take them again back down to the micro-level, and talk about particular times and places.
Ian Morris: That’s what I tried to do with this British book. Like with a lot of the books I’ve written, I got a heck of a lot of surprises as I was going forward doing it. Probably the biggest one was just coming to see the basic sensibleness of most of the major positions that had come up during the discussions about Brexit. It wasn’t, “Oh, yes, some people got this absolutely right, and some people got it absolutely wrong.” Once I got into it, I realised that shouldn’t have surprised me, because this has been what I found with all the other books too.
Ian Morris: When you take a longer-term perspective, it’s not like you have to understand all this to forgive all. You don’t necessarily forgive people who hold opposite views, but you do start to understand where they’ve come from. I realised that what had been going on in Britain in 2016 was just the latest chapter in a 10,000-year-old argument about where Britain fit into the larger world. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing, and that book’s going to be out fairly soon.
Rob Wiblin: What’s the geographical feature that caused Brexit? I’d have guessed possibly the English Channel played an important role?
Ian Morris: Yes, that’s got a lot to do with it. The debate has basically been driven for 10,000 years. You have the British Isles, it’s a cluster of islands off the northwest coast of Europe. Nobody’s really going to argue about that. That raises a bunch of issues.
Ian Morris: The argument I keep coming back to, throughout a lot of my books, is how geography drives history, and geography sets the constraints on a lot of what happens. Geography drives history, but, at the same time, history drives what geography means. The meaning of physical geography just keeps changing through time. This is what you’ve got to understand to realise where we stand in the world today.
Ian Morris: Like you mentioned, through most of Britain’s history, the English Channel was more of a highway than a barrier. It was easier to move goods and people by water than it was by land, so often, trade across the English Channel was much more intense than trade over land anywhere within the British Isles, unless you had access to a river, of course. What this meant was that anybody who had access to the European side of the English Channel also had access to the English side. The channel was not a barrier of any kind.
Ian Morris: One of the big polarities driving British history was the tension between proximity and insularity. For most of British history, Britain is off to the edge of the larger story. All of the wealth and power and innovation and inventiveness, it’s all going off down to the southeast — in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, India, ultimately China — and things roll downhill, from the south and east to the north and west, ending up in the British Isles. All of them do eventually end up in Britain because the channel is a highway, not a barrier.
Ian Morris: This is the basic geographical force that drives almost the whole of British history, but then it changes. The meaning of geography changes. This is, on my time scale, a super recent event: about 500 years ago, the blinking of an eye. The meaning of geography changes because two things happen. Again, this is the bigger story in the book: geography drives history, but history determines what geography means. And what does the actual determining are these two forces: one of them technology, and the other one organisation.
Ian Morris: What I mean by that is about 500 years ago, people start building ships, galleons, and these ships are capable of crossing the ocean. You can go from Europe to North America now, the Atlantic increasingly is converted from a barrier that it used to be — because it’s so big — into a highway, connecting Europe up to the Americas. And it becomes this motor of wealth.
Ian Morris: There’s never been anything like this in the history of the planet, just generating wealth in really nasty ways. Basically, Europeans ship Africans to the New World to dig up New World resources to bring them back to Europe, to fuel the European economic growth. It’s not a nice process, but it changes the meaning of Britain’s geography. Britain goes from being at the margin of the European stage to being, potentially, at the centre of an Atlantic and even global stage, once you’ve got these ships. That’s the first thing.
Ian Morris: The other thing is organisational. Some people in England, particularly people around Sir Francis Drake, start to realise that, “Well, hey, if we’ve got ships that can cross the oceans, these ships can also close the English Channel.” Because a big problem in England up to that point has been that France, Spain, Rome — all these continental powers much more powerful than Britain — they can always come across the continent and clobber the British anytime they want to. If you have the organisation, a government able to raise enough revenue to build a fleet that can stay at sea for months on end, you can potentially close the English Channel.
Ian Morris: There’s a huge debate within England in the 16th and 17th centuries, over, “Well, do we actually want to do that?” A lot of people see the benefits of closing the Channel, but it comes with costs as well. You’ve got to have this big, powerful government that can take your money as taxes and throw you in the Tower of London if you don’t pay them and all these kinds of things. There’s costs as well as benefits to everything.
Ian Morris: They have this huge internal debate and say, “Yes, we do want to close the English Channel,” and they go ahead and do it. With the Channel closed, the English go ahead and unite the whole of the British Isles into one political unit — never been done before. Then go on and dominate the oceans and, through that, the rest of the world. Geography abruptly changed its meanings.
Ian Morris: And then, of course, as everybody in Britain is very well aware, it changes back again. In the late 19th, early 20th century, the English Channel is increasingly not a barrier — and in certain ways, the idea of geographical barriers ceases to have a lot of its meaning. Especially when you’ve got ICBMs and the Soviet Union that can drop nuclear weapons on London, having a big fleet in the English Channel is kind of beside the point here.
Ian Morris: Everything changes its meaning as the geography changes its meaning. This has basically been the story of the whole of British history. The secret for politicians within Britain and the people voting for them is to figure out, what does the geography mean? Where is it taking you? This is basically what Brexit was about. It was about “What does 21st century global geography mean?” What I suggest in the book is that the question on the ballot in 2016 — “Should the United Kingdom remain within the European Union or not?” — was the wrong question to be asking. The question to be asking is, “What is the best position for the British Isles in a world where geography now means that China is increasingly becoming the dominant player?”
Ian Morris: Frankly, this whole thing, it’s not about Brussels — it’s about Beijing. That, I think, is what people got so tragically wrong, and squandered half a decade arguing about bizarre stuff to do with the European Union. When the real issue is, what do we do about the rise of Chinese power? Do we run toward it? Do we embrace it, the way the Conservative Party was suggesting at one point? Do we put up the barriers? Do we cosy up to the European Union and negotiate some kind of package arrangement with the Chinese? Do we side with the Americans? These are the questions people should have been worrying about, not questions about Polish plumbers.
Why the West Rules—For Now [00:11:25]
Rob Wiblin: I’m very tempted to get distracted by your forthcoming book, but I think we’re going to have our hands very full in the coming hours just with the books that already exist, so I’ll resist that temptation and pull us back to the ones that I’ve had a chance to look at. Before we do that, though, I should make a confession to the audience. With almost all guests, I try to make a real effort to read the entirety of the books that we’re going to be talking about.
Rob Wiblin: In this case, I did slightly struggle, because there were these four enormous tomes. I tend to listen to books, and I estimated that it was going to take me 32 hours to finish all of them. I must admit, I only made it about halfway. Though the most important book, the one that I’m most keen to talk about — Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels — I did get through twice. Fortunately for me, this interview is only going to be three or four hours. It’s not going to run for 30 hours, so we will be able to constrain ourselves to just the most effective altruist–relevant parts of your work.
Rob Wiblin: Before we get into reactions to your work, and reactions to those reactions, I’d be keen for listeners to get a sense of your worldview at a high level first — which, I guess they’ve been starting to get a taste of there with your answer about Brexit. Your first book, Why the West Rules—For Now, basically tries to explain why it is that Europeans ended up colonising much of the rest of the world, rather than, say, China sailing in and colonising Europe at the end of a gun. Why wasn’t that just as likely? Then you try to offer an answer. What’s the reason you conclude that history went in that direction, rather than the other?
Ian Morris: Why the West Rules—For Now was the first book, when I began to develop these ideas about the constraining and driving effects of geography on history. There’d been all these debates. So I started my work working on ancient Greece, and universities all over the West have these big departments of classics. They have Greek and Roman studies, and if you compare the size of those departments to, say, the size of the department studying ancient India or ancient China or something, the Greek and Roman people, we don’t feel this way, but we’ve got all the resources, all the power, everything is in our pockets.
Ian Morris: Inevitably, you ask yourself, “Well, why is that? Why has my team got all the goodies and the other team hasn’t?” And the answer, I think, is pretty clear. Back in the 18th century, when Europeans first started colonising and taking over the rest of the world, they asked themselves, “Well, how did this happen?” They have a big argument, but the conclusion they generally come to is there was something unique about ancient Greek civilisation that created this special European quality that makes us more scientific, more democratic — just kind of, we’re better than everybody else on the planet, and that’s why we’re now taking over the planet: because we’re the best.
Ian Morris: That theorem, for obvious reasons, got a little bit unpopular during the 20th century — it’s been pushed back into a corner a little bit, but it remains the guiding principle, really, even if classicists won’t come out and say it. It does remain the guiding principle. Then we get this big problem, starting as early as the 1960s with the Japanese economic takeoff, but then just exploding in the ’90s when China comes on the scene. If the explanation for Western domination of the last few hundred years has been that there’s something deep-seated — a long-term lock-in on Western superiority going back thousands of years — then what the heck is happening now? If this is innate in Western civilisation, that the West will dominate the world, how can China be roaring up on the West the way that it is?
Ian Morris: It just seemed to me, if you’re interested in ancient Greece and Rome, surely this is the fundamental question: what is their part in global history? So I start asking that, and as I do, I realise that I’ve got to dramatically scale up what I look at — to the whole planet, really, and then also chronologically. That you can’t understand this by looking at a few centuries or even a few millennia; you’re working on tens of thousands of years’ scale. So off I go, I plunge recklessly down this path into all these fields where I know almost nothing about them, and realised, “Well, I’m just going to have to learn something about these fields.”
Ian Morris: The conclusion I came to after spending several years thinking about this was that there’s a geographical pattern going back to the end of the last ice age — depending on where you draw the line, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago — where the first part of the world to have an agricultural revolution and to generate vastly more energy and power than anywhere else in the world is the western end of Eurasia, what we would now call the Middle East. Then, from that agricultural revolution, things spread out. The Mediterranean basin gets drawn in, centres of wealth and power migrate from the Middle East into the Mediterranean with Greeks and Romans. Meanwhile, there’s independent agricultural revolutions happening in China, India, Mexico, Peru, several other parts of the world as well.
Ian Morris: The big fact is the western end of Eurasia got this head start of about 2,000 years over the rest of the world, going down this path toward bigger, more complex societies. So other things being equal, we should not be totally surprised if the western end of the world carries on dominating the planet, because it’s just got this huge, two-millennium head start over everybody else.
Ian Morris: But once you get into the details, you realise, “Well, other things were not equal.” That is one of the big rules of history: other things are never equal. Other things were not equal. If it’s simply that the West got this head start all these thousands of years ago, then the West should stay ahead of everybody else throughout history. It doesn’t happen, though. I try to calculate who’s ahead, who’s behind, and develop this “index of social development,” I called it, as just a way of quantifying how well different parts of the world are doing at basically mastering their environment, getting what they want out of the world. There’s all kinds of interesting questions connected with trying to work this out, but this is what I felt I needed to do. I got this social development index.
Ian Morris: Why is it that China catches up on the index around 1,500 years ago, and then the West roars back and re-overtakes China again in the late 18th century? The story is a bit more complicated than it looks at first grasp, and you’ve got to understand the whole story right from the beginning if you’re really going to have answers to this question.
Ian Morris: That’s what got me down this global history path. Once I started looking down that particular way of thinking about the world, while I still find the particularised local histories just fascinating, obsessively interesting, I think it’s these big global questions that are the real problems that we ought to be trying to tackle.
Rob Wiblin: One of the problems with the deep cultural roots theory for Western dominance is that it does seem like China was as sophisticated, in some ways more sophisticated than Europe in 1600, maybe 1700 as well. Then you’re like, why did Europe suddenly take off and just blast ahead in 1800, when it’s not even obvious that just before that it was doing so much better? It seems like there has to be some more proximal explanation for what happened. Do you want to explain what your suggested explanation for that is?
Ian Morris: Yeah. The big thing that I realised while I was writing that book, Why the West Rules—For Now — which I had not grasped this entirely when I started the book — was the way that geography drives the story. But geography is a complicated thing. You say, “Geography drives history,” and anybody who studies history will give you a funny look at that point, because having read a lot of history, you know it’s a complicated thing. There’s stuff going on all over the place, trends are constantly in reverse, how could it possibly be that there’s a one-word answer to this question of, “Why the West rules for now?” Answer: geography.
Ian Morris: The reason there’s a one-word answer is that that word is quite complicated itself. Geography is multiple things. The physical geography of the world we’re in now is constantly changing. Although it hasn’t changed spectacularly since about 6000 BC — things are basically settling down after the ice age at that point. The basic forms of physical geography stayed more or less the same for 7,000, 8,000 years, but what has not stayed the same is the meanings of this geography.
Ian Morris: This is, again, obviously a theme running through all of my work, trying to understand how the relationship between geography, deep forces like that, and the agency of individual humans and the particularities of culture, how these interact. In this particular case, you’re thinking about eastern and western Eurasia over the last 15,000 years. I think the big issues here are that the agricultural revolution, for geographical reasons, happened first at the western end of Eurasia. It happened there because that, for geographical reasons, was where the wild precursors of wheat and barley and cattle and sheep and goats — all of these enormously important species of plants and animals — had all evolved in the Middle East. Geography is really unfair.
Ian Morris: Other things being equal — which of course, they’re not, but if they were — it would stand to reason that people in the Middle East would be the first ones to discover the secret of domestication, of basically taming the wild world to serve human purposes. And that’s exactly what happens. Not because Middle Easterners are cleverer than anybody else — it’s because geography stacked the deck so that they would almost certainly have the first agricultural revolution. Then the Chinese, Mexicans, they all have their agricultural revolutions later on. But having had that agricultural revolution, what that then does is change the direction that history is heading and the way societies are developing.
Ian Morris: One of the big things to understand about long-term history is the way that it’s a feedback process between the environment and human activity. So that as geography changes what people in the Middle East are doing, that then feeds back into what that geography means. You look at the long-term story, all kinds of complicated things going on. But the one that’s most relevant, I think, for our story is the way that by the 15th century, geography is beginning to collapse. People are beginning to be able to travel much, much longer distances.
Ian Morris: It’s a sort of ironical story in a lot of ways — I think a lot of what happens in history is ironical and paradoxical — that the big breakthroughs in the collapse of space and the conquest of distance are made by China. Because by the 12th century, China has emerged. China is now the great intellectual, economic centre on the planet. The Chinese have all these phenomenal breakthroughs: magnetic compasses, ships with watertight compartments within them, they build the first dry docks, they do extraordinary things in navigation, they build these great big ships.
Ian Morris: But one of the consequences of rising social development is larger and larger intellectual networks. Of course, everybody else finds out about what the Chinese are doing. Arab sailors in the Indian Ocean pick up on a lot of these ideas. The ideas get to the Mediterranean. There’s a little bit of debate over whether Europeans actually invented some of these things independently. I tend to think they didn’t, so it does all actually come from the East.
Ian Morris: But Europeans start building ships that are not like the Chinese ships of the 15th century, because these Chinese things are enormous — they’ve got so much money to spend. European ships are kind of a joke compared to the Chinese ones, they’re so tiny. There’s a famous picture, you can find it all over the internet, comparing Columbus’s flagship when he sails to the Americas with the Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s flagship when he sails all the way to East Africa — and you can barely see Columbus’s ship, it’s so tiny.
Ian Morris: But the Europeans — whether themselves or copying Eastern ideas — they get these ideas of how to build these ships that can cross oceans. They’ve got some of the same ideas now as the Chinese, but of course, Europe is not China. It’s a different place. In China, if you build an oceangoing ship and set sail across the Pacific — well, it can be done, we know it can be done, but it’s really unlikely that you will do it. You are, almost certainly, going to end up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It’s an enormous distance.
Rob Wiblin: It’s just so far.
Ian Morris: Yes, it’s 8,000 miles. And getting back again is very difficult because of the winds and tides. It could be done, but why the heck would you? No sane person is going to launch voyages to do that. Whereas, in Europe, to get to the Americas is actually not very difficult at all once you’ve got these ships that can do it: 3,000 miles, dramatically shorter. The winds and the tides are kind of obliging: if you set sail from Iberia, they’re kind of obliging for taking you to the Caribbean.
Ian Morris: In fact, among the first people to discover the position of the Americas is this guy who wasn’t even trying to go to America. He was trying to get to India, but the only way you can get to India in a ship from Europe is when you’re going down the west coast of Africa, you have to swing way out into the Atlantic Ocean. Otherwise, you’re facing these headwinds coming north up the African coast, you just can’t get down to the Cape. So you swing way the heck out into the Atlantic, and if you’re a little bit unlucky or a little bit incompetent, you run into Brazil.
Ian Morris: This is what this guy Cabral does in 1500: he runs into Brazil. And he, like everyone else, is convinced it’s not Brazil. He thinks it’s Asia. They all think they’ve gone to Asia. Columbus and John Cabot, all these guys, they all think they’ve gone to Asia. But then Cabral does this. He starts thinking about this, he says, “This can’t be right.” And there’s this other guy, Amerigo Vespucci is on one of these ships, he’s saying, “Yes, this can’t be right. This cannot be Asia.” Everybody told Columbus, “Yes, you can’t get to Asia. It’s just too damn far to get to Asia.” It’s kind of difficult not to run into the Americas. The Europeans do, the Europeans discover the Americas, and that is what catapults Europe to the front in development. Partly because of all the resources that are unleashed.
Ian Morris: But you asked about the intellectual side of China having all these ideas, more than the Europeans in 1500, 1600. What happens here is that the discovery of the Americas — the discovery of this North Atlantic highway to the rest of the planet — thrusts a new set of questions onto Europeans, and gives them an importance that they don’t have anywhere else in the world. Around 1500, if the famous alien from another world came to Earth and said, “Who is going to develop calculus first? Is it going to be an argument between Newton and Leibniz, or is it going to be Chinese mathematicians?”, you probably would’ve given the Chinese at least equal odds with the Europeans.
Ian Morris: But the thing is, the Europeans have got a lot more reason to solve a lot of these mathematical questions: if they can figure out how the winds and the tides actually move, and what principles are guiding the movements of the stars in the sky so you can navigate by them better, the potential for wealth is limitless. Newton and these guys, they’re not doing this to get rich; they’re serious scholars pursuing it for the sake of knowledge. But they can get funding in Europe, which they can’t always get in other parts of the world.
Ian Morris: Also, more to the point, the Europeans — not all of them, but some of them — start saying, “We don’t like guys like Isaac Newton.” The royal family in Britain weren’t thrilled about this guy: “He’s weird. All these academics are weird, they believe weird stuff. He’s got weird ideas about religion. Technically, he shouldn’t really be allowed to be in charge of any of these institutions because he’s not 100% Church of England guy. So we should be shutting him out. But we’re not going to shut him out because it’s worthwhile taking that risk on these eccentric academics saying stuff we don’t like, because the potential payoff from these guys is so enormous.” Some of the academics themselves see this. Galileo goes down to the shipyard, he talks to guys who make guns and ships, because he says, “Understanding this, this is what my science is ultimately all about.”
Ian Morris: I would say that’s the number one reason why Europe has a scientific revolution, not China. Not because the Europeans are more scientifically minded or cleverer than the Chinese: it’s that geography changes its meaning. New questions are on the table, new incentives to solve these problems, and it just turns out — although no one at the time could possibly have predicted this — that the questions that are put onto the European table are the ones that turn out to have this huge payoff across the 18th and 19th centuries. Whereas the questions the Chinese are trying to answer, these are not ones that turn out, over the next 200 years, to be the important ones.
Ian Morris: I think that is one of the big things, thinking about how you can use history to think about the future: you never, in the present, know what the big questions are going to be 100 years from now. Because how could you possibly know?
Rob Wiblin: If we knew what was going to happen, it wouldn’t be called research.
Ian Morris: Yes, exactly.
Rob Wiblin: This has actually taken us through a substantial part of your second book, The Measure of Civilization, where you looked over the last 15,000 years and tried to figure out how developed the eastern and western ends of Eurasia were at each point in time, and so which was in the lead civilisationally in some sense.
War! What is it Good For? [00:27:40]
Rob Wiblin: Moving on to your third book, War! What is it Good For?, you argue that contrary to common sense — perhaps common decency — a lot of wars in the past actually reduced the number of people dying violently on net. Though, of course, there are other wars that had the reverse effect and increased violent deaths a great deal. Can you quickly explain how it is that war and violence between states can be violence-reducing?
Ian Morris: It sounds like a weird thing, but when I started working on the long-term historical problems, one of the things I realised more and more the further I got into it, was how much my research, the principles guiding it, how much they were coming to resemble the way biological evolutionists work. So I’m not having to become a biologist, I’m not crawling around on my belly studying ants in the desert or anything like that, but the principles guiding it were starting to resemble evolutionary principles.
Ian Morris: What I mean is that what people at the time think is going on is not necessarily what’s going on. Just like bunny rabbits evolve into new forms, but the bunnies don’t have to understand DNA to do this — this happens because of the interaction between sex and natural selection, the environment around you — and realising that that was kind of the principle driving what was happening in history. This idea that geography drives history, but history drives what geography means: this is very similar to what biologists mean when they talk about an idea they call “niche construction theory.”
Ian Morris: Say that the environment changes. It changes the pressures of natural selection to being exerted on an animal’s reproduction. Different qualities about that animal start to be adapted, to give it fitness for the next generation. Something changes, and now running faster becomes a big advantage for survival for the next generation. So the bunnies that have mutations on their genes which make them run a little bit faster, their genes are going to spread to the gene pool. Bunnies are going to evolve in a new direction, and this is all done without anybody really understanding what’s going on.
Ian Morris: Then as the bunnies run in the new direction, that starts to feed back into the environment, because now all the slow-moving foxes can’t catch the bunnies anymore. They die of hunger. So now foxes evolve toward running faster as well. There’s constant feedback between the environment and the behaviour of the animals.
Ian Morris: This, I realised, was the story driving what had happened to the long-term history of violence. Initially, I hadn’t really planned to write a book about the long-term history of war. As you might know, writing about war has become very unfashionable among historians. There’s a feeling in the academy, if you write about war, you must be a warmonger, you’re a wicked person. So I hadn’t planned to go down this path. What happened?
Ian Morris: While I was writing Why the West Rules, I was giving chapters to various people to read for advice. I gave a chapter to my wife, who read it, and I was asking, “What do you think of it?” She said, “Oh, I liked it.” But I could tell there was a “but” lurking somewhere in the background here. So I get her to tell me what the “but” is. She says, “Well, but, boy, there’s a lot of killing in this story.” This is really true. I think, “Oh God, have I got it wrong? Am I overemphasising the violent part of the long-term story?” I go back and read it over. I realise, actually no, I don’t think I am. I think that I got the violence in more or less the right place. You can’t understand long-term history without coming to terms with the problem of violence.
Ian Morris: Why have the attempts to resolve so many of our problems in history been through recourse to violence? The minute I realised that, I realised I’ve got to write something about this. This is clearly one of the burning questions of our age. What made it more burning was I started rooting around in the literature on the long-term history of violence, and realised there’s something profoundly weird about the human animal. Lots of species of animals have evolved in directions that make them less likely to use violence. They change into new kinds of animals.
Ian Morris: Chimpanzees are the ones we know most about. Chimpanzees and this sub-kind, the bonobo chimpanzees, both evolved from a shared ancestor. Chimpanzees have turned into very violent animals, bonobos turned into extreme — compared to chimps — very nonviolent animals. Journalists often call them the “hippie chimps” — they’re make-love-not-war chimps, because rather fighting each other, they resort to group sex. It’s quite extraordinary what they get up to.
Ian Morris: This is something that goes on all the time. Environmental pressures push your biological evolution toward more or less different kinds of violence. Humans, we have not changed biologically all that much in the last 10,000 years. There are people who dispute this, but the evidence seems to strongly suggest that our rates of violent death have come down by 90% since the Stone Age. If you lived in the Stone Age, you would’ve been 10 times likelier to die violently than you are now, which is hard to get your mind around. Actually, The New York Times had a big feature on this just last week, trying to explain to people how this can possibly be — when we’re seeing stuff like the war in Ukraine on the news all the time — that this is the case. But it does seem to be the case.
Ian Morris: We are the only animal in the history of the world that’s evolved to be able to change our own culture through our acts of will. One of the things we’ve done is our cultures have evolved toward generally using less violence, and that has dramatically reduced the amount of violence in the world.
Ian Morris: So your question, how can war drive there being less war? Well, you look at the long-term history and ask yourself, what is driving this decline in the use of violence? Overwhelmingly — again, all these things are debated, everybody’s had a different theory — but it seems to me overwhelmingly the big force driving down rates of violent death is the creation of governments, powerful governments that can provide incentives to people not to use violence. This is not an original idea. A lot of your listeners, I’m sure, immediately recognise that Thomas Hobbes floated more or less this idea in the 17th century. I think Hobbes basically got it right. This has been the driver overwhelmingly driving down the rates of violent death.
Ian Morris: If you want to put it bluntly: governments scare their people straight. Why do governments do this? It’s not because governments are run by saints. Far from it. The people who create the governments are the masters of violence: people who are really, really good at using force. What the government does is it says, “I want you to shut up and go out there and plough your fields and pay your taxes. I do not want you killing your family, burning down your neighbour’s farm and stealing all his crops and not paying taxes.” This is the recurring theme. “So if you go and burn your neighbour’s farm down, I’m going to come down there with way more force than you can muster, I’m going to murder you, I’m going to sell your family into slavery, and I’m going to desolate your farm so that no one will ever live there again. That’s the offer I am making you.”
Rob Wiblin: And it’s a strong offer.
Ian Morris: People generally say, “When you put it like that…” So this is what governments do. Our own governments, they don’t say it quite so bluntly, but this is what it’s about. Ultimately, men with guns will come to your house and kill you if you don’t do what the government says. The way this works, where do these governments come from? The governments come from violence. The governments come from people using force to set themselves up above everybody else, and then say, “I alone have the legitimate right to use violence within this territory.” Which is a kind of nasty way to think about history. I think you have to focus on the nasty stuff sometimes.
Ian Morris: We are the ultimate beneficiaries of a really, really long history of violence. As people in the past used violence and created these larger governments, they changed the environment in which we live and made it into one where using violence on a casual basis becomes less and less profitable, and drives the violence down. It sounds like a paradoxical idea — that force has created these institutions, which then leads to there being less force — but to any evolutionists, they’ll say, “Yes, of course, that’s how evolution works.”
Rob Wiblin: Exactly. Basically, there are particular times in history where you get an agglomeration of a massive empire. Like the Roman Empire, for example, which is formed through absolutely brutal violence that we could never stomach. Yet, once the Roman Empire is formed, once people are subject to this leviathan, to this immensely powerful government, then that government — in the interest of maintaining the empire, raising the taxes, and having a powerful army to defend itself and go and conquer other groups — strongly prevents quarrelling between people within the empire. And even between nobility within the empire, who typically tend to feud an awful lot, and kill one another terribly frequently when there isn’t an emperor and a strong military to stop them.
Rob Wiblin: You call those “constructive wars” or “productive wars,” where an empire and a strong government is formed. Of course, there’s lots of other wars where empires fall apart. There, you get not only the immediate death and destruction caused by the war, but then also the loss of order afterwards, which results in kind of a double blow, where people are both dying during the war, then afterwards as a result of the political consequences. It’s a very interesting way of looking at things.
Rob Wiblin: You also point out that there’s a long-term trend towards stronger states, larger states and their ability to suppress violence internally. Which I guess we see today, where the formation of Great Britain was an extremely violent process that I’m very glad I didn’t have to live through, but now the island that I live on doesn’t have an awful lot of murder. I’m going to walk home tonight and I’m not going to be too worried about getting stabbed. You know, slightly, but a lot less than I would have in the 16th century.
Ian Morris: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think the key thing here in what you were just saying, you mentioned the Roman Empire being formed through levels of violence we could never tolerate, we could not stomach this kind of thing today. I think that’s absolutely right, and this is one of the great things about the world that we live in: on the whole, it’s so much more peaceful than in any earlier time of history.
Ian Morris: But it’s not a one-way street. This is, I think, one of the big things: the geography and the development of the societies feed off each other, but nothing is ever set in stone. The Roman example is a great example of this. The Roman Empire falls to bits. It creates this larger, safer world, where the rates of violent death within the empire go significantly down, although never down as far as what we’ve seen in very modern times. In so doing, it changes the larger environment and creates these opportunities for the opportunistic actors to use violence in pursuit of their own ends. They look around the Roman Empire and say, “Hey, right now, here on the frontier, there’s nobody really in the position to come clobber me if I come in there and just steal stuff,” because the Roman Empire has become so peaceful.
Ian Morris: Again, it’s something which is entirely familiar to evolutionists. This idea that as the whole system evolves, it changes the costs and benefits. They often talk about it in terms of game theory. Within the game that all the individual actors are playing, it may be for long periods your reproductive success will be highest if you become what evolutionists would call a dove, a nonviolent actor. The more nonviolent everybody else becomes, the more opportunities there are for a clever hawk, a clever violent actor, to step into this situation and score some quick wins. Of course, you run a risk of provoking everybody else to turn on you.
Ian Morris: A lot of social scientists look at the rise of Adolf Hitler precisely this way. The western European powers after the First World War make it very clear that the attitude of their governments is, “Never again. We will never repeat the horror of the Somme again.” So basically a scumbag, like Hitler, can look at this and say, “Oh, opportunities for me.” Then you can act forcefully, like he does in the Rhineland, and move into the Sudetenland. And if you are a really clever player, you can cash out and maximise. But if you’re a complete crackpot, you’re not going to do that. You’re going to keep going until the weight of the entire planet comes down onto you, which is what happened to Adolf Hitler. Nothing is written in stone. No, there’s no guarantees of any outcome.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. This theory might raise some eyebrows among the listeners, but we’ll try to come back to some of those doubts that people might have later on in the conversation.
Expectations for the future [00:39:43]
Rob Wiblin: This isn’t about a book specifically, but something you regularly talk about in your books is that you think history shows that the future could be very different than the present. But also that the future is extremely hard to predict, and the human enterprise, for better or worse, faces a very substantial risk of both becoming a lot better or completely falling apart. Can you briefly say something about your expectations for the future? Like the scenarios that seem plausible to you?
Ian Morris: Yeah. When I was writing Why the West Rules–For Now, I developed this index of social development I was talking about. This is a way of measuring how effective different societies were at imposing their will on the world, getting stuff from the world. It traced Eastern and Western development over time, the way both Eastern and Western development has just exploded since about 1800. Western development had started doing this slightly earlier, and had done it much faster. To begin with, the West had really leapt ahead, and in the 19th and 20th centuries had come to dominate much of the planet in ways that had never been seen before.
Ian Morris: This was all cool and fun to do. I enjoyed it very much. Then it occurred to me at one point, could we not project these trends forward and ask ourselves, other things being equal — which we know they never are in history — what will happen over the coming 100 years if Eastern and Western development continue increasing at the same rates they have been across the last 100 years? So I do this. I get out my calculator and do the math, and discover the Eastern and Western lines. After the Western development score started pulling ahead so quickly, the Eastern development score is now gaining on it. They will cross each other, and then there’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek calculation. I was able to compute this down to the exact year in which the lines will cross each other.
Ian Morris: Fantastic prediction, by the way. They will cross each other in the year 2103. The reason this is such a great prediction is it does the two things predictions must always do. Firstly, it’s precise. We get to 2104, and Eastern development has not yet caught up with Western, you’ll know I was wrong. You will not invite me back on the podcast. On the other hand, in the year 2104, I’m dead. Any good prediction must play out after the author is dead. This is one of the great secrets of predicting. I celebrate this prediction though.
Rob Wiblin: Maybe we’ve got to get you a cryonics plan so we can hold you to account at some point. Sorry, go on.
Ian Morris: Maybe so. So I make this prediction, other things being equal, Eastern development catches up with Western in 2103, or around about the end of this century. Let’s say somewhere around there. Now, the big thing is, of course, “other things being equal.” Are other things going to be equal? Well, we’re talking about the future, so nobody knows. You can look at the way these big long-term trends have worked in the past and ask yourself, what kind of countervailing forces do they tend to generate? What kind of things might happen so that other things are not equal, or might happen so other things actually do turn out to be equal?
Ian Morris: So I start looking at my graphs and my trends. I realise there’s actually a little bit more going on in this graph than what I had been talking about so far. When we’re talking about asking when does the Eastern line catch up with the Western, we’re talking here about the horizontal axis, the timeline on my graph. At what point on the timeline do the lines cross each other? What if we look at the vertical axis, the number of points on this development index?
Ian Morris: The huge thing on the development index is the way the scores have jumped so much over the last couple of hundred years, up to the point where now, the Western development scores run to about 1,000 points on this development index I developed, and the Eastern score is gaining on it. If they carry on upward at the same rates in the 21st century as they did in the 20th, by the time the lines cross, they will both be at around 5,000 points. That means a 4,000-point jump in one century, which is roughly nine times the amount of increase that we’ve currently seen since the end of the ice age.
Ian Morris: Now, that was when my mind truly boggled, when I realised what the implications of the data I’d been looking at were. Five times as much changes in the last century, nine times as much as since the end of the last ice age. I realised that if these data are anywhere near reality, bear any resemblance to the truth whatsoever, this means that the coming 100 years is going to see more change in the human condition than the previous 100,000 years have seen.
Ian Morris: I should say, this strikes some people as a slightly incredible claim to make. Just an absurd claim to make. The very nature of what it is to be a human being is going to change if other things continue in the way they have been doing. The obvious reason why that is actually not a ridiculous claim at all is that in many ways, the human condition has already changed more in the last 100 years than it did in the previous 100,000 years.
Ian Morris: We have seen men with no legs running in the Olympic Games. If you’d said that to your great-great-grandparents, they would’ve said this was magic. We can already intervene into the genetics of unborn children, turn them into something that nature has not made them. This is magic. We already have godlike powers at our disposal. It’s just that compared to where they’ll be 100 years from now, if other things remain equal, what we’re doing now is laughable. It’s child’s play.
Ian Morris: This is where the mind begins to boggle. The question I had to ask myself is, of course, where might this take us? What are the truly paradigm-shattering things that are happening in our own world? There’s a lot of them. The nature of violence is actually one of the big ones. The introduction of nuclear weapons into the world, I think, is one of the big things driving rates of violence down so dramatically in the last 75 years. We’ve changed the world we live in, in that way. The truly earth-shattering one, I think, is this growing synthesis of genetics, nanotechnology, computing power. We really are changing what it means to be a human being.
Ian Morris: Going back to my obsession with geography, a lot of these changes in these revolutionary transformations have been geographically driven. There’s a reason why they’ve been pioneered in the West. But they are changing the meanings of geography more than just about anything that has ever happened. We are able to do this podcast. I can see you. Here I am, I’m sitting 6,000 miles away from you. I can see you. I can talk to you. We can do all this magic jiggery-pokery with the computers, which was unthinkable 100 years ago.
Ian Morris: If we weren’t able to do this, I could jump on a plane and it would still be a pain in the neck to fly 11 hours to get to London to do this. But compared to taking a wagon train to New York City and then a sail to Bristol, come on. We have changed the meaning of geography. A lot of geographers will now say we are on the cusp of robbing geography of its meanings altogether. This is where the thing just gets absolutely mind-boggling.
Ian Morris: I wrote this book, Why the West Rules–For Now, and the answer to the question is that geography explains it — geography and its interaction with human development. But if I’m right about this stuff, then the question itself will cease to have meaning. What is it even going to mean, to talk about East and West, if we are entering a world where our consciousnesses will all be beamed up to the great database in the sky, and we’re going to be merged into one giant thinking organism that has trillions of times the cognitive power of all of the humans in the world today combined. We’ve gone beyond Star Trek.
Ian Morris: These questions are going to cease to have meaning, if that’s what’s happened. That is the great question: do we play out the 5,000 points trend, or do we play out the zero points trend? Which I think is the other alternative. The big conclusion I came to is that no middle path is really possible here. We don’t get to have a future where it’s kind of like the present, but a bit shinier, and a bit faster, and stuff works better. That is not an option.
Rob Wiblin: I think I have relatively radical views of how the future could go, including, like you’re saying, maybe in the future people will live on the cloud. We’ll have our brains uploaded and life will be completely unrecognisable. Or alternatively, we could all be completely destroyed in some absolute catastrophe that literally eliminates the species that we’re a part of. Some people have an intuitive scepticism to that. They’re like, “These are outrageous claims. These are incredible claims.”
Rob Wiblin: I think for some people, the reason that they’re so sceptical isn’t so much that they haven’t thought that much about the future. I think it’s part that they haven’t spent a lot of time studying deep history. Because to me, saying that we could go extinct and everything could collapse, or everything could completely change and be very unrecognisable, isn’t an outrageous claim, because all I’m saying is that things that have already happened in the past might happen again in future. You look at the past, you just see this constant series of amazing things happening — like the Roman Empire — and then it all just falls apart.
Rob Wiblin: You’re like, well, at least collapse seems like it’s a plausible option, because it’s happened so many times before. You’re also thinking, well, couldn’t information technology, couldn’t AI, couldn’t genetic engineering completely revolutionise the human experience? Because the Industrial Revolution already has revolutionised the human experience so much. This will just be a repeat of an event that is completely precedented. So the baseline, the prior scepticism, isn’t so high, I think, the more you know about how our age is in no way typical of the human experience whatsoever.
Ian Morris: I think the outrageous way to think about the future is to not think outrageously — that is what’s outrageous. Everything that we’ve been living through for 200 years now suggests that one way or another, we are going to see changes that we cannot even begin to imagine. Again, like you said, I think the obvious way to think about this is to think back and look at how people in the 18th century looked to the future. They had no idea that anything like what we are living through was going to happen.
Ian Morris: I went through this phase where I got obsessed with reading classic science fiction: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells. What did futurists of 100 years ago see and get right, and what did they see and get wrong? Often, they get an awful lot of stuff right. But what they don’t see — because there’s really no way to see — was not like going to the Moon and this kind of thing, because that’s just a projection forward of current trends: further, faster travel. That was already happening. What they don’t see is that there can be something like the internet, or that we can get inside the gene and change these sorts of things. Those are absolutely unseeable.
Ian Morris: The really bad outcomes, there’s nothing outrageous about suggesting we go extinct. 99.99% of all the species of animals and plants that have ever existed have gone extinct. If you think we are not going to go extinct, I think you’re living in a fantasy world. We’re going to go extinct. The question is, what are the conditions under which we go extinct? In my books, I started talking about this as a “nightfall-versus-singularity” choice.
Ian Morris: The “singularity” is a term that got popularised by thinkers here in Silicon Valley for a point, they would all say in the very near future, where we brilliant technologists are being so brilliant, that change starts to happen at a speed that basically becomes instantaneous. Everything changes into everything else, infinitely fast. And we get launched forward into this “all living on the giant’s database in the sky” scenario. That is the singularity.
Ian Morris: The nightfall scenario, I took that name from one of the best science fiction stories ever written by Isaac Asimov. I’m sure many of your listeners will know it probably.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I’ve read it.
Ian Morris: It’s a classic. Basically, every 10,000 years or so, this planet goes mad. Everybody completely destroys civilisation, burns it down, they start up again from zero. Actually, one of the good news things about studying long-term histories is we never go back to zero. In the past at least, we’ve never gone back to zero. The bad news in the past is that every time there’s been a major shift in the distribution of wealth and power in the world — like the one we’re living through now, the shift from West to East — it’s always been accompanied by massive violence. Without exception, massive violence.
Ian Morris: That’s why we all have to hope that I am right in my book about the history of war, that we have driven down rates of violent death by 90%, we humans. We know how to do it by the building of these big, strong governments. We know what sorts of forces can derail that trend. For goodness’ sake, let us not derail it. Let’s keep it going, because the great difference between now and any other historical comparison is that now, we really do have the power to destroy all life on the planet.
Ian Morris: Actually, not right now, some more good news. Since the 1980s, the number of nuclear warheads in the world has come down by roughly 90%. In the ’80s, we probably had enough destructive power in our 70,000 nuclear warheads that we had in 1986 to end all life on the planet. Now, we don’t. Now, we probably cannot kill everybody on the planet at one go. Although, if we used all the nukes in the world at one go, we could make a major, major dent in life on this planet. Potentially could set off chain reactions that we don’t understand. There’s biological reactions that do lead to life going extinct. We just don’t know. We have the power to do this.
Ian Morris: For the first time in history, nightfall is now a serious possibility, if we want to go that way. But we don’t have to go that way. We understand enough about history, I think, to know the kinds of things we need to do to avoid it.
Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels [00:53:15]
Rob Wiblin: Pushing onto your most recent book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, there you argue that societies develop moral values and moral justifications and systems of organisation that basically allow them to extract the energy source that they’re relying on as efficiently as possible or as much as possible. Or alternatively, I conceptualised it as having more values that are conducive to producing an awful lot of GDP, at least in the modern world. On this view, our economic base has more influence on our moral thinking than might be immediately obvious. Perhaps our moral thinking has less influence on the economy than it might seem. Can you flesh out that idea a bit?
Ian Morris: Yes, I’d say there is a bit more to it than that. Again, it comes out of this thing about thinking about history biologically. I was invited to go and do the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University, which is run by the Centre of the Study of Human Ethics. This is a big deal, big honour within academia, so I couldn’t really say no to it. But I was a bit alarmed when they invited me, because I’d never written anything about ethics in my life. What should I say? Why did they invite me? I realised they invited me precisely because of the kind of work I’ve been doing.
Ian Morris: As I turned toward world history and started thinking about history in more evolutionary terms, my explanations became very materialist. I increasingly saw big forces like geography are very, very important in driving this story. Some historians were horrified by this. They’d say this is writing human agency out of the story. This was why they’d invited me, precisely because I was saying things which are fundamentally opposed to a lot of the work that these ethicists are doing.
Ian Morris: I thought, OK, I need to think systematically about what the implications of my work are for discussions of human values and why we are the way we are. The thing that strikes me most about human values is how variable they are: you can go to two communities quite close to each other geographically, and they will have entirely different attitudes about things like gender relationships, whether hierarchy is a good or a bad thing, all kinds of stuff like this, wildly different ideas about this. The malleability of our values is the thing that really struck me.
Ian Morris: I think that comes about because, unlike other animals, we have evolved biologically to the point where we can also evolve culturally. We have cumulative cultural evolution which is something that really no other species of animal exactly has. We can think up new ways to do things. We can tweak these, add to them over the centuries. Just like every other kind of animal, we act in response to the environments in which we live. But unlike any other kind of animal, we can do so cumulatively, changing the way we behave without having to evolve biologically into a different kind of animal.
Ian Morris: When elephants migrate to the edge of Siberia and discover, “Oh, it’s really cold in Siberia, we can’t go there,” they stop until they evolve biologically into animals that are hairy — woolly mammoths — which of course they eventually do, and in they go and they live there very successfully. On the other hand, humans migrate and spread to the edge of Siberia. They say, “Oh, it’s really cold there. What can we do about this? I know, let’s kill something and steal its skin and fur and wrap ourselves in it, and in we go.” This is precisely what they do. No other animal can do this.
Ian Morris: Looking at human values, we see not only this tremendous variability between societies but also these big long-term patterns. Through 90-odd% of our history on Earth, humans were hunter-gatherers who were living off wild plants and wild animals, mostly in quite small groups, migrating, moving around a lot to follow wild plants and animals as they move around and ripen. This has severe constraints on what you can do and the amount of energy you can capture from your environment. The fact that you’ve got to move constantly strictly limits what you can do.
Ian Morris: What anthropologists have found is overwhelmingly — not 100%, but overwhelmingly — forager, hunter-gatherer societies tend to be very, very egalitarian in terms of gender relationships, political relationships, economic relationships. Very egalitarian. Why are they like this? Is it because eating wild rice makes you feel like a saint and you want to sing “Kumbaya” and hug everybody? Well, no, that’s ridiculous. It’s because we are free to organise our societies in any way that we want.
Ian Morris: But say, the 17th century France of Louis the 14th, the Sun King: if you try to run that as a forager in the Kalahari Desert, it’s not going to work. You can’t run your society like that. The people who move toward egalitarian organisational principles flourish better than the ones who don’t. Over time — we don’t know how much time — people start saying to themselves, “Well, clearly, this is right. This is the way you should run the world. People are all the same. You should treat them all the same. That is only right and proper.”
Ian Morris: But then we have the agricultural revolution. Farming societies come into the world. In farming societies, overwhelmingly, people see the world in an entirely different way. They’re staying in one place now, growing domesticated plants and animals, generating much more energy. But there’s also all these things you’ve got to do. You can’t run these societies unless you build roads, you have ports, you build big ships, you have organisation, you have irrigation — all these things have got to be done.
Ian Morris: There’s a lot of different ways to do these things, but the way that historically clearly won out was top-down, hierarchical organisation. People in farming societies overwhelmingly — when the evidence allows us to see this — say, “People are all different and we all know this. Everybody’s different; no two people are identical. People are all different. Therefore, the fundamental moral principle should be that you treat people differently, with fairness.”
Ian Morris: If you’re a hunter-gatherer, “fairness” means treating everybody the same. In a farming society, fairness means recognising their differences: you’ll say, “The Pharaoh of Egypt is so rich, so powerful, that only a complete idiot would say the Pharaoh is the same kind of animal that you and I are.” In lots of places they’d say, “Our kings are like the gods, must be descended from gods.” In Egypt they say, “No, Pharaoh is a god. That is the only possible explanation for the world that we see. Common sense tells us Pharaoh is a god.”
Ian Morris: We live in a world where you need a lot of labour in your fields, especially if you’re rich and you’ve got big fields. You can’t work yourself. But we also live in a world where it’s hard to generate enough surplus from agriculture to pay wages, so they’re going to attract free labourers to come and work for you. So what do you do? You go to free, poor people and say, “Here’s this deal, come and work for me, or I will break your legs. How about that for a deal?” Free people tend to say, “Yes, OK, if those really are the alternatives.” These societies — this is what we see in their literary productions — evolve towards saying, “This is actually right and proper.”
Ian Morris: Take Aristotle, one of the cleverest guys who ever lived in the history of the world. You think you’re cleverer than Aristotle, you’re kidding yourself. Aristotle says, “Slavery is natural. The gods made humans so that some of us only realise our full potential when we are working for someone else, giving us orders. That is when we become fully actualised humans and other people only become fully actualised by having someone else do the labour for them and going on living this richer, intellectual life.”
Ian Morris: You might say, “Oh, this is terrible, this is horrible,” but this is how almost every society on Earth functioned for 5,000 years. Are they all wrong? This is the question we’ve got to ask ourselves. Then of course, what makes this question so problematic for us is that when the Industrial Revolution happens, we get this explosion of energy. There’s this debate that gets going over what is the best kind of society to generate and to use all that energy.
Ian Morris: Two big theories come out. One is the Western democratic theory: the more you push decision making down in the hierarchy — the freer you make people, basically — the better everything is going to go. You take away all these old prejudices about gender relations, women come into the workforce, hey, you just doubled the size of the labour pool. Old prejudices about how Jews should not be allowed to own property or something. Turns out in 18th century England, you start allowing Jews to own property. That works out really well for all the other rich people too. All these old prejudices just start disintegrating, slavery goes from being absolutely natural and reasonable to being absolutely unthinkable in the course of two centuries. Magic.
Ian Morris: But then you get this other idea, like the Soviet idea, the Nazi idea: no, centralise everything, run it from the top down. That is the best way to run these high-energy, super-efficient organisations. Nobody is telling us how to do this. We have to figure it out for ourselves. Yet our decisions are constrained by these vast material forces of geography, of energy. It’s like we’re trying to figure out all the time what is going to be the most productive, most useful, and most rewarding way for us as individuals to run these societies?
Historical methodology [01:02:35]
Rob Wiblin: We’ll come back to Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels in just a second, but let’s for now talk a little bit about historical methodology. Because I reckon a lot of people in the audience are probably quite open to the ideas that we’ve discussed above being right, but they might have a bunch of scepticism about how strong the historical evidence can ever be to support such big-picture claims about so many different societies, so many different places, so many different people, so many different eras. Why might unravelling answers to the kinds of questions that you’ve set yourself and tried to answer above be more viable than it might intuitively appear?
Ian Morris: Yes, this is the big methodological question for the kind of work that I started doing, because in a lot of ways, asking questions on this scale drives you to being very anti-historical. Even though they’re historical questions, methodologically, you become anti-historical.
Ian Morris: What happened with historians and a lot of other academic disciplines is in the 19th century, you get these new skills that are getting developed, which are basically about going to the very bottom of the problem, and being historical, being scientific about what you’re doing. People start saying, “The only way we can really know anything scientifically about the past is by going to the archives, where all the primary documents from the past are stored, and reading all the primary documents that are relevant to the question you’re asking — every single one ever produced. You go to the very bottom of the well and then you have a scientifically valid answer to the question.”
Ian Morris: This is an absolute breakthrough. This transforms the way we do history. It’s one of the biggest ideas in the history of scholarship. It’s phenomenal. But it does generate a problem, which is that as we generate more and more primary data, it gets harder and harder to go to the bottom and read everything. The sort of questions you’re able to ask and answer in this way get narrower and narrower and narrower. Most make fun of this trend among academics, and rightly so, to get to these ridiculous tiny questions that some people ask. Yet in a way, that’s the only way to be a valid scientist.
Ian Morris: The challenge is, how do we hang on to the seriousness of modern scholarship while asking the bigger questions that people actually care about? When you’re starting to answer these things, you’re walking this tightrope all the time, that you cannot follow the standard, traditional historical practice of reading absolutely everything relevant. I cannot read every document, study every individual artefact ever found, study the entire history of the planet. It’s just ridiculous to think that.
Ian Morris: So you start having to behave more like social scientists do, or even natural scientists do, which is you take things on trust. You say, “There are other scholars out there. I’m never going to be an absolute master of mediaeval Chinese poetry, but there are a bunch of absolute masters out there, some of them at my university. I have to take things on trust.” But the problem is, if you are a serious scholar, you know that all other serious scholars disagree about absolutely everything.
Ian Morris: This is why I always worry a little bit when I read big history books written by people who didn’t start off themselves in old-fashioned, traditional academic disciplines. If you haven’t done that, you just don’t know the kind of knife fights that go on in the long grass over these tiny little details. If you don’t at least understand how the arguments have been waged, you’re not in a position to say, “OK, here I’ve got three world-famous experts disagreeing about the details of the domestication of maize in Mexico 8,000 years ago. Which am I going to believe? Whose story is more plausible?” You’re just not in a position to judge that, unless you at least know how the arguments get waged.
Ian Morris: But the ultimate answer to your question is that you have no guarantees: you never know when you’re getting it right. That’s because nobody ever knows when they’re getting it right. There’s a great saying they have in the natural sciences that I think we sometimes forget in the humanities: “All science is revisable, no knowledge is ever final.” You’ve just got to embrace that. You do your best, knowing you’re never going to be right.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess I thought you might say something around, obviously, you can never know even all of the details about a single battle, let alone a war or let alone a single civilisation, and you’re trying to talk about dozens of them, hundreds of them. But at some level of abstraction, a lot of those details don’t tend to matter very much. You can potentially look at a map of just how the Roman Empire grew and shrank over time and how the Chinese empires grew and shrank over time and infer things from that. That big-picture information might be more reliable than a lot of the details that people are stuck arguing about. You can just look at the most solid, simple information, and then try to see trends from that. Is that part of what makes this enterprise viable at all?
Ian Morris: Yes, it definitely is. But I think again, as a big historian, there’s no way you can honestly cut yourself off from the small list. It does ultimately all funnel back to the small stuff. One of the things I like to tell younger scholars who are thinking about going down this path is, “Don’t go down the big history path unless you’re comfortable with being wrong 100% of the time.” Because you’ll know that going in. You never ask yourself, “Am I right about X?” because the answer is always going to be no. The question you ask yourself is, “I know I’m wrong about whatever it is I’m saying. Am I so wrong that this invalidates the larger sets of claims that I’m making?” Of course, the only way you could ever know if you’re so fundamentally wrong about this, is by going back to the little history. That’s where you generate your hypotheses about the big histories: by reading the little history. The little history is where you come back to, again, to test your hypotheses.
Ian Morris: I actually just wrote a paper about this for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, which had this special feature on why evolutionary thinking has not been more successful in humanistic fields. The point I was trying to make in this paper in Evolutionary Psychology is that evolutionary history — looking at the big term and thinking about it the way a biologist would think about biological evolution — is never going to take off until the people doing the little history and the people doing the big history are at least on the same page, methodologically and theoretically. Then the people doing the little history will be more willing to say, “OK, I can use this as a test of some of these ground theories” — which is what you do if you are an anthropologist. You go off on a new study.
Ian Morris: There’s these famous studies of a group called the Nuer in what’s now South Sudan in the 1930s. The guy went off there to study Nuer violence and Nuer politics. He didn’t do this because he was obsessively interested in South Sudanese culture. He did this because he realised that the Nuer, this was a really good laboratory in a way for asking big questions, for actually asking Hobbes’s question about how societies without organised governments manage violence within themselves. He said, “If I go and study the Nuer, that might give me this crucial insight into the answer to this bigger question.”
Ian Morris: I think one of the difficulties we have with big history at the moment is not enough people who are primarily working at the small scale, who want to use the small scale to try to answer the big questions. Or at least to nuance and clarify the big questions. There is this sort of “us and them” attitude. Like, say, Steve Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist writes this book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the decline of violence. The general response to that among humanists has been to tear it down, rather than to say, “Can we test it? If the hypothesis fails to meet the standards and gets falsified by my test, what does that tell us? Does it actually mean everything you’re saying is wrong, or does it mean we need to push the theory in different directions?” — the way somebody would do in physics, for example.
Ian Morris: I think this is the ground you get into once you start going down the big history path. It’s not just a matter of “Have you accounted for all the details?” anymore. Things begin to get much more complicated.
Rob Wilbin: People are often sceptical that we can figure out the causes and effects of different things that are going on around us right now. Like who won elections and why? Why did people’s views about this or that policy issue change? Why did Russia invade Ukraine? People are having stand-up fights about that kind of thing as it’s going on. It seems like it should be much, much harder to explain things in the past, given that we have just scattershot artefacts sometimes — sometimes small amounts of written evidence from biased sources, and sometimes no written sources whatsoever. What can you say about how that isn’t quite as fatal a flaw in the enterprise as it might seem?
Ian Morris: The kind of questions you ask does matter a lot here. One of the classic things for the ancient Greek historian is this question of why did the Peloponnesian War break out? This war between Athens and Sparta started in 431 BC. The historian Thucydides, who lived through it, has this very famous bit at the beginning of his history, telling us why the war broke out. This is great for historians. You can assign the relevant readings to your students. You can discuss it in seminar. It is really great. One of the things that students will normally say is, “We can never answer this question, because we just don’t have enough information about what different people were thinking.”
Ian Morris: So I like to pair this with some readings about the discussions of why the US invaded Iraq in 2003, where we are drowning in information. Or actually an even better one, which I do sometimes, is the outbreak of World War I in 1914, where of course the government documents have been declassified even. We are just drowning in information. You could never ever read it all. Yet the question remains the same as for the Peloponnesian War. The answers remain the same as for the Peloponnesian War.
Ian Morris: It’s that sometimes the sheer quantity of information is not the issue. It’s the question — why did a specific war happen? — that we are probably unlikely ever to be able to answer, at least to everybody’s satisfaction. Because it’s not a matter of, is this one we can answer or not? It’s more a matter of, how large a pool, out of the interested people, are likely to find this answer convincing? There’s always going to be some people who just will not believe the glaring, obvious truth. You’re never going to convince everybody all the time, but there are some things for which you can provide answers that do convince large numbers of people, or at least some answers will be ruled out of course altogether. If you say, “Winston Churchill caused World War II,” the way Adolf Hitler liked to say, that’s obviously ridiculous — because the chronology just doesn’t work, for one thing. Some answers are just absolutely ridiculous.
Ian Morris: But there are answers where you can partially convince people. Then there are much broader answers. We maybe can’t say why World War I broke out in the specific detail of why it began that day, with those particular participants and was fought in that specific way. But we can answer questions like, why did it become so much more likely after about 1870 that there was going to be a major great power war? Why did so many politicians start saying, “Oh boy, this is going to happen”? In this sense, it’s not like it becomes inevitable, because I would say nothing in history is ever inevitable. It’s more like you change the odds. You’re rolling the dice all the time. Conflicts are brewing all the time.
Ian Morris: Before about 1870, on the whole, most European leaders think it’s kind of unlikely we’re going to have a major great power war, because this system we’ve got in place, dominated by the British economy, makes it such that the benefits of starting a major power war generally don’t outweigh the costs. It’s possible, but it’s not likely it’s going to happen. Then after 1870, increasingly they said, “Oh my goodness, this is just getting scarier and scarier.” It’s like a gazillion reasons why Archduke Ferdinand did not have to die that day in the summer of 1914. It’s heartbreaking when you get into the details. So many things, if one little thing had gone right, if the bodyguard had been standing on the correct side of the car, he wouldn’t have died. World War I would not have happened. Yet the odds that something like World War I was going to happen anyway within the next 20 years was just becoming overwhelming. Every time you rolled the dice, it got more likely that you’ve got a World War I-ish outcome.
Ian Morris: That is the kind of thing I think we can talk about quite plausibly here. Not the specific wars, but the general trends: What made a great power war more likely? Why is it we are now living through a time when a great power war is spectacularly more likely than it was 20 years ago?
Falsifiable alternative theories [01:15:20]
Rob Wiblin: When you’re writing your books and trying to justify some of the claims that you make, do you have a general epistemology that guides you to say, “This is a strong piece of evidence for the claim I want to make, and this other thing I’m going to leave out, because this just isn’t persuasive enough”?
Ian Morris: Yes. I try whenever possible to talk about the big trends, not specific individual pieces of evidence. The ideal case is when you can tie the big trends down. Say with the geographical arguments about why the West came to dominate, if I am broadly right, then we should see certain sets of things happening again and again and again, and other things not happening so much. Not that they never happen, it’s just that they don’t happen very much, if I am broadly right. And my thesis can be falsified if you can show that the other stuff which I say shouldn’t happen, in fact does happen.
Ian Morris: A gratifying number of times, somebody clever will figure out some way to tie a big theory down to some specific body of evidence that actually tests it. That’s the gold standard when you can do that. With my theory about the importance of geography, one of the consequences should be that the big turning points — where clearly something major is happening — should not really be explicable just by the whims and quirks of one wacky statesman somewhere. I think that by and large, it passes that test, and that’s a really good thing, because there’s a lot of places where you might test the theory.
Ian Morris: One of the classic ones is, why is it that Europeans rather than Chinese discover the New World? We’re looking at 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th centuries here, and the Chinese famously build these oceangoing fleets that could have got to the west coast of the New World if they’d wanted to. Some quite famous historians who should know better will say, “It was all the whims of one or two guys.” Henry the Navigator, this prince in Portugal, puts a bunch of money into R&D, helps the funding of these fancy new ships. Absolutely true.
Ian Morris: Chinese emperors decide, “We’re going to close down these big oceangoing fleets, not have them sail thousands of miles across oceans anymore.” Absolutely true. But then look at the details. Why do Chinese emperors close down these fleets? It’s actually not because a Chinese emperor is a nutcase and a fool and closes them down.
Rob Wiblin: He just happens to hate ships. It’s a personal distaste.
Ian Morris: It doesn’t happen once. This is, I think, the big thing for big history: things that don’t happen once. It happens over and over again. It’s not like one time a guy says, “No more fleets,” and it stops. Repeatedly, across the 15th century, people come back to the emperor, a different emperor each time, and say, “Should we do this?” It’s not like the emperor decides; the emperor convenes the top civil servants, the most learned scholars in the whole of the Chinese empire, and says, “Talk about this. Should we do it?” Over and over again, they come up with the same answer: “No, this is a bad idea. Let’s not do this.”
Ian Morris: The most learned men in the entire Chinese empire keep coming to the same conclusion. Why do they keep coming to that conclusion? Because they’re really clever guys. They look at the map and they say, “So far as we know, there is nothing to the west from China. You sail out in the Pacific Ocean, you’re never ever going to get anywhere. It’s pointless. You sail into the Indian Ocean, now that’s great. There’s a lot of money to be made in the Indian Ocean, but you don’t need these gigantic fleets.” This is like the Apollo 11 moon landings. You don’t need this stuff. It’s a total waste of money. Of course, judged as you have to judge it by what’s happening at the time, they are 100% right. Chinese emperors would be making a stupid mistake to carry on what they’re doing. So they don’t, and they keep revisiting it, and they keep not doing it.
Ian Morris: Back in Europe, exactly the opposite geographical forces apply. Actually, even with the opposite geographical forces, Christopher Columbus keeps hawking this idea of sailing west to get to the east: “I sail across the Atlantic. I will get to China because it’s not very far.” Every expert in the world knows that the world is round and knows roughly how big the world is, and says, “Columbus, for goodness’ sake, it’s 15,000 miles to China. You can’t possibly get there and make a profit on any voyage.” All of the kings keep saying, “No, get out of here. Take your stupid idea somewhere else.” Till eventually, Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain say, “Oh, for God’s sake, we’ll give you the money. Just go away and stop bothering us. We’ll give you the money.”
Ian Morris: And off he goes. Comes back, of course, a year later, and says, “Hey, I went to Japan.” Everybody says, “Wow, every expert in the world is wrong. Columbus did it and went to Japan.” Of course, they then realise, “Oh no, every expert in the world is right. Columbus is a complete fool. We knew Isabella and Ferdinand were idiots to fund these voyages. Historians in the future are going to look at this and say, ‘Why were the Spanish monarchs so stupid?'” People keep saying this, and we know they keep saying this for decades before they finally start to figure out there’s all this wealth to be made in the Americas.
Ian Morris: There’s a bunch of other test cases like this one, where it’s no mystery for why things went the way they did. It was driven by these great geographical forces. Occasionally, you do get a nutcase who ignores them, but not all that often, and generally it doesn’t work out. That’s the gold standard anyway: a falsifiable, alternative theory.
Rob Wiblin: It’s interesting, because in that case the leaders in Europe also thought that there was nothing to the west. They were inclined to say no as well, just as the Chinese emperor was. I guess the difference there was that there were a lot more of them perhaps, so you had a lot more bites at the apple to potentially go and ask other people over time, until one randomly decides to fund you just as a bit of a moonshot. Whereas I suppose in China maybe, there just weren’t enough different groups with the kind of funding necessary to do it.
Ian Morris: These things, we could argue all day about this. This is what makes it all so interesting, because the pushback things here would be that in China, they keep doing it. You’ve maybe only got one guy to go to, but you go to different “one guys” over and over again. There’s seven or eight different attempts they made to do this. They replicate this. Then the other thing with the European case is, say all of the European leaders had been smart and all said no. Is it really credible that no European sailor trying to get around the bottom of Africa is ever going to bump into the Americas? Because we know it did happen in 1500: eight years after Columbus, Cabral does bump into Brazil, not knowing it’s there.
Ian Morris: If you’re going to say this is all about the decisions of the individual leaders, you have got to answer this question: What am I going to do? Am I going to build a wall down the middle of the Atlantic? That is the only way to stop geography doing what geography does. I think that’s often the casualty, because scholars get split into these “us and them” camps — the big-question people and the detail people — and they’re not willing to go on and ask, what are the second-order, the third-order, counterfactual questions? If I’m right, what would then happen? I think that’s what you’ve always got to do.
Rob Wiblin: You’re very often citing various different kinds of archaeological evidence in your books, including things from the classical world, and also from the prehistoric world really — I think about hunter-gatherers, thousands, tens of thousands of years ago. Do you know the total number of archaeological digs that has ever taken place in the world? Is that something that anyone’s tried to figure out?
Ian Morris: Well, it’s a great question. I had never thought about that question until you asked. One reason why nobody can answer that question for you is it all depends on what you mean by an archaeological excavation. There’s me going and digging a hole in the backyard and finding a native arrowhead. Does that count? If that counts, then of course we’re doing tens of millions of excavations. Then within the realm of nowadays what a professional would call an excavation, there’s still a gazillion different kinds of those. It varies enormously.
Ian Morris: There’s a small number of very high-end, very well-funded excavations. For that, we’re talking hundreds in the world. Then there’s a much larger number — of which we’re talking thousands — of pretty professional, reasonably well-funded ones. Then there’s tens of thousands of smaller-scale, sometimes very amateurish ones. The number is astronomical, this is the big thing now. We have billions, tens of billions of artefacts in storage. The last excavation I ran in Sicily, we catalogued over a million fragments of pottery on this excavation. The numbers are absolutely staggering.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, OK, that’s interesting. There’s an awful lot of artefacts there. I suppose maybe contrary with the question I was about to ask you, the issue is more how do you interpret this flood of data. But I guess there’s all kinds of different evidential problems that come up, like certain kinds of things just don’t last at all, and we have tons of pottery. I think I listened to some lecture once from some ancient historian who was like, “Sometimes it feels like history for me is a process of just studying different pieces of pottery. Like basically I’m just a pottery expert by this point.” There’s some kinds of things that survive, there’s some kinds of things that don’t, and there’s some kinds of things where you’re much more likely to dig them up if they were put in a particular place versus dropped somewhere else.
Rob Wiblin: You’re much more likely to find the remains of someone who was rich than someone who was poor, who just died in a field and decomposed. There’s selection biases that are creeping in, and I guess in some cases there might be also small dataset issues — not with pottery perhaps, but with other kinds of artefacts that we don’t have so many of. How much do you worry about this when you are trying to draw lessons from the artefacts that we have? That what you might be seeing might be extremely non-representative of what was actually going on in the past?
Ian Morris: Well, this is an obvious question for anybody trying to do archaeology. But also not just for archaeologists: this is an obvious question for anybody asking any question about any aspect of anything in the universe. This is what we always do when we try to understand anything.
Ian Morris: Historians will sometimes look down their noses and pooh-pooh archaeologists because our evidence base is so lousy. Of course, so is the historian’s evidence base. Say a character like me working on Greek history: what we have is what people chose to write down in the first place, which is a very small area of experience, because writing was expensive in the past. So only a small number of things — and sometimes of really quirky things that we wouldn’t think are the things you’d want to write down, but they are — tiny number of things get written down. Then you’ve got the whole long transmission process of how that stuff survives and gets to us. For any historian anywhere, one of the fundamental problems is always the formation of the textural record. What are they copying out? What is going to what kinds of archives? Where are we choosing to look? This is a huge question too.
Ian Morris: Same with archaeologists, except the questions are simply different because of different categories of evidence. For us, of course, preservation issues are huge. In any premodern economy, textiles are one of the biggest sectors of the economy. And yet in most contexts in the world, ancient textiles do not survive. You know from the get-go that one of your known unknowns is the textile sector of the economy. Other things tend to be wildly overrepresented, like pottery.
Ian Morris: We talk about pottery obsessively, because in most contexts it survived really well. It’s easy to fall into the trap of whatever you’ve got a lot of, you think that must be the answer to everything — again, not just archaeologists by any means. You tend to think that’s the important thing. The subtlety and finesse of our gradations and sub-classifications of pottery is mind-boggling. Pottery experts — and I’m reasonably confident not too many of them will be listening — but pottery experts are among the weirdest people walking the surface of this planet. But this is what we can do. We can subdivide all the pottery stuff.
Ian Morris: But archaeology, like any academic field, there’s a lot of really smart people in it, and so they understand these problems perfectly well. One of the biggest branches of archaeology is what we call “site formation processes”: thinking about what has happened to generate the archaeological record as it exists physically in the present, and its relationship to the activities we actually care about, often in the distant past. When you’re actually excavating, this is the thing that is always foremost in your mind. Because of course, you don’t dig up past activities; you dig up this multiply, massively transformed record that exists here in the present.
Ian Morris: The last big dig I was running in Sicily, we found these stunning quantities of antlers of red deer: 83,000 fragments we recovered from this site. Which is just ridiculous. You should not have that many fragments. We’ve got to try to figure out what this is about. What are these guys doing with all these red deer? To make it worse, the fragments we found were all small pieces. Some of them have been smashed multiple times, but some of them have been burned, and some of them have been drilled through.
Ian Morris: We found them in these big heaps, but then sometimes they were spread out. We get into stuff like the angles of the slope we’re excavating and the likely drainage patterns where they carry the fragments, the paving patterns. I became obsessed with what they were doing with paving stones, because they have to have moved some of these antlers to do the paving stones, so how did they move the antlers? Why? What were the antlers in before they paved the area? We’re pretty sure they were in these big storage jars. Why are they putting antlers in storage?
Ian Morris: You go on and go on. Ultimately I think we were reasonably confident that through all these transformations, we could say with some degree of confidence that these were used in religious rituals. They were attached to some kind of mask headdress things, and used. Then of course the imagination takes off at that point. They were all taking drugs — we found fragments of seeds of opium poppies on the site — they were all taking drugs. They are drunk a lot of the time — the quantities of wine cups we found were just mind-boggling. They’re using these antlers in these rituals, but that’s an extreme case. The religious things are always extreme, your interpretive cases.
Ian Morris: But absolutely everything you ever deal with goes through this long process of different size meshes, sieving things out and also just sorting them. This is just life for the archaeologist. This is just what you do. When you scale up to the global-level thing, it’s not that you’re ignoring these problems; it’s that you are trusting other people to have done the work well, and to have come up with answers that are broadly correct. Even though if you’re a specialist yourself — this is why you can only trust the work done by people who have done the specialist stuff in the trenches — you know perfectly well the heated arguments that went on over every fragment of bone that you’re looking at.
Rob Wiblin: I guess to take one concrete example that actually seems quite important — I didn’t imagine that I would end up interviewing a forensic archaeologist on the show, but this is an important debate that maybe rises to the level that I should speak to someone who’s an expert in it — but basically, a lot of listeners will have read or have heard about The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. One of the key pieces of evidence that he offers for the world being less violent now is looking at bone fragments from the past, where people will look at the bones and try to figure out how it was that the person died.
Rob Wiblin: Very often, they’ll show some sign of violent death, and I suppose if you have the pickaxe in the skull, and the person’s there with the smoking gun, maybe you can say, “Well, they died because of the pickaxe in their skull.” But very often they’re kind of reading between the lines, trying to figure out, “This bone is damaged in this way, but maybe they lived on after that. Maybe they didn’t. Did they die of this injury or was this a nonfatal injury?” As I understand it, it is reasonably controversial among forensic archaeologists — people who study these kind of ancient bones and try to figure out how people died — whether we really can conclude that 10% or something of hunter-gatherers were dying violent deaths, or possibly even more.
Rob Wiblin: There’s one paper that I saw from a bunch of forensic archaeologists that said that, “The mistake of inferring too much from too little is one of the greatest problems in the anthropologists’ routine analysis of bone injuries.” Of course, you also have these selection problems that we might be much more likely to dig people up who were perhaps buried in some ritual way that would cause their bones to be preserved, and they might have been more likely to be warriors or something like that.
Rob Wiblin: How much do you worry about that when you are studying, say, war and the increases and decreases in violence? I suppose, to some extent, you’re making similar claims or similar assumptions perhaps to Steven Pinker: that violence, at least tens of thousands of years ago, was really at quite high levels.
Ian Morris: Yes. Great question. It’s a great example of how these meta-level questions about the whole history of humanity, our fundamental nature as animals — Can we tame our violent spirits? — how they all come down to these incredibly technical itty-bitty arguments among forensic anthropologists. There’s just no getting away from it. You can’t break the chain and say, “I don’t need to care about that stuff.” All you can ever do is say, “I trust the experts to make these decisions.” Then, as you say, quite often, the experts disagree fundamentally.
Ian Morris: Part of the problem in the example you just talked about — about the forensic anthropologists arguing about whether you can draw these broad inferences from these skeletal samples — is this is just a subset of the larger question about any kind of statistical pattern. Whether you’re a physicist or an astrophysicist or an archaeologist, it’s all the same. Sometimes people recognise patterns that don’t exist. Sometimes people fail to recognise patterns that do exist. They’re just two sides of the same error. The answer is, of course, recognise the ones that do exist — but how do we get to that level?
Ian Morris: With the forensic stuff, the key thing I think with trying to use the physical anthropology of the bodies is to compare like with like across large samples from comparable contexts. That’s the golden rule here. Often, people will say, there’s a lot of different ways you can die. You could kill me right now in a way that would leave no physical trace on my skeleton. You could poison me. You could stab me through the eyeball. There’s endless ways you could kill me that wouldn’t leave a physical trace on my skeleton. However, that is the human condition — that is true of all humans at all times: there have been a lot of ways to kill you that don’t leave a physical trace.
Ian Morris: So the first rule is going to be: only compare similar lesions across different contexts. You might really limit it to, say, finding clearly fatal injuries to the skull across periods. That is the only thing we’re going to quantify. That’s the only comparison we’re going to make. We know there’s a lot of other stuff going on, but that is simply unobservable to us as scientists, we cannot do that.
Ian Morris: Then you can move on to the next stage, and you can say, “The nature of the lesions you are likely to get on the skeletons is going to change over time.” Say, in modern battlefield casualties, World War I casualties, a lot of them die from head wounds from bullets. If you die from a bullet shot, it tends to be a headwound shot, so you’ll get a skull with a nice, neat hole drilled in the forehead. If you are digging up Roman burials, you’ll get zero skulls with bullet holes in them because they didn’t have bullets. That is not a good comparison. The more you can understand about the context, the better off you’re going to be.
Ian Morris: But sometimes this is just very difficult. Say in prehistoric contexts, where people are doing a lot of their deliberate fighting right up in each others’ faces, trading blows in their faces. One of the things some archaeologists will say you can use as evidence, and others will say no, is what we call “parry fractures.” A parry fracture is a fracture in your left forearm caused by this instinctive thing. Say you come at me with a stone axe in your right hand, swing it at my head. I instinctively raise my left arm to block your blow. You will break my left forearm. I’ll drop my arm. You will have a second go at me and you’ll kill me. Some anthropologists will use parry fractures on the left forearm. Now, if you’re fighting on a nuclear battlefield, or even if you’re fighting in Ukraine right now, you’re unlikely to find all that many skeletons with parry fractures. You will find some, but not all that many. The context determines everything. This is what makes it so very, very difficult.
Ian Morris: Then there’s what we call “taphonomic processes” — what happens to the body after it’s reached a burial in the ground, and then there are pre-depositional forces as well. Which bodies get buried under what kinds of circumstances? The more we can know about these contexts, the better we are able to interpret our evidence.
Ian Morris: There’s two big schools of thought. One says that the only way you can possibly treat this seriously is by marrying the big historians and the little historians and forensic archaeologists, and really working together properly to understand all of the context, all of the data.
Ian Morris: The other school of thought is to say, no, we follow the example of big data people in other fields, and say there’s all these different factors affecting the formation of the empirical record we can’t control, but the factors are all different in different places. So unless you have got evidence that there is a non-random pattern systematically distorting your evidence, you are perhaps justified in making this rather wild assumption that all the noise will cancel each other out, and you can identify a signal underneath all the noise. In a lot of patterns of scholarship, this has proven to be a reasonable assumption. Whether it’s true for doing big history, we don’t know.
Ian Morris: I think, again, this will be a big area for work in the future, trying to test whether big data treatments of archaeological material do yield a systematic pattern or not. You can probably tell, I got all excited about this. I could go on for days to you about this, as any archaeologist could, but there’s a lot of really fascinating examples of the detail we get into. I think these are important questions to raise, but it is also important to recognise that the academics doing this research, they’re not all of them idiots. People have thought about these problems, and even if we can’t always answer the question the way we’d like, we are doing our damnedest to come up with convincing answers to these questions.
Energy extraction technology as a key driver of human values [01:37:04]
Rob Wiblin: OK, let’s come back and discuss a bit more of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels. Just to remind everyone, that’s the book where you claim energy extraction technology is a driver of human values. Or at least the way that we’ve gotten food over time has contributed to how we organise society, and what we thought was the right way to do that. What’s the single clearest piece of evidence that you can offer the audience that fossil fuels have been the driver of changes in moral values in the modern world?
Ian Morris: I think just the whole history of the world across the last 300 years: that conclusively can prove what happened. Pretty much everywhere on the planet 500 years ago, there’s a general sense that it’s right that some people have been set above the rest of us to rule over us. A sense of, like I was saying, this farming world assumption that everybody was created differently and so it’s right to treat people differently. It would be morally wrong to pretend that the king is the same as you and I. Of course, this is where a lot of the great arguments of political theory in Europe in the 18th century come from.
Ian Morris: Is it true that the king has actually been anointed by God? Queen Elizabeth II, in all of her glory, she has been put to rule over her subjects in the United Kingdom because God says so. It said so at her coronation: she rules dei gratia — by the grace of God. If you don’t do what the Queen tells you, you’re not just committing a crime against the government of the United Kingdom, you are committing an offence against God. Every right-thinking person in the world wants to see you punished in the most horrible way imaginable.
Ian Morris: When I say that to you now, it’s sort of vaguely comical. You know you can get away with saying some pretty rotten things about the queen on this show, and 99% of the people in Britain are not going to draw you limb from limb when you leave the studio. But 500 years ago, good luck with that. You are going to be executed if you say something really bad about Henry VIII. It’s not just Henry VIII, this is the entire world. We’ve got this gigantic question: Why has the world changed so very, very much across 500 years?
Ian Morris: If you go around now saying you think your rulers are given to you by the gods, most people think you’re nuts. We’ve had some presidents in recent times in the United States, who let slip the fact that they think God tells them what they should be doing or that astrologists tell them what they do. Generally speaking, it hasn’t gone all that well. The world has changed. If you go around a place like where I work, a university campus, saying, “Hey, slavery is fine, and enslaving people because their skin is darker than mine, well, yes, of course, what else would you do? Women, shouldn’t have any of them in the university” — of course, the list on and on, all these things change so much. The big question has to be, “How does this change?”
Ian Morris: I think there’s a lot of room still to argue about whether we have a genuinely convincing causal explanation, but we certainly do have a lot of very, very strong correlations. Where does it start to happen? It starts to happen in the societies around the North Atlantic, that — for the reasons I talked about in my book, Why the West Rules—For Now — start to see their energy capture go through the roof, even before they crack the secret of fossil fuels after about 1750. Already by 1600, because they are mastering the Atlantic Ocean, places like the British Isles, France, and Spain are seeing energy capture begin to take off.
Ian Morris: Some of them, like the British Isles and the Netherlands in particular, see their energy begin to increase even more, because they figure out the most effective ways of channelling all this new wealth, all these new resources coming across the Atlantic Ocean. When the Industrial Revolution does happen, it’s in the countries that have come to dominate the Atlantic economy, especially Britain, especially England, and channel those resources. They’ve got all these things they could do if they can just find the way to get the resources going. And fossil fuel–driven industrial manufacturing — and then governments that open up paths within the society for fossil fuel manufacturers and their funders — places that do that see this explosion.
Ian Morris: It’s not like English people have changed their fundamental moral character. It’s just that they start seeing, “Oh, we’re doing really well compared to all these benighted Europeans. Why are we doing really well?” Some say, “Well, obviously, it’s because God chose us. God loves us. That’s why we’re doing really well.” Others say, “Well, no, actually, it’s because we’ve got this constitution with a parliament, where parliament gets to decide the funding questions and parliament can only do that if at least our electorate” — which varies between a quarter and a third of the male population — “agrees to do this, to take on these burdens ourselves.”
Ian Morris: Then people start saying, “Well, but there’s all these other people getting rich and taking part in this process as we move into the 19th century. What if we gave them more say in the process as well?” People start to say, “Yes, the more we widen the franchise, the better we are going to be able to channel and use all this energy at our fingertips.”
Ian Morris: It’s not like the energy flows change who you are, or somehow make you a different moral being. It’s just that they start rewarding different kinds of behaviour. Certainly, by the end of the 19th century, you’ve still got people who say women should not vote. You’ve still got people who say slavery should be legal. But you’re starting to look like a crackpot if you say these things, and that is the only force driving this. Again, it’s like biological evolution. Nobody is in charge. God has not laid down the principles that animals shall evolve into human beings and that’s the end of the story. Nobody is in charge of this, and so people are making their own decisions.
Ian Morris: It turns out that the decisions that people have been making within Britain generally in the 19th century were ones that were very profitable for the British system as a whole. Not necessarily for everybody within Britain, but they were looking at the world, recognising the way geography was taking them, the options open to them, and capitalising on these. Some historians will say the Industrial Revolution really should have happened in France or Belgium, not in England. Well, the mistakes the French and Belgian leaders made had a lot to do with why it didn’t.
Ian Morris: I say this is why it all happened. This is the key thing to remember. I’m not saying energy flows determine what kind of society you have. Absolutely not. Energy flows set up the costs and benefits of any decision you make. They rig the system so that if you choose the right thing — without knowing what the right thing is, and with no way to know what the right thing is — you benefit from it. You choose the wrong thing, you pay a very harsh price for it.
Rob Wiblin: I guess applying this theory to the foraging era and farmer era, it seems like you get pretty strong reasons to think that something like this is broadly right. To begin with, you just notice that farmers around the world — it varies a little bit depending on what they’re farming — but farmers across the world seem to have these quite common values that are striking and different than what we had and different than foragers. Despite the fact that they didn’t seem to communicate very much. Then likewise, with foragers all around the world: quite culturally independent, they don’t like inequality, they make decisions in a particular way, they organise their hunting and gathering in particularly striking ways.
Rob Wiblin: Also, you have strong evolutionary reasons. You’re saying this is an evolutionary cultural theory for why it is that we ended up with values that we have. And if there was any group of hunter-gatherers who decided to adopt a set of values that made it very difficult for them to engage in hunting and gathering — such that they didn’t have very much food and they didn’t reproduce very much — well, they’re probably going to get beaten out in some war or conflict over time. Or they’ll notice that other people are being way more successful than them, and they might just decide to copy them.
Rob Wiblin: Likewise, with farmers over the thousands of years that we were engaged in organised agriculture, organising up into larger states: people who decided to organise their societies in a way that wasn’t very conducive to agriculture, don’t have many kids, they’re going to get displaced by other places that have a lot more kids and just can field larger armies against them.
Rob Wiblin: In the modern world, those effects seem a little bit weaker. To begin with, we have fewer wars now. A country like Australia could adopt a bunch of values that aren’t very conducive to maximising its productivity. It could, say, become antifeminist Australia, and women are no longer allowed to work. And this impoverishes the country in a sense, but it’s not necessarily the case that Australia would be invaded and overthrown, or that people would necessarily have to say, “Well, other countries are richer than us, so we have to change.”
Rob Wiblin: We see examples of countries that seem quite traditional and backward, and they’re not obligated to modernise — there’s nothing that really forces their hand. And so some of these evolutionary pressures seem somewhat weaker — both in terms of competition between groups and families inside of society, and between societies. And also just the fact that it’s only been 200 years means that there’s a bit more slack for people to not have caught up, because inasmuch as the competitive process is somewhat gradual, it hasn’t flowed out everywhere yet. Do you broadly agree with that kind of take?
Ian Morris: No. The short answer for this one would be no.
Rob Wiblin: Fantastic. [laughs]
Ian Morris: When we think about this stuff, my claim is that history works along broadly similar principles to biological evolution, so history’s a kind of cultural evolution. Environment is going to be crucial in this. So are preexisting endowments. In biology that would mean the genes that a particular animal has. For us in humans, it would be the culture that we’ve got, the kind of resources that are available. So environment, preexisting endowments, and then competition.
Ian Morris: Competition is the huge driver in biological evolution. It’s sometimes simplified to things like “survival of the fittest,” which is not quite what Darwin meant, but still, competition is crucial in this. There’s smart and not smart ways to compete. Like say if you are a bunny rabbit and a fox is bearing down a hill at you and you decide, “OK, man, I’m one tough bunny rabbit here. The way to compete with this fox is to stand my ground. I’m going to tear that fox’s throat out.” Not going to go well. You can make poor judgements about the balance between violence and other techniques (like running for your life) available to you.
Ian Morris: This is the same with humans as well. In any human society, even the most violent ones on record, violence is still a minority reaction to conflict. If all conflict situations result in violence, you would simply go extinct on the spot. It would be so fast, you’d all be over. It’s not like that. We judge the same way other animals do. I’ve watched my own dogs doing this. We judge what is the most profitable response to the situation we’re in going to be.
Ian Morris: If I were a 17th-century English nobleman, and some young guy insults me in the street, the wise response is I pull out my rapier and I kill him. Because if I don’t do that, everybody I know will now disrespect me. I will fall so far down — like a Shakespeare hero, basically — and be a disaster.
Ian Morris: Of course, if a student at Stanford disrespects me and I pull out a knife and kill him, a disastrous choice of responses here, because I live in a world where that is going to be punished viciously. My life is over, basically, if I kill somebody. What I’ve got to do now is be good at witty repartee and coming back to that student — and not just that, also good at judging the context. What is the appropriate witty comment I can come back with? Because if I humiliate this guy, that’s really bad for me as well, because professors don’t go around humiliating students. That is terrible. If I come up with some sexist or racist remark, that is terrible for me. Again, you judge all these things.
Ian Morris: If you are running Australia right now, you have a real-world problem to deal with here: a lot of your national wealth comes from digging up and selling coal to China. That is really a bad thing in the eyes of many people. Really a bad thing in the eyes of many people in your strategic sector, because you’re basically making money off your growingly main strategic rival. You are in the process of destroying the planet by doing this. What are you going to do about it? That’s the sort of problem you’ve got to deal with.
Ian Morris: One of the many things that President Trump said, which caused people in the media and academy and other places to laugh at him, was he abruptly announced out of nowhere, while he was on one of his own golf courses in Scotland: “Our biggest foe is not China. Our biggest foe is the European Union. That is our number one enemy right now.” People say, “What are you talking about?” Part of the problem there was just the way he would express these ideas. But what he was saying, in a certain sense, was perfectly reasonable: that the European Union is one of the US’s biggest trade rivals. It’s one of his biggest competitors.
Ian Morris: And it’s a very difficult competitor for the Americans to figure out the way to deal with this relationship we have with the Europeans. Nuking them is not a good solution. Everybody agrees on that. Don’t nuke them — boycott them. Boycott their goods, the way Trump decided they should do. A lot of people think that’s a terrible solution as well. You’ve got to be smart about this, because America makes so much of its revenue by dealing with the Europeans. You’ve got to think really carefully about how you deal with them.
Rob Wiblin: OK, basically you’re saying that although it’s rarely the case that people are actually forced through violence or compelled to adopt a particular set of values, the modern world puts in such sharp relief the costs that you’re paying — not only strategically, in a military sense, but also just personally, in not having the stuff that you might like, positive experiences that you might enjoy — that most people in the long term get on board. And maybe it’s that kind of persuasion or that kind of seeing the writing on the wall that has caused a particular set of values to spread pretty far and wide, despite the fact that it wasn’t necessarily happening at the end of a gun.
Ian Morris: Yes, I think that’s very much the case. With the example of hunter-gatherers and farmers: farming societies tend to reproduce very quickly compared to hunter-gatherers. They have a lot of babies, the population regularly grows, they expand that into new territory. When farmers start encroaching into your territory, as a hunter-gatherer you’ve got a number of choices you can make about what you’re going to do about this. One of them is that often, you can run away, because often you’re a low population density, there’s often space behind you somewhere. It may not be as good, but you can go hunter-gather somewhere else. So that’s one option.
Ian Morris: But the problem then is, because the farmers will continue expanding, sooner or later they will catch up with you, and there will be nowhere else to run. Say they do that: they’ve caught up with us. We could stand and fight. Now, looking at the archeology, it seems like that actually is not as common as you might think, probably because farmers have all the advantages. They tend to massively outnumber the foragers. They tend to have more advanced technology, much more advanced organisational skills. So all the advantages are on the side of the farmers. And the sort of stuff you see on cowboys-and-Indians movies — the hunter-gatherers raiding the farmstead and killing the sheep and so on — that clearly did happen, but less so than you might think.
Ian Morris: So then another option would be: if you can’t beat them, you join them. You start settling down and doing what the farmers do.
Rob Wiblin: Marry into a family, maybe.
Ian Morris: Yeah, you marry into families. Or it’s often not like a big one-time decision; it’s like salami slicing. Say I’m a forager. I wander over the fields. I know where wild wheat is likely to be growing at a particular time of year. I know where the wild gazelles are likely to be migrating through at this river crossing where I can catch them. I know all these things, and I will go further or less far each year, depending on what the availability is.
Ian Morris: All these farmers show up, and, being humans, they change the environment in which we live. They start putting up fences, and cutting down trees, and changing the flow of rivers — impacting what you do. The wild animals don’t come so much any more. The wild plants don’t grow so well. I have now got a choice: maybe I will move away, maybe I will go further to catch up with the gazelles, or maybe I will do what I see them doing. And they are not just going to where the wild wheat is. They’re actively cultivating the wild wheat. They’re manuring it, they’re weeding it, they’re watering it, all these things. And little by little, over thousands of years — because we know that’s how long it took — that’s what I might do.
Ian Morris: Or alternatively, what increasingly looks like what did happen is all of the above is going on, but just farmers breed so much faster than the foragers that their DNA swamps the foragers’. So people in the British Isles now, depending on who you are, roughly between 10 and 20% of your DNA comes from the ancestral pre-farming populations. The other 80% swamped by the farmers, whose ancestors have migrated relatively recently from what we now call the Middle East.
Rob Wiblin: When I tried explaining your theory to some of my friends — perhaps I explained it slightly inaccurately — but I was saying farmers produced a system of organisations and values that were good for engaging in farming and producing lots of food. So farmers were extremely anti-feminist, in the sense they wanted women to stay in the home, didn’t want them to be working, at least in lots of places. But isn’t that throwing out half of the human capital? Not all farming work has to be done by the absolutely strongest people. Couldn’t you have lots of women working out in the field, and that will produce even more food and produce more babies? And then your society thrives even more. Why was it in the interests of farmers to be quite anti-feminist, in a sense?
Ian Morris: Yeah, these things are never black and white, either one thing or the other thing. So I guess what I would say to your buddies is, well, farmers were doing everything you say. And there’s a lot of different ways to farm. One of the great discoveries of anthropologists back in the 1970s is looking at farming societies in Africa. A lot of them live in places where there’s quite a lot of land and not all that many people. And there, it makes sense to farm as much of the land as you possibly can with as little labour inputs as possible on each acre of land. Because there’s always more land; there’s never more people. And so you have low-intensity farming techniques, particularly hoeing the land: you take out a hoe and you dig it over by hand. And in that sort of agriculture, women absolutely do it alongside men. Maybe not 50% of the time, but getting on for that, because it’s stuff where upper body strength doesn’t matter all that much. The vital thing is to get as many people as possible onto the land to farm the land.
Ian Morris: The more that you settle down and the more babies that you’re producing, we see this transition — they call it the “Neolithic demographic transition” — from forager women to farming women, where the number of live births that the average woman gives, goes up from something a little over four to something close to seven, as you go from foraging to really intensive full-scale farming. A lot of reasons for this. One is that nutritional patterns change, so women are more able to have more babies. Also women’s activities: you are normally moving around a lot as a foraging wife, and that’s difficult to do if you’ve got multiple babies to move around. So it’s like the incentives for having the babies change, because now it was less of a problem having more babies.
Ian Morris: The farm families are getting bigger. As they get bigger, there’s more pull factors. Somebody has got to stay in the house, dealing with these babies. And given demographic structures, if you are a woman in a farming society, your odds are overwhelming you’re going to spend your entire adult life pregnant and/or minding small children. There’s almost no way out of this.
Ian Morris: Now, you can imagine a society in which men do the bulk of the childcare. That’s certainly possible. Also, another thing that happens with farming societies is that agriculture tends to produce foods. Say domesticated wheats to make into bread. They require a heck of a lot of back-end processing. Someone’s got to thresh and grind and all these other things you’ve got to do with your foodstuffs. There’s a huge amount of housework. The more that you stay in one place — which is what you do as you go to settled farming — the more obsessive you’ve got to be about housework. If you’re a forager and you mess up the cave you’re in tonight, well, tomorrow you’re gone. You’re gone somewhere else; you don’t have to worry about rats and all the other things you’ll get. Farms, you absolutely do. So way more housework to be done, way more childminding to be done.
Ian Morris: And we can’t observe the logic of what’s going through people’s heads. That’s totally invisible to us. We can only observe the outcome, which is that pretty much every farming society we can document came to the conclusion that the logical way, the most efficient way, to do this is going to have the women overwhelmingly become creatures of the household, and the men overwhelmingly dominate outside the household. Not 100%. Even in the most intensive agricultural regime, there’s going to be things women do in the fields. You’re going to see women out there, particularly at harvest time, when labour is at this huge crunch. And it’s going to be men doing things within the house, as well. Men do a lot of things around the house.
Ian Morris: So it’s not an either/or kind of thing, but there’s a sort of logic that pushes societies down this path. You don’t have to go all the way down this path, and you may be able to carry on. We know lots of examples of relatively egalitarian farming societies, one where women are relatively free.
Ian Morris: Actually, one of the nice things about being an ancient Greek historian: over 1,000 different Greek city-states existed in antiquity, and dozens of them we have some kind of documentation on. It’s like they’re these natural experiments, where you can look at how they do this. Say Athens and Sparta, the two most famous ones. They’re both agrarian societies. They both operate more or less by the general rules of farming societies. You would never mistake them for foraging societies. But the gender relationships, the political hierarchies, the economic systems: they’re very, very different. There’s a million ways you can do this, and everybody is free to try out and run these experiments and see, “What’s going to work for us best here?” It’s just you have to do so within these larger material constraints. And if you veer too far off the path, you get punished.
Rob Wiblin: Just to clarify for listeners who might not know, farmers often end up in this Malthusian situation, where the population is just at the level that the land is able to support when it’s farmed at least as well as they have been farming it in the past. But by the time your population is kind of saturating the amount of land that you have available to farm, then you really don’t have much room to move anymore. Because if you start doing worse, then you literally aren’t going to have enough food next year, and the population’s going to reduce because of lack of food.
Rob Wiblin: I don’t want to go into this right now, but my understanding is that there’s quite a big literature on different kinds of organisations and values — including around the role of women — based on the crop that was being farmed. Because of course, there’s some kinds of crops where women can contribute more to the farming outside the house and others where it’s somewhat more difficult for them to contribute.
Allowing people to debate about values [01:59:38]
Rob Wiblin: An alternative theory for the reason fossil fuels have kind of trended in the same way with their values, which is kind of quite different than this evolutionary story, is that fossil fuels afforded people more time to do thinking, do learning, engage in moral philosophy. And also because they were richer, it reduced the cost of doing what in their view is the right thing. So as people get richer, they debate what is right more. I guess you can either say that they can kind of converge on the truth, if you believe in that, or at least that they converge on the values that humans tend to converge on when they engage in lots of moral reflection. And because they’re rich, they’re able to do the things that they think are philosophically right. They’re able to express their values in that way without paying too high of a material price. What do you think of that theory?
Ian Morris: I think that there’s a very good chance that’s right. I think that is actually exactly the same theory that I am proposing.
Rob Wiblin: Oh, interesting. OK.
Ian Morris: We are agreeing on the ultimate cause. We are disagreeing perhaps on the proximate cause. You are saying that because of fossil fuels, people have all this time to think about their values. And because they have all that time to think about their values, they’re able to come up with what might be the true correct set of values. Which they’re able to do because of the fossil fuels providing all the energy that give them the leisure to do this.
Ian Morris: I’m saying, that could very well be it. I think we’re not at a point yet where we can say what the mechanism was. And like some people will say, “Well, it’s government action that drives people down this path toward egalitarianism and freedom” — there’s a bazillion different possibilities, and these are all out there to be explored. But it is actually the same theory, we are agreeing on the ultimate cause: the increase in the amount of energy available transforms modern societies.
Ian Morris: I guess I’m putting more emphasis on the competition between people trying out all these different ideas to say, “Well, what’s going to work best? What’s going to get us where we want to go?” Remembering of course, all the time, that in every experiment, there’s millions of people running and they all have slightly different ideas about where it is they want to go. You are saying you are confident we already know what the proximate theory was, what the mechanism was, and it was this reasoning, logical process. We can find a million pieces of evidence to support what you are saying. And we can also find a million that don’t support it — which is, again, exactly the same situation every big historian is always in.
Ian Morris: And so, if we were going to pursue this, our challenge would then be to try to come up with some way to ground, say, a competition theory versus a more cooperative theory — that we start to recognise what the truth is and cluster around that. What we need is some clever method that would allow us to ground these theories in the data, so that we can do some fancy statistical footwork or whatever to come up with an answer that one of us will be more or less forced to concede, “Yeah, you were right, I was wrong.” I don’t think we’re there yet. Although I’m an optimist about these sorts of things. I think that with a sufficient number of people applying their thinking to this, we are going to get there. We are going to get to a point where we can, broadly speaking, agree on what some of these immediate causes are.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose some people could take a slightly cynical or pessimistic lesson from the book, which would be that the values that we profess to hold — inasmuch as we’re engaged in what we think are ethical choices — it’s guided so much by the pragmatic concerns about what will actually work to get stuff done that it’s maybe going to be more work or less possible to persuade people of the moral truth, the abstract moral concepts, than you might have hoped if you were just a philosopher who makes arguments based on reason.
Rob Wiblin: And if you want to improve the values of the future, you might think that you should write a book about moral philosophy. But actually, maybe you should be doing research into solar panels in order to change the energy technology or change the actual practical manufacturing technologies that are available, because then that will cause people to have different ideas about what’s right and wrong. I suppose one that just jumps into my mind is that currently, we kind of turn a blind eye to collaborating with horrible countries with terrible dictators that supply us with oil. And if we didn’t have to do that in order to get energy, then we would suddenly have the moral realisation that that was the wrong thing to do.
Rob Wiblin: If somebody in the audience — as I know many of them do — would like to do their bit to shift the values that humans hold in 2100 in a positive direction from their point of view, what possibilities are most promising for them within the Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels framework of ethics?
Ian Morris: Well, I would say that one of the kind of moral shifts that enabled our modern industrialised fossil fuel democratic capitalistic systems to work, one of the big breakthroughs was in 19th century England, when John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham and the other utilitarians around them start saying, “The big moral truth is that there is no big moral truth”: the big truth here is that I don’t know what the truth is and you don’t either. And neither of us should try to force the other one to accept our truth. And basically when Mill and Bentham looked back at history, what they saw was an endless chain of tyrannical dictators, convinced they knew what the truth was and willing to use any means necessary to force other people to agree “My God is the best God,” or “My race is the best race,” or whatever their particular hangup was.
Ian Morris: So Mill said the only truth is don’t do anything which would infringe on other people’s freedom to choose what they think the truth is. That’s the big thing to know. And I’ve got to say — I know this makes me extremely old fashioned — I think Mill and Bentham were dead right on that. And this is something, again, I’ve talked a number of times in our discussion about how people don’t know what they’re doing. Nobody can ever know what they’re doing. Say you are Chinese emperor and you decide to suspend the great fleet sail to Africa. You have no idea what that’s going to mean in 300 years’ time. You can’t possibly know these sorts of things. That applies to all others.
Ian Morris: And so when you ask what can we do in order to bring us closer to a world that we would like to see emerging across the 21st century? Well, I think, how do I know? How do you know? Nobody knows, because we don’t understand very much about where the forces operating on us are going to take us.
Ian Morris: You use the example of becoming a solar engineer. Now that seems to me a very practical solution to a practical problem at least. I think one thing we can be absolutely clear on is that if we don’t do something about the emissions level, global warming is not necessarily going to make humanity go extinct, but it’s going to profoundly change this planet — in ways that some of which we might turn out to like, but many of them we clearly are not going to like. So we’ve got a real practical problem here, yet becoming a solar panel engineer is a really good solution to that. If your goal is to introduce a more egalitarian world, I don’t know whether solar panels are going to get you there or not, and nobody does.
Ian Morris: I think the great challenge is we are living through the fastest transformation of everything that the planet has ever seen. Maybe the futurists are right, and we’re all going to be beamed up to the great database in the sky. Maybe we’re going to suck completely non-polluting solar energy out of outer space. I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. And what we also don’t know — the unknowns piled on top of the unknowns — is what that is going to mean for people’s moral values, for the costs and benefits of different kinds of behaviour, and for how our evaluation of the world is going to shift.
Ian Morris: Because if we’d been having this conversation 300 years ago, and I had told you about the upcoming industrial revolution — and how this was going to mean that your wife was going to go out to work, and you weren’t going to be able to enslave anybody anymore, and Jews were going to own stuff — I would bet you dollars to doughnuts you would’ve been offended by what I said. Because if you were a perfectly normal early 18th century British person, this would’ve been horrifically offensive to you. And it’s easy to think of a comparably offensive thing that somebody might say now. Because we don’t see the future, we don’t know how the world is going to change. It would be impossible for you to imagine the world that the industrial revolution produced, and equally impossible for you to imagine how you would react if you time travelled forward and settled down in a post-industrial world.
Ian Morris: Anthropologists are actually useful people to read on this, because a lot of what you do as anthropologists is you clear off and go and live in a society that is often fundamentally different from the one that you live in. And so I was in archeological fieldwork. I spent a lot of time in the south Mediterranean, in Greece and Sicily, where the value systems there are much more like a traditional farming value system. Not like a mediaeval farming system, because of course, Sicily is highly fossil fuel driven, and they have electricity, they have cars, all these things. And yet, as we all know, the farming parts of all countries tend to be more conservative, more traditional.
Ian Morris: And these were people who were rabidly sexist, were to my mind, offensively racist. Had all kinds of just horrible attitudes about all kinds of things. Yet they were great people; they were wonderful people. I loved spending time with them. And I guess I have a sufficiently low opinion of my own moral backbone that I think that if I were dropped back in the Middle Ages, my personal values would be more or less what we see from actual mediaeval people. If they were brought here, they would probably have the sort of Western post-everything weird values that I have.
Ian Morris: And I think that’s what we are. We are very malleable animals. We can transform ourselves because we are good at recognising the costs and benefits of the context that we’re in. Which I know sounds very cynical, but it’s where evolutionary thinking leads to. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to like it. I like my values, I enjoy them. I would hate to be a different person. And yet as I see it, it’s a matter of, do I have a broad enough perspective on the world to understand that what I perceive as my own excellence is not entirely my own doing? It’s because of the context I find myself in.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think this is a school of thought within effective autism, which in a sense is extremely similar: there are folks who think that what we should do is just try to empower future generations in a general sense. Like give them the ability to control their environment in a larger way, to be healthier, to be smarter, to be wiser, to be more informed. And I guess to have the ability to then actualise those values with the technology that can change the world. And then we should let them decide what is the good life for them, or the world that they want to create, because they’re just going to be in a much better position to do that than we are. And trying to force their hand or trying to bind their hand in the present is a pretty bad move. Sounds like it’s basically what you think as well.
Ian Morris: Yeah. I think there’s a number of big challenges before us. One is that we don’t know whether broadly democratic regimes are going to turn out to be the ones best suited to channel the new kinds of energies and the new kinds of technology the 21st century is bringing us. We don’t know whether we are, because plenty of people in China think the broadly authoritarian regimes are going to be the ones that capitalise most effectively on green energy, on artificial intelligence, on all kinds of things that are going on. We just don’t know at the moment — again, any more than people knew 300 years ago that moving in the democratic direction was going to be the most effective way to behave in the industrialised age.
Ian Morris: So that’s one of the big questions for us. We might not like the kind of things we hear Xi Jinping saying, but if they turn out to be so successful that every country in the world starts trying to ally itself with China — the way so many did with Britain in the 19th century — should we be totally surprised if people in these countries behave also like people did the 19th century, and start to emulate things that China does just like they emulated things Britain does? There’s a reason why association football is played all over the planet. It’s because people thought Britain had a lot of soft power. Is that what’s going to happen?
Ian Morris: So that’s one big unknown. The other one is in the sort of technological side of this. We already live in a world where Amazon knows better than I do what books I want to read, Expedia knows where I want to go for vacation. What if we reach a point where it starts to look like our algorithms are better placed than our politicians to judge what is going to be the right decisions for the future? There are certainly days where I already think our algorithms will be a lot better than our venal, corrupt, incompetent, self-serving politicians (and I say that with the greatest respect). But what if we get in the world like that? Is empowering as many people as possible to make their own decisions a really good idea when you know they are going to make substandard decisions? You know they’re going to do really stupid stuff. Would it not be better just to ask Google to take over our lives?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. We actually have a podcast where someone lays out that kind of future and how that could happen somewhat gradually and somewhat innocently. You basically just get this gradual handover to machine intelligence because we conclude pragmatically that it’s regularly making better decisions. And initially of course you would have lots of human oversight, but then you realise the humans are actually mostly just making it worse. And so largely the control of society is handed over to a different kind of being. And I mean, that could go well, or it could go badly. It’s very interesting. It’s a very ambiguous future. I can’t remember the number of the episode, but it’s Paul Christiano on how we’ll progressively hand over the future to machine learning algorithms, or some title like that.
Can productive wars still occur? [02:12:49]
Rob Wiblin: Returning to War! What Is It Good For?: as you explained earlier, you think some wars led to the formation of empires and strong states that then suppressed violence internally and often improved quality of life, sometimes quite dramatically, for the people living inside them. In the modern world, though, with military technology being what it is and including nuclear weapons, is there much room for productive wars to occur, or is that era now kind of over?
Ian Morris: Yeah. So when I was looking over the long run history of war, it seemed to me that different parts of the world would go through these cycles. In one cycle you would get a lot of what I took to calling “productive war”– in the sense that it was producing bigger, stronger, more organised governments that then drove down the rates of violent death locally. Which always came with a price: these governments didn’t always do what their subjects wanted them to do. But you would get these cycles. Say the classic one again: the rise of the Roman Empire.
Ian Morris: Then you would get cycles of what I call “counterproductive war,” where the general thrust of the violence and the conflict resolution were sort of breaking up these bigger, more organised, and generally more peaceful entities. So again, the decline of the Roman Empire is a classic example of this. And you see this over and over again all around the world.
Ian Morris: Thinking about these processes, it occurred to me that one of the reasons it can be difficult to kind of get your head around these processes is that this is a long-term, large-scale kind of operation. So in a cycle of productive war, you’ll get plenty of wars that don’t conform to that generalisation. I took to thinking about what I call “Truman’s Law.” There is this story that Harry Truman, when he’s president of the US he gets asked by this journalist, “Tell me, President Truman, what is your definition of the truly great president?” And Truman thinks about this one moment, and he says, “The truly great president, young man, is one who is right 51% of the time,” which I think is actually quite a wise insight. But that is how these patterns work.
Ian Morris: It’s not 100%, like every war leads to a stronger leviathan, more organised, driving down rates of violent death. A heck of a lot of them lead to exactly the opposite. But in periods of generally productive war, a slightly higher percentage do lead toward Rome. In periods of counterproductive war, generally a higher percentage lead away from Rome.
Ian Morris: So any individual war, you can never judge it on that particular struggle. Say the First World War: by any reasonable standards, a highly counterproductive war, almost any way you imagine it — except when you step back from the details and look at the multicentury perspective. When the First World War stops existing as the First World War, and becomes a smaller part in what some people call the “War of the World”: a 75-year-long period of 1914 to 1989, where basically one global system dominated by the British Isles collapses and a new global system dominated by the United States takes over from it. In a sense, the war has actually been between Britain and the US. It just is that the violence was directed out to other people, and primarily Germany, which becomes kind of the proximate cause behind these wars.
Ian Morris: So the perspective you take says a lot about how you judge these struggles. So for the struggles going on in our own age, we live now, as you say here, because of the nuclear weapons — I think you’re absolutely right about this — we live in an age where the potential price of engaging in major war has gone through the roof. It’s become existential.
Ian Morris: If you get into some conflict with the United States, obviously this is speculation, but say you are Iran. You are the ruler of Iran and you get a nuclear weapon and you fire it at Tel Aviv and you annihilate the state of Israel. Many ways the politics might go, but it’s perfectly possible that the American response to this is going to be a massive nuclear attack on Iran, wiping Iran effectively off the face of the planet. That should be a huge deterrence to an Iranian leader doing that. As far as I know, the only leader of a nuclear armed power who’s ever said he is not deterred by that was Chairman Mao. Mao had his own things going on. Even Stalin was scared about stuff like this.
Ian Morris: So nuclear weapons have really dramatically driven up the threshold. But like any other new weapon system in the history of the world, they can sometimes seem like they’ve made all other ways of doing things irrelevant. But they haven’t. What they’ve done instead is you say, “OK, that is off the table. All our thermonuclear exchange with the Americans, that’s off the table. So what we’ve got to do now is figure out other ways to win our arguments with the Americans.” The Soviets figure this out pretty quickly in the Cold War: “We have got to limit conflict so it’s below a threshold where the Americans could even conceivably think that a nuclear exchange is a valid response to this.”
Ian Morris: This comes up really early on into China where the French are asking Eisenhower to nuke the Viet Minh. And he looks at this and says, “You have got to be out of your minds.” And the Soviets and the Americans are quietly trying to figure out where is that threshold. Sometimes they get it wrong. Cuba, they came really close to getting it wrong there. Almost get it wrong again in 1983, but they work it out among themselves. Other actors say, like Saddam Hussein does, “OK, going to war with the US is a really bad idea.” But you can do non-actual war things, like al-Qaeda tries to do till they blow up the Twin Towers.
Ian Morris: But all these other options are out there. That I think is what the world has been engaged in since the fall of the Iron Curtain. We’re still figuring out, “How do we get what we want when the Americans don’t want us to have that, without this sliding down some crazy slope we don’t want to go.” Generally, no one has gone anywhere near the edge of that slope.
Ian Morris: Now there’s a growing perception that the United States global cop is losing its grip. I made predictions of various kinds in a lot of my books. Sometimes I really hope that I’m wrong in the predictions, but this was one I made very much in my book War! What Is It Good For?: that the American global cop was losing its grip, and was, most importantly, being perceived to lose its grip. As the global cop does that, rival actors look at this situation and say, “Every time we roll the dice when we go head-to-head with the Americans, there’s a slim possibility that it might lead to catastrophe.” For example, if we roll 27 sixes with 27 dice, it’s the end of the world. But the balance is shifting now. Now we only need to roll 24 sixes. The balance is shifting.
Ian Morris: So as we feel the Americans are getting less able and less willing to assert themselves, the global system is getting run less aggressively. Again, it’s difficult for any of us to see into the heads of political leaders, but one of the schools of thought about the Russians’ behaviour toward Ukraine, going back into the early 2010s, has been this mounting sense in the Kremlin that the Americans are less able to police their beat anymore. So yes, nuclear weapons have made great power war virtually unthinkable, but everything we do changes the environment. It’s becoming more thinkable than it was.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’ll stick up a link to at least one or two blog posts offering up this data, but some folks have argued that if you properly include all of the atrocities of the 20th century that were caused by states themselves — that is, atrocities not that governments committed against other countries, but that governments committed against their own populations — then the 20th century doesn’t look especially nonviolent. It’s maybe somewhat lower, but not as much lower as if you just looked at deaths in war directly.
Rob Wiblin: I guess you could imagine that your theory of wars forming strong states, that they reduce violence — at least they reduce interpersonal violence internally — that that could be exactly right. But at the same time, it’s a kind of a poisoned chalice, because you now have states that are so powerful and so impregnable that they can absolutely commit horrendous atrocities, kill tens of millions of their own population and get away with it, and potentially even benefit in some political sense if you’re a dictator that’s trying to maintain control. What do you think of this idea that central governments might be good in certain ways but bad in others, and then perhaps a bit ambiguous on balance?
Ian Morris: I guess I largely agree with both of those points. The first one, about all these different things you can include in your calculations, I think that’s absolutely right. It’s all about definitions, as it is in any historical question. I think there is a pattern that the bigger the questions you ask, the more decisive the definitions become.
Ian Morris: So say we look at this decline of violent death over time. A purist would say that the way you’ve got to do this is just to look at the strictly physical violence: Is the guy hitting the other guy in the head or not? Did the bomb go off or not? That’s what you’re going to be looking at here. The advantage to narrowing it down that much — this, I think, tends to be the way with all scientific questions — is the more you narrow it down, the more precise your tool gets. Then it becomes much easier to use the skeletal evidence to trace this over time because that is now what you’re looking at. Using skeletal evidence, you can’t observe all this collateral damage, I guess some people would call it.
Ian Morris: I felt when I was doing my book, that was overly narrow. Even though methodologically it’s got this appeal just in terms of what I wanted to know, that was too narrow. I think if you’re going to look at the long-term history of violence, you’ve also at least got to look at the sort of direct collateral damage, like famine. World War I is the last major war where famine and disease were not the major killers. In World War I, actually disease was the major killer if you include the flu pandemic coming on after the formal peace treaty. These are massive killers. So I think any attempt to measure the impact of war that doesn’t look at famine and disease is just ridiculous. You’re living in a fantasy world. But the problem is then you dramatically increase your methodological problems, because you’ve got to extrapolate these things. So there’s always a tradeoff.
Ian Morris: Other things, though, like the examples you’re talking about. I think if it was something like the famine in Ukraine that Stalin more or less deliberately brought about in the 1930s, or then the famines and disease that Chairman Mao caused with the Great Leap Forward at the beginning of the 1960s — arguably the biggest manmade disaster in the history of the world — should those be included in your definition of the violent deaths caused by war and the formation of governments? I think there’s room to argue that either way. Of course there’s also disagreement over what the numbers are. I would say if you did include those, we’ve still got a pretty substantial step down in the 20th century over the 19th — but yes, absolutely not as strong as if you exclude them.
Ian Morris: My feeling is that those are things that ought to be considered under a second heading — the heading, in fact, which is the other part of what you were saying. Not as part of the governmental mechanism, but as part of the consequences of having it. It struck me very early on when I was writing that book, War! What Is It Good For? that reducing violent death is a good thing. I am strongly in favour of reducing violent death. Almost everyone I’ve ever met thinks that reducing violent death is a good thing. However, I know a lot of people who will say reducing violent death is not the only good thing. I mean, going back to John Stuart Mill, again, we are all free to choose among competing goods and decide what we think is the most important good. And reducing violent death in some ways may be a good thing, but it might bring costs that I am unwilling to bear.
Ian Morris: I say one of the big lessons for reducing violent death is that governments need to take the weapons away from their subjects. That is so glaringly obvious that it shocks me that anyone could fail to recognise this is a fundamental truth. If I’ve got a gun and I have an argument with you, it’s way more likely you’re going to end up dead than if I don’t have a gun. I’m not necessarily going to shoot you. If I don’t have the gun, I might still go get a kitchen knife and stab you. But the more deadly force you put in the hands of ordinary people, the more they’re going to use it. This is not rocket science.
Ian Morris: However, there are costs to having a government that will take away your right to use force in your own defence. We all know what these arguments are. There are some very sensible people who will say, “Yeah, I’m all for my government having enough force at its disposal to deter the Russians from firing a nuclear weapon in New York City. But I don’t want them to have enough force at their disposal to take away the rifle I use for hunting or the shotgun that belonged to my granddad” — whatever it might be. So these are topics that reasonable, honest people can legitimately disagree on.
Ian Morris: So having a government powerful enough to create the Great Leap Forward in early China and starve tens of millions of people to death, yeah, I don’t think that’s a very good idea. But are we willing to take away the power of governments to run societies and get things done? Because if you take away the power to cause a Great Leap Forward, you’re going to be taking away a lot of other power as well.
Ian Morris: So I’d say it’s up to you what you count in your definition of war, of violent death — and different definitions are going to do more or less work, depending on the specific question you’re trying to answer. I’m a big one for tailor-made definitions for particular questions. I do think it’s not a moral offence to define terms differently from somebody else. A lot of people act like it is. It really is not. These are things that we can discuss and reasonable people can come to the conclusion, “If we define things your way, you’re right. If we define things my way, I’m right. The advantages to define them your way are as follows; the advantages to defining them my way are as follows.”
Ian Morris: And because of what John Stuart Mill said, I am free to define them my way. If I can persuade enough other people to define them my way, I will be voted into office and we will do it my way. And no one has yet — until we get the algorithm — come up with a better way of making the decisions than that.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. This is just an aside, but apparently Cuba had a massive fuel shortage in the ’90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They had to come up with all these alternatives to driving cars because there was just such limited fuel available for mechanised transport. And people’s life expectancy actually went up because they were getting so much exercise from no longer driving around in cars. Similarly in Britain, in World War II, obviously there was serious food rationing of course. People’s health got better because of the massively improved equality of access to nutrition. These are just extraordinary facts to me, but I’m not sure what the conclusion is.
Ian Morris: I think those are great examples of the reasons why social engineering is a little bit scary. We almost never agree on where we want the world to go. We almost never understand the mechanisms that are at our disposal for getting there. I think one of the things that thinking about history in the evolutionary kind of way pushed me toward was this fundamental understanding that nobody is in charge.
Ian Morris: One of the evolutionists before the flag — one of the people who thought like an evolutionist before Darwin had really come up with any of the principles — was Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, who also wrote The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s great insight was: You want to get your dinner? Well, don’t look to the benevolence of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers to deliver your dinner. Look to their self-interest. Free up society so everyone is able to do their own thing, pursue their own interests as much as they possibly can. The end result is you get your dinner. Start laying down rules about who can trade with whom and who is allowed to own a field of wheat, and you’re going to make everybody poorer.
Ian Morris: Obviously, there’s a million exceptions to the Smithian rule, but that, I think, sort of is the way to look at history: the unintended consequences tend to massively outweigh the intentional ones. We don’t know where we’re going. And yet, on balance, looking back across hundreds of thousands of years of history, nowadays the average life expectancy in the world is way up into the 80s. Even in the poorest countries in the world, your life expectancy is way beyond anything your grandparents could have thought about.
Ian Morris: People nowadays are massively freer than they were a couple of centuries ago over most of the world. People’s material goods and consumption is massively higher than it was at any time in the past. Any time up to the last few hundred years, out of every two babies born, one is going to be dead before it’s five. I don’t know if you’ve got kids or not, but if you have: which one do you want to have dead?
Ian Morris: This is what all the terrible things we’ve done have given us. We know so much more about the universe than we ever did before. The overwhelming population of the world today is literate. Up till a few thousand years ago, nobody on the planet was literate. This, I think, is the optimistic reading to take away from history. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re blundering. We’re selfish. We’re often cruel and callous. And yet despite all of it, things have turned out better than anybody would have dreamed they would.
Where is history contingent and where isn’t it? [02:29:45]
Rob Wiblin: A common thread that has to run through a lot of your work is this general question of whether history is contingent, and can be swung by the choices of individual people, or whether in the grand scheme of things, individuals just all net out, and the broad trends continue somewhat inexorably due to the underlying forces, geographical or otherwise — that humans would find it impractical to coordinate to a level that would allow them to stop them.
Rob Wiblin: If the former is true and history is highly contingent, then placing the right people in positions of power could be a great way to make the future of humanity go better. If the latter is true, then maybe that’s kind of the wrong way to go about things, and we need to be more humble about what we can achieve and how we might be able to do it. What are your views on historical contingency?
Ian Morris: I think, like a lot of things, it’s not an either/or question. People often cast it this way. The struggle of the VIFs and the VIPs, as I like to think of them: the “vast impersonal forces” and the “very important person.” It sort of is a struggle between these two, but it’s not like either wins.
Ian Morris: So I think that thinking you are going to change the world can only ever be true in a rather limited sense: you can change the world within the parameters of what physical reality is going to allow to happen. Thinking that we are the slaves of circumstance and the slaves of physical forces: again, I think that’s just a very blinkered way to think about the world. All of the work that I’ve been doing has been looking at how geography determines how societies develop, but how the societies developed determine what the geography means.
Ian Morris: No one has ever got the answers. Nobody’s ever telling anybody what’s going on. So people have to decide for themselves what is going on out there in the world, and you make decisions about what you’re going to do. Then some are basically more in touch with reality than others are. Say in the forager world: putting a big chief over you is actually a terribly bad idea. This is highly unlikely to lead to a good outcome. But if you’re in a world where institutions exist that can make leadership into a productive kind of thing, getting the right people into those jobs is very, very important. The right people are the ones whose instincts or reason lead them to pursue policies that are actually going to work in the real world.
Ian Morris: So I think a classic case of this is in fact with the book I’ve just been writing, going to be out in the spring, called Geography is Destiny. It’s basically about how the meanings of geography change for the British Isles over time and catapult Britain from being kind of the poor cousin of Europe — this group of islands off the northwest coast of Europe, where all the big innovations come last and arrive in their weakest form — catapulted from that to in the 18th and 19th centuries being the absolute centre of the world. Because of technological changes and organisational changes, the meanings of geography shift so that Britain’s position, sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean, suddenly becomes a huge advantage.
Ian Morris: But not everybody sees that. In fact, most people don’t see that. This is beginning to become true. It’s beginning to become true by about 1550 or so, but certainly up till 1700, there’s a major body of thought within the British Isles that we need to carry on doing what we’ve always been doing. For a long time now we’ve been allied with the other Protestant powers in Europe against the Catholic French. The Protestant/Catholic thing, that’s the most important thing; that is what we need to stand by and what the British Isles needs to try to do is maintain itself as a great power on the continent, influencing the decisions of other continental great powers.
Ian Morris: So you start getting people coming along in the 16th century, but it only really takes hold around 1700, just saying, “You guys, you are misunderstanding the meaning of geography here. What you need to do is recognise that Britain’s future lies on the oceans — in the Americas, in India. That’s what we need to think about. Europe is an irrelevance. Europe matters though, because it’s possible for a European power like France to get so powerful, it can challenge us. It can challenge us on the seas. It can even directly invade the British Isles. So that must never be allowed to happen. But that is the only reason we care about Europe. So our job is basically to be pains in the neck for the Europeans and to disrupt everything they try to do: anytime a European power looks like it’s really getting its game together and organising things and becoming influential, get in there and spoil things.”
Ian Morris: That’s Britain’s policy. This is one of the reasons why Britain was so unpopular on the continent. Perfidious Albion, they called the British. The British say, “Form alliances. Always make an alliance with the second-strongest power in Europe to drag down the strongest one. And if you start succeeding and the strongest one is being dragged down, abandon your ally and join the strongest one, because he’s now second strongest. So now you want to drag down the one who used to be your ally. Just mess everything up for everybody.” As long as you do that, then you are free to “encompass the trade of the world,” which is the expression they liked to use, and become the greatest power.
Ian Morris: Of course, you don’t have to push things all that far to think that the thinking going through the minds of many of the people who wanted to leave the European Union was basically along these very 18th century lines: “Europe has become collectively a great power that is constraining our freedom of manoeuvre, is becoming a threat to us internally as well as externally. Well, let’s mess it up. If us leaving, or even us failing to leave, sufficiently destabilises the European Union that it ceases to function, well, that is not the worst outcome in the world.” So I think there’s this long strategic line of thought behind what the Brexiteers were trying to do.
Ian Morris: But I think this is where leadership clearly does have a role. If you cast the question in a really hardline way — “Has any individual ever decisively changed the world?” — I say, first of all, you need to define what your question is. To change it in what way? When I was writing my Why the West Rules book, I framed the question as, “Has any individual had the power to completely change the distribution of development between one end of the world and the other?” I’d say the first person who ever had that power was John F. Kennedy in 1962, when he could have caused a nuclear war, which could have fundamentally changed that balance. Now, quite a lot of people have that power. This is one of the reasons why we’re living in a scary world.
Rob Wiblin: So you’re saying perhaps in the past it was rarer for people to have the ability to change. I guess they could change who was on top in what area for a while, but geography would tend to take control again, or the underlying forces would tend to gradually wipe out what they’d done.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose today as well, individual leaders can change which countries are most influential within Europe or within Asia at any given point in time. But over longer time scales, there’s going to be other factors that are more key and that person’s actions might get gradually erased. But I suppose now — at least in terms of the risk of war, because the effects of a major war could be so enormous — they could potentially be permanent, or we could be looking back hundreds of years, thousands of years in the future, saying, “Wow, that was a decisive event that really changed the course of how things went permanently.”
Ian Morris: Yeah. I guess I’m reasonably optimistic about the likelihood of major war, at least within the foreseeable future. The costs are so high, statesmen generally have a sense of where the edge of things is. I think there’s a pretty good chance we’re not likely to blunder into a major nuclear war in the near future. But because we’re living in such changeable times, this is the great challenge: that changeable times, where people are not entirely sure what the Americans are able or willing to do or what kind of alliance they can bring along with them, makes it much more difficult to be sure about this. While, again, I will be horribly surprised if the Ukraine war leads to a larger nuclear conflict, it makes it much more likely, much more possible than it was before this was happening.
Ian Morris: I’d formed the impression, like a lot of strategy people, that Vladimir Putin had actually played his cards extremely well over the 2010s in judging where the limits were and pushing and consistently getting the better of the Western alliance. Now the Ukrainian invasion, as we’re speaking, looks like it was a disastrous miscalculation on his part. But I am still reasonably optimistic that there’s not going to be a miscalculation so dramatic that it actually leads us to nuclear conflict. I do think, on the whole, leaders know what sort of things they can do that could potentially lead to disastrous outcomes, and what they tend to do is to move much more gently, much more carefully.
Rob Wiblin: Something that we haven’t actually gone into in that much detail is that you think one of the main reasons that Europe took off around 1800 was its massive use of fossil fuels, or the sudden engagement with fossil fuels, which allowed it to extract a lot more energy and start doing all kinds of things that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world. It seems like that is the kind of event where a group of people could have prompted a country to start using fossil fuels earlier than it did. Couldn’t you have had an intellectual circle in China who were like, “This coal thing, that is going to be the future. We should really get on coal and start using it.”
Rob Wiblin: Then maybe not a single person, but a bunch of scientists and engineers who then found applications for coal, could have plausibly have changed where the Industrial Revolution occurred first? Of course, they can’t do that to an unlimited degree, because it has to be in a place where there is coal available, ideally to mine without that much difficulty, and the other industrial precursors that you would need to make use of it. But inasmuch as there’s multiple places where it’s plausible that could happen, then small groups could change the course of history.
Ian Morris: Yes. I guess I would say yes and no to this. China and coal is one of the most popular examples. People will sometimes say, “Well, the British have got all the coal, so that’s why the Industrial Revolution happened there,” which is just completely not true. There are enormous deposits of coal in China and many of them are very easily accessible. There was one point in the 11th century where the city of Kaifeng in northern China had grown to a million people. They’ve deforested the area around the city, burning woods for heating and cooking. And they start digging up coal and burning that. And people have known for a very, very long time that this could be done. And in Roman Britain, in fact, the Romans dug up quite a lot of coal in Britain, used it for cooking and heating. And the Chinese are doing this in the 11th century, and they start figuring out ways to use it for other industrial techniques as well.
Ian Morris: Some historians think that the Chinese were coming close to having an industrial revolution of at least some kind about 700 years before the British did. And if you look at iron production in China in the 11th, 12th century, it’s higher than the whole of Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution there.
Ian Morris: So, what happens here? Is this a case of a bunch of people who could have had an industrial revolution then just, for some reason, it doesn’t quite come together? And it’s human error — if you want to think of that as an error, human judgement anyway — that led to that outcome? Or is there something else going on? I think in this case, there is pretty clearly something else going on, which is that the incentives out there to switch over to using a lot of coal just weren’t present in 11th century China, whereas they were in 18th century England.
Ian Morris: To use coal effectively as an industrial power — as a fossil fuel driving your machinery, all the other things that people start doing with coal — you’ve got to do a lot of stuff. A lot of tinkering has to happen. You don’t just decide you’re going to do this, then immediately you’ve got a working steam engine. In England, it took the best part of a couple of centuries to produce really workable fossil fuel engines, so you have to have reasons to do this. And in China — and for much of European history too — the upfront investments you’ve got to make to do the R&D that’s going to lead you to good coal-burning machines are enormous. And they’re not very attractive because it’s not obvious what the payoff is going to be.
Ian Morris: In ancient times, Greek engineers in Alexandria figured out steam-powered doors. They had steam-powered doors, where if you tread on a little metal pad, that sends a message down a spring that sends the pistons, and the pistons are powered by steam, and they open the doors magically for you. And everybody thought this was fantastic, but nobody saw any obvious industrial application of this. And if they had, I think the Greeks wouldn’t have had to have been geniuses to figure out they could use coal as well as wood to power these machines. They’d be well on the way to an industrial revolution.
Ian Morris: But it just wasn’t obvious why you would do that. Labour was cheap. You can always use the whip to drive the cost of labour down cheaper still. You don’t need to spend a lot of money paying weirdo engineers and tinkerers to come up with these fancy machines when there’s no obvious reason why they’re going to pay off. Plus, the weirdo engineers are often rather subversive, unlikable characters, ones who were very difficult to get them to do what you tell them, which is why so many governments throughout history have been rather repressive with technological innovation. They kind of don’t like the look of it.
Rob Wiblin: So the issue was to do with the cost of labour in Britain at the time, or the difficulty getting people to do work for low cost?
Ian Morris: Well, all these questions lead onto all these other questions you have to start going into. But the cost of labour in Europe explodes in the 14th century as one of these many unpleasant, unintended consequences. The Black Death kills nearly half the people in Europe. So now if you’re a landowner, and you’ve got big fields you want to get worked, it’s twice as difficult to get workers as it used to be. And you’ve got to use violence, so there’s a series of attempts to force workers to come and provide their labour cheaply. Doesn’t turn out all that well. Cost of labour explodes. The 15th century in Western Europe is the golden age to be a poor farm labourer. People go from living off basically bread and bits of cheese to living on mutton and beer and beef, and just the standards of living explode for the poor.
Ian Morris: But then, as the population recovers across the 16th, 17th centuries, this is the Malthusian problem, and the population starts to press on this. It’s easier and easier to get labour. Increasingly, land is what’s short, not labour. So the cost of land goes up, which is to the benefit of the landowners. Cost of labour goes down, which is to the cost of the poor. So you start getting labour cheaper and cheaper again. Except for two places — which are England and the Dutch Republic, the Netherlands — which are super plugged in to the new North Atlantic economy, which for them changes everything. They’re now plugged into this totally different, bigger economic system.
Ian Morris: And in those countries, the poor can always find employment in factories. It may not be the employment you want, it may not pay very well, it may be dangerous — all kinds of horrible things about it, in fact — but you can get food. And wages in England and Holland remain more or less stable, while they’re going down and down and down in other parts of Europe. And one of the difficulties manufacturers in England start to have in the 18th century is that wages are really high in England relative to other places. It’s beginning to price low-cost English manufacturers out of all these markets the English are now able to open because of their access to the Atlantic.
Ian Morris: So the incentives for English manufacturers to find some ways to augment expensive labour go through the roof. Other places, you’re trying to drive the cost of labour down lower and lower. It’s subtly different in England. If we can augment this labour, that will make everything work again. And so all over China, all over Europe, people are playing around with steam engines. They understand perfectly well that you’ve got a great labour enhancer here. If you can heat water to create steam that will drive pistons that can power textile mills, it can power steel loading, all this stuff, there’s a lot of money to be made here. But there’s more money to be made in England or the Netherlands than absolutely anywhere else, and we should not be surprised in the least that these are the two countries that lead the charge toward the Industrial Revolution.
Ian Morris: And it took them a long time. Chinese engineers had figured out some similar things back in the 11th and 12th centuries, but then they just sort of gradually moved away from that. Partly for military reasons. They had a series of disastrous defeats, the big cities broke up. But also partly because initially when it starts happening, the kind of machines you can make with steam power are not going to make you super rich; they’re not that useful. Again, it’s this problem of you can’t see the future.
Ian Morris: The guys who initially make steam engines in England do them for one purpose and one purpose only, which is to set them up at coal mines to pump water out of the shafts. Because as the English are using more and more coal, they’re digging deeper and deeper shafts, and they get flooded more easily by groundwater. They send up teams of horses to haul buckets of water out, but this is staggeringly expensive. There isn’t enough land in England to generate all the forage you would need to feed all the horses you want. So a steam engine, it’s like 1,000 horses, which is why we measure in horsepower. This was their decision because of this reason. It’s 1,000 horses and they’re eating coal. Isn’t that fantastic?
Ian Morris: And initially, they don’t bother very much about the efficiency of the steam engine, because you’ve got unlimited coal because you’re at a coal mine, so who cares? But then guys start saying, “Oh, man, if I had one of them newfangled steam engines, I could set it up at my cotton mill. It could power this huge weaving machine. I could get rid of a lot of workers. Or I can’t find workers, so this would allow the few I’ve got to run all these spindles at the same time. This is fantastic.” But those engineers can’t figure out a machine that doesn’t burn so much coal that it’s not efficient to set one up at my mill.
Ian Morris: So the big challenge for guys like James Watt and the other engineers is how do you lower the coal consumption of your coal-fired engine to the point that people can start to use it in other industrial applications? The solution was actually glaringly obvious, but just nobody could make it work. And so Watt gets together with Matthew Boulton, this manufacturer in Birmingham, and they make it more or less work. Then all these other guys come along and add little bits and add little bits and add little bits. And basically, that’s why Britain ruled an empire on which the sun never set, because of coal and tinkerers.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess it seems like it’s the case that the more specific thing you look at, the more it’s contingent on the actions of individuals. And then the more you zoom out to the big picture, the more it’s like these geographic factors. Or the more abstract the thing, the more it’s a matter of geography and technology and interacting and so on. Can you think of any examples that are maybe nicely on the boundary between things that are quite specific and quite abstract and high level, that kind of show where the boundary is between contingent and inevitable?
Ian Morris: Well, I guess the way I tend to think about it is kind of in terms of different frames of analysis and different questions that you ask. So, say, like I asked in the book Why the West Rules—For Now: Why did a small group of countries clustered around the North Atlantic Ocean come to dominate the whole planet in the last 200 years? In a way, the world had never seen anything like that before. That’s a very high-level question. And if you’re asking that question, the answer is overwhelmingly “geography”: a one-word answer to the question. But of course, then it has to be qualified by the interaction between geography and individuals, geography driving how the societies developed, that deciding what the geography means.
Ian Morris: If you take the same question and you narrow it down — Why was it that a small group of countries around the shores of the North Atlantic come to dominate the world precisely starting in the years between about 1718 and 1820? — then we would have a much more complicated kind of question to answer. If James Watt, the great engineer, and Matthew Boulton, his industrial backer, if neither of them had been born, it wouldn’t happen in quite the same way. It would’ve been different. I think the Europeans would still have come to dominate the planet, but it would have certainly taken longer. And the centre of innovation might have been in the Netherlands or in northern France, around Lisle, rather than in the English Midlands where I grew up.
Ian Morris: Or then again, maybe it would’ve all happened faster. One of the things Watt did was through his financial backers, he got Boulton to go and bother all these people in parliament, and his backers got together and agreed. Parliament granted James Watt a special patent, which then nobody else in the whole of the British Isles was allowed to experiment with steam engines for the next I think 20 years, or some insane length of time. The worst possible thing you could have, just stifle competition and invention. But he got this patent. And so some historians will say, well, the best thing that could have ever happened for the British industrialisation is if James Watt had been hit by a horse-drawn carriage.
Rob Wiblin: A bus. Sorry, horse-drawn carriage, of course.
Ian Morris: Other guys, they do figure out tweaks. They figure out ways around Watt’s patent, but they’ve got to be really, really ingenious. Watt had this obsession about never having high-pressure steam engines. He was convinced they were all going to blow up and kill everybody, and so he wouldn’t experiment with them. So we wouldn’t have had railway transport if Watt had been in charge of the show, because this Cornish guy thinks out a way to evade some of the regulations to produce high-pressure steam engines light enough to mount on wheels and power along rails.
Ian Morris: So I think a lot of this question — Is it the individual? Is it the vast impersonal forces? Where is the cusp between the two? — depends on the scale of the question you are answering. Yes, the smaller you make your question, the more the causal power shifts over to the accidental, to the individual.
Ian Morris: Adolf Hitler gets hit by a bus in 1935: Do we get a Second World War? We don’t get the Second World War we had, I think there’s no doubt about that. But a lot of the forces that made the Second World War possible are still there. The problems Germany has got are still there. And I think it’s very possible you would’ve got a German leader — I can’t think who it would’ve been — who said, “Yeah, Hitler maybe had the right idea about reviving Germany, but war is not the answer. There are other ways we can do this.”
Ian Morris: Maybe a sort of precursor of Angela Merkel, who sees what’s happening in the future and says, “Oh, well this is the way. We just bide our time. We have such industrial potential. We don’t have to do any of these insane things.” Or maybe you get somebody in the middle who said, “Well, a limited war, maybe that will do it. Or maybe a war that is not about exterminating the Jews, maybe that will do it.” All these different sorts of possibilities. I think refining your question is always the key thing. What exactly do you want to know? Because that’s going to determine the role of individuals, the role of accidents, and the range of possible what-if outcomes.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I’ve been going through a biography of Hitler recently, and we were just at this stage of taking over. It does seem like without Hitler, things could have gone extremely differently. There were a lot of reactionary, violent parties in Germany at the time, but it wasn’t at all obvious that one of them necessarily had to rise to power. And even by 1931, 1932, it was completely not obvious that he would end up taking control. He seemed to get incredibly lucky in some ways. So yeah, I think people kind of cite that as an example where it seems like one person really did massively change history, but I suppose there is still the possibility that the structural factors that led to Hitler’s rise could have led to the rise of some other pretty unpleasant person as well.
Ian Morris: Yeah. I think Hitler is an extreme case. And if you’re looking for “one man changes everything” stories, then Hitler is going to be a good place to start, definitely. I think sort of the pushback, the alternative theory of history, which people actually often call the “Engels theory of history”: Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s sidekick, wrote this book saying if there had not been a Napoleon, then historical necessity would’ve created Napoleon. Which I think is a slightly ridiculous sort of view.
Ian Morris: But take Hitler off the scene — and again, with the counterfactuals, you’ve got to be very precise: what, when, and how do we do that? Is he never born? Because that’s a very different way to take him off the scene than if you take him off the scene, say, immediately before they appoint him as chancellor, and he gets assassinated. So you’ve got to be precise about what you’re doing there.
Ian Morris: But Hitler’s gone somehow or other. The forces that made Hitler possible are still very much there. And you look at the other countries in Europe, a lot of them are already in the early ’30s moving toward rather brutal right-wing dictators. And of course, terrible to say this, but most of those countries don’t matter at the level where pitching this question of “Do we get something like World War II?”, where Romania gets, as it does, a brutal right-wing dictator. That kind of doesn’t matter, because it’s not likely that Romania can cause World War II.
Ian Morris: Big players, though: Is it possible that if you took Hitler out of the equation, would the other big players get leadership that lead us into a Second World War? And there, I think, Stalin is this scary wildcard. There’s been a lot of arguments just recently about why Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, because some documents came up making it sound like Stalin was planning an invasion of Germany on the eve of what Hitler actually did when he invaded: Operation Barbarossa. It’s almost certainly wrong, but it does look like Stalin saw his deal he cut with Hitler as being something to buy him time, and that a violent attack on Central Europe probably was in the cards at some point.
Ian Morris: So your guess, and your listeners’ guesses, are every bit as good as mine as to what would’ve happened. I think it’s distinctly possible there still would’ve been a major war in the mid-20th century, because everything is still going on with Japan whether Hitler’s there or not. But I do think the Hitler case is one of the most promising ones for the people who want to shift the balance decisively towards the agency.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, Stalin’s another interesting one, because he’s kind of, as a person, just a real force of nature, and incredibly conniving and incredibly clever in seizing power. But at the same time, with that one, I feel like there were stronger structural factors in the way that the communist revolution had happened in Russia and the way the party was organised that was pushing for more brutal and more violent people to take over. I think it’s not mere happenstance that the doves and people like Bukharin and so on did not manage to seize control of the Soviet Union. Lenin’s ideology was pushing towards violence, and if you were not willing to play that game of purging people, then you were going to get purged with pretty high probability. So not surprising that the most violent rose to the top.
Ian Morris: Yes. Back in the days when I was a student, there used to be this line that was quite popular, that Lenin was the nice dictator, Stalin was the bad man who perverted the course of the revolution. When I was a student, you never asked if somebody was a Marxist. Everybody was a Marxist. You just asked, “What kind of Marxist are you?” So there’s a lot of apologies for the Soviet Union. It’s pretty clear that Lenin’s regime was as reliant on force as Stalin’s. If Lenin had lived longer, maybe not all of the stuff that Stalin did would’ve happened, but an awful lot of that was going to happen. Collectivisation wasn’t the only policy they were thinking about, but it’s such a powerful policy that seeing them indefinitely putting off collectivisation, indefinitely not having a Ukrainian famine, that I think just pushes credibility.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. At the risk of offending our Leninist listeners, I’ll say I’m not a huge fan of Lenin. I think he was a bad dude. Going further back in history though, before the Industrial Revolution, who are plausible cases for individuals who have materially changed the world that we live in today? The kind of style of life that we have, or the values that we might have? Are there plausible cases?
Ian Morris: Yes, I think there certainly are. But again, it’s all a matter of how you define the question. And so, the first time I really started thinking hard about this was when I was writing Why the West Rules—For Now, and the central question in that book is about your Western social developments being higher than any other part of the world. So when I was asking for that book about individuals changing the course of history, what I meant was: Are there individuals who could have changed where these development lines are on the graph? — which is setting the bar pretty high, I admit. But that was what led me to this conclusion, that basically before 1962, before John Kennedy, there’s nothing any individual could have done that would’ve fundamentally changed these patterns.
Ian Morris: The example I wrote about in the book was Muhammad. Pretty much everybody would agree Muhammad was a great man. Islam changed the world in many, many ways. And if Muhammad had not had that vision of the angel coming to him as he was sleeping — or if his wife had persuaded him that it was actually just something he imagined rather than a real angel, all these ifs — no Islam, things really different. But then looking at it through the lens of social development, by the time Muhammad has his vision of the angel, late sixth century CE, Western development has already started falling. At the fall of the Roman Empire, it starts falling. Eastern development is recovering from the collapse of Han dynasty China.
Ian Morris: So the Eastern line is going up, the Western line is coming down. Islam does have some impact on these lines. The impact Islam has is that as things are, in a sense, falling to bits in Christian Europe, Islam unites much of the old Byzantine Empire and then large other parts of the world as well. This upset some readers very much, but I wrote that in a sense, the Islamic world becomes the Western world. It’s the most developed part of the Western end of Eurasia. It’s where all the really important stuff is going on for several centuries.
Rob Wiblin: Well, they take on and become stewards of what was Roman and Greek knowledge, a lot of information which was basically lost within Europe proper.
Ian Morris: Yeah. The biggest cities, the highest standards of living, the most sophisticated science and engineering, most sophisticated agriculture, all of this stuff is in the Islamic world. And so it’s the Islamic world we need to be looking at for development scores. But in spite of Muhammad, Western development keeps going down. Even though Muhammad has spread Islam and Islam has pulled together stuff, things would’ve gone even worse for the Western end of Eurasia, without Islam coming and taking over. The Christian part really does collapse very dramatically. But even with the Muslim takeover, it doesn’t change the fundamental underlying patterns.
Ian Morris: And I think this is true of other great men or bungling idiots, depending on how you choose to evaluate each individual — usually there’s more than one way to look at these people. Certainly any individual Roman, like Julius Caesar or something, none of them really did anything that fundamentally changed these patterns. I would say that’s probably true everywhere.
Ian Morris: One of the examples that gets talked about very much is the Chinese emperors who shut down the great voyages of these treasure fleets, just at the point Europe was starting up its voyages of exploration in the 15th century. But again, it’s not an individual — it’s a whole series of individuals with hundreds and hundreds of super-qualified civil servants sharing in these decisions. It’s very difficult to see how any one individual could really have made a significant difference to these decisions. So yeah, I think it’s only when you get people who have the destructive power to, at one stroke, change everything with nuclear weapons — that’s when individuals come to the fore.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess you’ve got some Roman emperors around the time when it seemed like everything was about to unravel, in like the fourth or fifth century, who managed to pull things together. I think Diocletian, from memory, and the triumvirate and so on. But that’s another case where it seems like maybe they gave the Roman Empire another 200 good years, but there are other factors that caused it to nonetheless fall to pieces later on. Perhaps it was overextended, or maybe these things just have kind of a random number generator that means that eventually an empire falls apart, for whatever random reasons that they come together. And so no one person can extend its life indefinitely.
Ian Morris: Yeah. With all these examples, of course, the historical scholarship is always enormous, and you’ve got all these people disagreeing fundamentally. In the 280s, Diocletian kind of pulls things back together. And I think the most popular theory at the moment is that the reason the empire comes apart so badly in the third century is not because of any real underlying structural problems — or not new ones, exactly — so much as a sort of grand bargain within the elites that made it seem worthwhile to them to play ball with the empire, which unravelled for a number of different reasons. And once it’s unravelled, the emperors can’t get anybody to do what they want and everybody’s fighting each other. And once that starts, everything else starts falling to bits as well, the frontiers dissolve. And in the late third century, they begin putting that grand bargain back together.
Ian Morris: And Diocletian is important. I don’t think any historian would deny that. But if they’d had a different emperor, if they’d had one who’d lived as long as Diocletian… This was his great contribution. There were several previous guys in the 270s who definitely started putting the same bargain back together, but then they get killed, which is kind of an occupational hazard at that point for emperors. He is a genius, doesn’t get killed. And so things get put back together. And of course we are guessing, but I think one of the most popular guesses is that it would’ve kind of got stitched back together without Diocletian anyway. But again, this is why it’s so difficult to rigorously test theories about the balance between individual agency and vast impersonal forces. There’s so many moving parts. There’s always going to be arguments over any individual case.
Rob Wiblin: What the counterfactual was, yeah.
Ian Morris: Yeah, exactly. What precisely is your question? I can change the world right now in the sense that I can decide to leave this interview or put a different pair of socks on or something, which will cause a problem for you. It’ll briefly change your world. But by tomorrow, even you will have forgotten this happened. It just simply won’t matter. Everyone has free will, but very few people on Earth have free will that allows them to change things that matter for really big, large-scale questions.
Ian Morris: Say I get hit by a bus right now. This is a very serious effect for my immediate family, a serious effect for my colleagues who’ve got to do a search to replace me, annoying for my students. Various circles of people around me are affected to varying degrees of seriousness by my squished-by-a-bus-ness. But not that many. Because there’s nothing I’m ever likely to do in my remaining years that’s going to change the world in respect to a lot of the big questions. Other people are much more important than me. But if you’re asking questions like why the West rules for now, why rates of violent death have fallen, very few people change the equation enough to affect those questions.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’m trying to think in my head, are there any other even really plausible cases of folks who changed history more than 300 years ago in a really persistent way? I think the most plausible ones I’m coming up with are the ones who founded the most successful religions. Like, could Jesus have changed the values that we hold today? Maybe we would be operating within a different cosmology and having more pagan values, or the kind of values that people had before Christianity came along? And likewise Islam, likewise Buddhism — some of these ideas have really persisted. It seems like within the bounds of what’s viable within a fossil fuel world or a farmer world, there’s a reasonable range. And some of these religions have definitely pushed things in one direction rather than another, in a way that doesn’t seem to have washed out.
Ian Morris: I think you are right that the figures who immediately jump into mind are mostly religious ones. One of the really interesting things is you think, OK, so who are these great religious thinkers? Well, we had Muhammad already, the Buddha, Confucius — not exactly religious, but certainly a thought system, same kind of thing. Let me see, who else we got?
Rob Wiblin: Zoroaster.
Ian Morris: Yeah, exactly. A lot of people we can think of. But overwhelmingly they are what comparative historians would nowadays call “Axial Age thinkers.” This is an idea that goes back in different forms a couple of centuries now, that all of the great systems of thought that have guided billions of people — given meaning to their lives for many, many centuries or millennia even now — all of them are invented more or less around the middle of the first millennium BC in a chain of countries, from China to the east Mediterranean. All of them. And then they get propagated, carried out by missionaries and converts from there. All of them, roughly the same time in a single geographical area of the world.
Ian Morris: Why did that happen? One of these theories is you’ve got one kind of original great thinker, and then these principles of great thought get carried out from there. Because it is striking. Nobody’s going to confuse Confucianism for Christianity. That’d be an extremely strange mistake to make. But a lot of the principles are rather similar, about doing unto others fairly as you’d expect them to do unto you. And historians of religion will often say that the big thing with all of these Axial Age systems of thought is this idea: make your own fate. Your fate is in your own hands. Save yourself, because that is open to you.
Ian Morris: And a lot of earlier religions based on this idea that there’s kind of a great chain of being, from the gods in the sky down to the rulers of humans — the kings are provided by the gods, or often are gods, in Egypt say — the kings are divine, provided to us. Below them there’s the mortals, and the kings tell us what to do. And then below the mortals are animals. And of course, you have different categories of mortals as well, down to the poorest slave. Great chain of being. Salvation is really in the hands of the king dealing with the gods. That’s the most important thing in the cosmos.
Ian Morris: All of these Axial Age theories, in different ways, say your salvation is in your own hands, whether it’s through prayer or good deeds or philosophical contemplation or study or piety to your ancestors or meditation — they all come up with their own take on this, but kind of a similar thing: don’t rely on the elites to save you. Salvation is in the hands of the ordinary mortal. And then of course they’ll twist it in various directions.
Ian Morris: And so, one theory is that all this is invented in one place that spread out across Eurasia. That doesn’t seem to be the case. No one’s ever found any convincing evidence for that.
Ian Morris: The other theory is that in these places, in this band of civilisations, from China to the Mediterranean, first millennium BC, you’ve got roughly similar kinds of forces operating, pushing people’s thoughts in roughly the same directions. And they all independently come up with vaguely comparable Axial Age religions.
Ian Morris: I actually got roped in a few years ago, by a psychologist and a biologist and a statistician, to writing a paper for the journal Current Biology about this problem — where they took the social development index that I created for Why the West Rules—For Now, and then we expanded it to look at various other civilisations as well. And I tried to test the theory that civilisations will create Axial Age religions at the point when energy level and average income reach a certain height. And ultimately I think it’s the kind of question where we don’t have a knockout single-punch test for this theory, but there is at least a plausible case. And there’s been several things written attacking the article, but no one has come out and actually refuted this yet, and various other spinoff work has been done.
Ian Morris: So I think that this is a nice case in a way, that even these religious guys, we don’t know if they were right or not, but there’s at least a case to be made that these ideas are generated by the effects of geography pushing development up that cause people to think in new ways, which then of course reflects back into the effects of geography. And so what the individuals say does matter, but it’s part of a larger package.
Rob Wiblin: It’s interesting. I guess you’re kind of saying that as people switched into farming, maybe, or they had a particular level of energy, then new values, new religious ideas became possible. It became possible for them to flourish and spread in a way that previously might have been very challenging. But it also shows how wide a range there can be, that you can have Confucianism and Islam and Christianity and Zoroastrianism and Buddhism — that these are all potentially consistent value theories that are good enough to get along with the farming world and compete in the field of ideas. From one point of view, it shows that there’s actually a reasonable amount of flexibility.
Ian Morris: Yeah. And of course, we still kill each other in the millions over these things, but it’s like the narcissism of small differences. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all use basically the same holy books. I mean, these are quite small differences we’re working around.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’ve had a slight thing for the history of religious thought recently. I was very interested to find out that a lot of people think that Zoroastrianism is kind of the precursor to all of the Abrahamic religions, that a whole lot of ideas were introduced with Zoroastrianism that then seemed to carry through to Islam, to Judaism, and to Christianity, that basically seemed like they were absent in other religions in the area at the time. And indeed, absent from Buddhism, and I think from Taoism and Confucianism to some degree as well. Kind of a fascinating connection. I’m not sure whether people who are into those religions like that theory. Might seem a bit invalidating.
Ian Morris: I think there is something very distinctive about the Axial Age thought systems. Although, having said that, they nestle within larger, what you may call sort of “farming religions.” One of the things that religious comparison people like to talk about is how farming societies are the ones that tend to have high gods — a great all-powerful god, or group of gods, a pantheon, will do just as well — and that the high gods actually care about what you’re doing. Which sounds sort of weird, but one of the things you often find with hunter-gatherer societies is that ancestors are really important. And gods exist. Ancestors are really important, though. Spirits of animals can be really important. The gods are just not that big a part of the story. They’re sort of in the background: “It’s my god, yeah, but he doesn’t actually do anything.”
Ian Morris: And then farmers come along and all of a sudden what the high god thinks is really, really important. And the high god cares very deeply about whether you eat meat on a Friday. And if you do, you are wicked. The high god tells you who you’re allowed to marry. The high god has rules on everything. And it’s sort of inconceivable to think of a religion of the book where you say, yes, high god exists and the high god is all-powerful. High god can do everything, but he doesn’t actually mind what I do. In fact, high god, he cares on Wednesdays, but not on Thursdays. Thursdays, it’s fine — do whatever you like.
Ian Morris: It’s a ridiculous basis for a religious system. And yet, these religious systems with the all-seeing, all-powerful gods and pantheons are very much a farming world kind of thing. And then the systems that have carried on really successfully into the industrial age have been these Axial Age ones. I think that clearly there are some sort of big patterns, and a lot of room to argue over them, but some sort of big patterns going on here.
Rob Wiblin: Maybe we need someone to innovate and come up with a new fossil fuel religion. That would be an interesting effort.
How Ian thinks about the future [03:12:54]
Rob Wiblin: This is super fun, but at some point I’ve got to take mercy on you and let you go. So as a final section, I’d like to move on to maybe your visions and thoughts about the future. We touched on that a little bit earlier on. From your particular perspective, as someone who’s thought about the very long term and how things have played out and how things have changed, are there any particular problems in the world or ways that things could go right or wrong over the next 100 or 200 years that particularly jump out at you as perhaps things that people don’t fully appreciate how important they are in the scheme of things and how they might have ongoing effects?
Ian Morris: Yeah. I think it’s less true right now that people don’t think about this enough than it was up to very, very recently. But the one thing I think people have just sort of forgotten is nuclear war. Nuclear weapons didn’t go away. We had 70,000 of them in the 1980s — could almost certainly have killed all humans, probably all life — and we’ve now gotten rid of 90% of them, which is the most extraordinary thing in the history of the world. If there’s one thing for humanity to be happy about, it’s the graph of the falling numbers of nuclear weapons. The happiest graph on Earth. And this is all fantastic, but we can still make some. And this is the big thing with humans: it’s not impossible to make us forget how to do things, but it is quite difficult. So nuclear war is still out there.
Ian Morris: Global warming is a huge threat and a challenge for humanity, but it’s probably not going to make us extinct. It’s going to mean horrible changes. Well, some probably will turn out to be beneficial. On balance, it’s going to be nightmarish. I live in a wooded area in the mountains in California and I’ve seen quite a lot of the consequences of global warming out here. This is going to be nightmarish. But nuclear war will kill everybody. Nuclear war ends every story. Biological warfare potentially as well — but nuclear war, definitely.
Ian Morris: This is the number one thing to worry about. And when I’m trying to be annoying, I’ll ask friends, “What do you worry about most?” I’ve never once had anybody say nuclear war. I think largely because of the change in geopolitics. The likelihood of Russia — which since the 1980s has always had the largest arsenal on Earth — firing at us has been very, very low. Well, it’s less low. And people are starting to rebuild nuclear weapons. This is the most alarming trend on the planet, that people are starting to rebuild their nuclear weapons, to target them better. If you want something not to sleep about, nuclear weapons is the one.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think the New START treaty is going to expire in 2024, 2025, from memory. And it’s not obvious given how the relationship is between these countries right now that they’re going to come up with a new treaty or renew it. And then I think the chains are off. They can build a lot more nuclear weapons.
Ian Morris: Yes.
Rob Wiblin: The arsenals have been really quite low lately, sufficiently low that humanity wouldn’t go extinct, that we could recover. But what is the limiting principle if Russia and the US get into an arms race about nuclear weapons again? And then China will of course feel like it has to keep up. It’s really not something that bears thinking about.
Ian Morris: Yes. And of course the British government recently announced it’s going to start building new nuclear weapons for the first time in I think about 40 years. But actually, what I perhaps worry about more than anything is proliferation.
Rob Wiblin: More countries.
Ian Morris: Strategists would say the Cold War was dangerous but stable, because there were two players who really counted and you knew roughly what they were going to do. And one of the scary things that nuclear strategists will talk about with the current balance is India and Pakistan — as I’m sure you know, both nuclear armed — have deliberately avoided taking the step toward building the H bomb, thermonuclear weapons: when your one weapon can kill millions of people at one stroke in a city. They deliberately haven’t built those.
Ian Morris: The most popular theory is that they’re deliberately keeping their nuclear arsenal under the total war threshold. So that if India were to invade Pakistan, Pakistan can use nuclear weapons on Indian cities — sending this really, really strong message that the gloves are off now and we need to go to the peace table, otherwise the great powers are coming in with their nuclear weapons. Cold-blooded strategists will say, “Well, maybe that’s good. Maybe that’ll stop the war.” People who live in the real world will say, “You get the nuclear great powers confronting each other, there’s no way this is good. This is potentially the end of everything.” So yeah, so much to worry about.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So that’s one stream of thought on what matters most and ways that things could go really wrong. These disaster scenarios: great power conflict, use of biological weapons, I guess another horrific pandemic. Although I think the COVID thing has made me think that a natural pandemic is very unlikely to be an existential threat to humanity. We have so many options for countering that now, fingers crossed.
Rob Wiblin: But something that runs through so many of your books is just realising that people invent these new technologies kind of because they want to make some cotton cloth or something. And then this just completely upends the world. That basically the gunboats end up going into Japan and China and taking over all these places because some people wanted to remove water from coal.
Rob Wiblin: And in War! What Is It Good For?, you go through many different iterations of how people came up with the new technology. For example, people made bigger horses, they figured out how to ride them better, they figured out how to shoot arrows on horses. And this just leads to catastrophic destruction across so much of the world as all these herdsmen and raiders and so on basically pull apart these empires that had existed before. And this is just a handful of examples of cases where technology drove history in this massive, important way, and completely changed who was powerful in ways that no one anticipated before.
Rob Wiblin: Looking ahead, we’re saying we’ve got genetic engineering. We’ve got massive improvements in our ability to do biology, to make viruses, to make bacteria that do things we want. We’ve got massive changes in surveillance technology, in artificial intelligence. And how are these things going to play out? Who does that empower? What changes is that going to lead to in the world? I don’t know. And no one else knows either. People speculate and there’s all kinds of good and bad scenarios. But to some degree, looking at history and how it’s being driven by this interaction between technology and society and geography in ways that people now very rarely see — at least see more than like a decade ahead — it freaks me out.
Ian Morris: Yeah. One of the lessons you get from looking at the long-term history is how few people at the time ever understood quite what some of these new technologies were going to be capable of doing. And because it’s very difficult to imagine what the world is going to be like at that future state, how can you possibly imagine what the impact of the technology is going to be on that imagined world when you can’t imagine it?
Ian Morris: So this has always been there. I think one consequence of that is it’s easy and it’s kind of fun to sit around speculating, making up new things that we might invent or new uses of what we’ve already got that might just change everything. But I think that is in a way a rather pointless activity, because there’s just no way to constrain what you’re thinking.
Ian Morris: I think what’s much more useful is thinking about the things we can already see emerging as new technologies. And thinking about all the different branches that this might take. Fossil fuels is one of the favourite ones of these. I’m pretty optimistic that relatively soon the world is going to be moving massively away from fossil fuels. It’s going to take a long time to get off them completely, but massively away from them. And this has certain obvious upsides to it. Not killing all of ourselves is one of them. Also disempowering the dictators in charge of the petrostates is an obvious huge plus.
Ian Morris: But it also has all kinds of side passages on the chain of possibilities. One of them I was actually reading about in The Economist magazine this week, they were talking about this a little bit. As the difficulties of selling fossil fuel increases, initially the big really wealthy economies are going to be moving away from fossil fuels fastest, leaving the smaller economies behind more dependent on fossil fuels. And as big economies get out of producing fossil fuels, initially at least, more of the fossil fuels, not less, are going to be produced by the petrostates, leaving smaller, less advanced economies more dependent on the Russias and the Venezuelas and these sorts of people.
Ian Morris: I wasn’t totally convinced at the end how much we should worry about this, whether this is really going to change the world. But everything you do has these unintended consequences. And sometimes we can plan ahead and head them off. Sometimes you can’t.
Ian Morris: Actually, I once heard Robert Gates, the former Defense Secretary in the US, give this speech about future warfare. And he was saying to an audience, I think it was the West Point cadets audience, and he said to them, “You know, the United States has a 100% record of predicting future wars. We have a 100% record of being wrong.” And he said of course the reason we’re wrong 100% of the time is that when we see problems developing in one part of the world, we do something. We head them off. The only place we’re likely to have things go badly wrong is where we haven’t anticipated it and suddenly it bursts up there and we’re not ready for it. I think it’s a little bit the same with the futurists’ game, that it’s easy to plan for the things that you know are going to happen, but there’s just all this other stuff going on.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s an interesting example. One that I completely hadn’t thought about. I suppose if you’re concerned, for example, about how genetic engineering of humans could be applied. This is one of the technologies that could be a real game changer, could change the human experience, and could also give governments much more control over people perhaps than they have now, or control over how their societies evolve.
Rob Wiblin: That’s something that I don’t think is imminent in the next decade or two. At least not on any very significant scale. But I would be very happy if there was a significant research community trying its best, admittedly against difficult odds, to figure out what are the different ways that this could be used? What implications would that have? How would that change the power balance? And so on. Of course, at this point, they’re almost certainly going to be wrong. If this is a technology that isn’t going to be applied on a large scale for 30, 40, 50 years — or possibly for much longer if we decide to try to prevent it from being used.
Rob Wiblin: But then of course, as things get closer, you’ve got all of this body of literature to build on, all of these people who have thought about this for a long time. This has been their career. They’re deeply invested in this topic and they’ve already made the mistakes that otherwise they would have to make were they jumping into the topic just as it’s becoming relevant. So yeah, even though I think predicting the long term is a bad idea, I would like to see more people trying to do this speculative sociological analysis, political analysis, geopolitical analysis — so that when it is relevant, there’s people we can just take off the shelf and say, “You’ve been thinking about this for 30 years. What do you reckon?”
Ian Morris: Yeah, I think one of the sobering things, looking at historical examples of this kind of thing happening in the past, is that technology does seem to be an evolutionary process. I, of course, tend to think everything in history is an evolutionary process, but I think technology very clearly so. It’s a competitive process of different individuals and groups coming up with new ideas and starting to use them.
Ian Morris: So something like robot weapons is a big one. There’s a big movement to stop robot war, trying to put limits on what actors are able to do with the digital technology we’ve got now for replacing humans on the battlefield. The great problem people regularly raise about this is, say we make some equivalent of the Geneva Conventions about robot war and all these countries sign onto it. The well-behaved countries are more likely to obey it than the badly behaved countries. Once it’s been invented, it’s there for other people to work with.
Ian Morris:And we live in a competitive world. If it’s possible to have fully autonomous robot fighter planes that can make decisions in nanoseconds, while computer-assisted human-flown fighter planes are going to take at least milliseconds to make their decisions, then the nanosecond planes eat the millisecond planes for lunch. That’s just the way it is. And if you have a law banning the millisecond planes, then the people who sign the law lose the wars and the nanosecond guys take over the world. This is how evolution works.
Ian Morris: So while obviously we need to be worrying and thinking hard about what we can do to constrain the downside of new technologies, no one, as far as I’m aware, has ever yet succeeded in doing it. So we have to learn to live with these things, rather than think you can just stop it in its tracks.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Maybe this is getting a little bit specific here, but it seems like there is potentially a stable situation there. Especially when you have a weapon, potentially like automated weapons, that empower weaker countries. Where the most powerful countries that are on top, the most likely hegemons, get together and say, “We don’t want these technologies to be developed. We don’t want weaker countries to be building them. So we’re going to get together and bully any country that starts doing that: impose sanctions on them, potentially invade them, bomb the facilities, and so on if they start doing it.”
Rob Wiblin: To some extent, I think that might be what’s been going on with the fact that we definitely managed to slow down the development of chemical weapons and biological weapons, and to very massively reduce their use on the battlefield. It seems like that’s potentially in the interests of the most powerful countries, because that ensures that the weapons that are more expensive — that only they can afford — retain their dominance. What do you think of that?
Ian Morris: Yeah. The technologically oriented people like to look at the history of war in terms of these revolutions in military affairs. We get some breakthrough new technology or tactical system or something that doesn’t exactly render everything before it obsolete, but gives a great advantage to whoever adopts it. And these systems, you can trace them way back into prehistory. Some of them — I think probably most of them — favour the richest and most organised communities. But some of them don’t.
Ian Morris: You mentioned the introduction of the horse into warfare. The groups that benefited most from horse warfare were relatively disorganised, small populations of nomadic riders out on the Eurasian steppes, stretching from Hungary to China. And the great ancient empires of Rome and Persia, in India and China, they never entirely got on top of this mounted warfare thing, in large part because it’s just so much cheaper and easier to raise enormous herds of horses out on the plains than it is within Europe or India or places like this. So the balance of power shifted away from the great empires. And this was a lot of the reason behind why the Roman Empire disintegrated.
Ian Morris: And in modern times, this has always been a great debate going on with every new weapon system: who benefits the most out of this system? And so with nuclear weapons, initially you’ve got to be the United States to even have nuclear weapons. Only the super, super powerful and rich can have those. But now North Korea can have nuclear weapons. These things sort of seep out by themselves. And what starts off as a great power system can become a minor power system. And the other way around as well.
Ian Morris: And with a lot of the chemical agents, it’s often unclear how these are going to work. Right after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, there was a lot of anxiety about anthrax attacks and other chemical biological attacks. People were going to fly crop duster planes over Chicago and give everybody anthrax or something. It turned out, everybody who knows anything about this is saying, “Well, no. The concentrations you’ve got to produce are really, really high. You’ve got to have a really good lab, and then you’ve got to have a really sophisticated delivery service. The terror anthrax bomb thing, that kind of isn’t going to fly.”
Ian Morris: And also of course you have terrorist nuclear suitcase bombs and stuff, it’s kind of not likely. Whereas other things like a dirty bomb, a regular bomb with just radioactive material packed around it, that is likely. That is not difficult to do at all.
Ian Morris: So different systems have very, very different effects. And are we, as we move increasingly onto cyber warfare, are we now moving into an age where some pimply teenage kid in his parents’ basement can bring down the whole European banking system or something? Is this going to be the effect? There is some evidence to suggest that it’s still the really great powers, like the US, that are the ones who actually do the hard banging of heads together on the cyber front as well.
Macrohistory myths [03:29:12]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. An audience member wrote in with this question: What macrohistory myths would Ian most like to see effectively debunked or killed off?
Ian Morris: Macrohistory myths. Can I ask you to clarify? What sort of thing are we talking about?
Rob Wiblin: Oh, I guess, are there preconceptions among the general public, things that people think about big-picture history, that are really off base?
Ian Morris: Well I guess, when I think about it, pretty much all of the books I’ve written in the last 15 years or so have all been attempts to debunk macrohistory myths. Why the West Rules—For Now, my first sort of big history book, was taking aim at what I just thought were a lot of very stupid theories about Western dominance. Of which the genetic one was the most stupid of them: that there’s something biologically superior about white Europeans that makes it inevitable that white Europeans are going to dominate the planet. Because there’s just glaringly obvious evidence against this. If that’s the case, why was China the most advanced power on Earth for 1,200 years? That is just ridiculous.
Rob Wiblin: Raises the question, yes.
Ian Morris: Although interestingly, while I was writing that book, that was while a lot of the new DNA information was coming out and we were beginning to realise just how profound a lot of the genetic differences around the world are — that there really are big genetic differences. And that race, while it’s a made-up category, it’s an approximation of something more real in genetic distributions. But no one has yet found any evidence of any connection between any genetic distribution among Homo sapiens and the balance of political power on the planet. The race theory for why the West rules is just absurd. I took aim at a few other theories as well, but that was kind of the main one.
Ian Morris: Then with the book War! What Is It Good For?, there I guess I was taking aim at this really widespread idea that the world is getting more and more violent. It just isn’t. It could do. If I’m right about this theory that increasingly powerful governments drive down the rates of violent death towards zero, then as governments get increasingly powerful, of course, they increase their power to destroy. So it’s safer to live under a nuclear armed government than under a mediaeval government. And yet if something goes wrong, then the nuclear armed government can go so much wronger than bad King John of England could ever go.
Ian Morris: In Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, I was taking aim at what I think of as a slightly simplistic theory that just somehow we’ve got it all figured out — that we know what good and evil and right and wrong are. Well, I think particularly people in philosophy departments and ethics centres in universities are often convinced they’ve got it all worked out, and the challenge for them is to basically write rulebooks for how the rest of us unenlightened people should interpret the world around us.
Ian Morris: I think it’s just very difficult for a historian to buy into that. It means that for 5,000 years, pretty much the entire population in the world got it wrong. They couldn’t tell right from wrong. And that just strikes me as absolutely insane. But on the other hand, saying there is no right and wrong — everything is completely relative — that strikes me as insane as well. And so the goal there was to come up with some theory which allows you to understand how things that we now think are wrong could seem right to people in a different society in a different world. But that doesn’t mean that they are right in some transcendent kind of way, or that we’re wrong to believe what we believe.
Ian’s favourite archaeology memory [03:32:40]
Rob Wiblin: OK we’re almost out of time but I’ve got a personal question or two before we finish. First off, have you had any really magical or striking moments on any of your archaeological digs?
Ian Morris: Yeah, people will sometimes ask what’s the best thing I’ve ever found on a dig. And I’ve actually never found anything very exciting, which is the way we do archeology now. We’ve got museums full of really cool stuff. And so we are out there trying to dig up the animal bones and the carbonised seeds and whatever, so we don’t find the gold because we’re not looking in the right places.
Ian Morris: But probably my favourite memory from archeology was in fact when I was a student digger, and we were excavating a mediaeval abbey in England that had been closed down by Henry VIII and then turned into a farmhouse and forgotten about. We were digging it up and we found the old 14th century crypt where all the abbots were buried. And if you were a really important abbot, you’d be buried in a lead coffin, which was super prestigious, super expensive. And these things were airtight, so your body is going to decay — there’s bacteria in your body that will eat it up and it liquifies — but it can’t go anywhere because it’s in an airtight sealed lead coffin.
Ian Morris: And this was sort of a big deal thing. The coffin is being taken out of the ground — it’s going to go off to a local museum — and the mayor of the city of Stoke-on-Trent and other people came for this lifting of the coffin. And they start winching. Of course, it weighs many tonnes. They’ve got a crane, chains, winching it out of the ground. And somebody has done the chains wrong, and the pressure is wrong, and the coffin starts splitting open. And all of this liquified abbot dumps out all over the mayor. It was one of my finest moments. I was convinced after that that every excavation was going to be like this. Everything was going to be wonderful. Most of them, sadly not.
Rob Wiblin: OK, people can’t see my face, but I’m a little bit disgusted. A bit of a hygiene freak. So yeah. OK, that’s an interesting mental image.
Ian Morris: Most archeological humour is disgusting. We’re a nasty people.
The most unfair criticism Ian’s ever received [03:34:39]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. OK and last question, what’s the most unfair criticism you’ve ever received, in your view?
Ian Morris: Unfair criticism. Well, because we all think that all the criticisms are unfair, it’s hard to single out one person that’s the most evil I’ve ever dealt with. There’s so many of them. But this is something where it just taught me to take the whole thing with a grain of salt. I did a cluster of books, three books all came out in the mid 2010s. So they’re all getting reviewed in the newspapers around about the same time in the middle of the 2010s. And I read one review telling readers that I was not to be trusted because I was clearly a card-carrying communist of the worst kind who knew which way the political winds blew. And so I thought, “Well, I don’t think that’s actually true.”
Ian Morris: But then another review said, “This author is just a typical academic. He’s not a Marxist, but he’s left of centre and he’s just so conceited and thinks he knows everything.” I thought, “Well, I don’t know that’s really true either.”
Ian Morris: And then I had another one saying, “Well, this author is a neoconservative. This is the only thing you can say about him. Don’t believe anything he says.” And from that I concluded, I think it is the obvious conclusion, the minute a reviewer begins telling the readers about the author’s politics, and how the author’s politics have shaped everything the author was saying, just stop reading the review at that point. This tells you nothing about the author; it only tells you about the reviewer’s politics.
Ian Morris: So yeah, that was a good lesson. The most popular political dismissal nowadays is to say somebody’s conservative. A blanket dismissal, which means we do not need to engage with anything this person has said. Now a lot of conservatives have been really smart people. Half the population in most countries votes for a right-wing party. Are you honestly saying that nothing that a person whose views are right of centre, or left of centre, has got to say is to be listened to? It’s just ridiculous.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. When I was preparing for this conversation, I read a couple of reviews of your books. And there was one that really stood out to me. It made various claims about what you’d said in the book, which made me reflect that possibly the author had not read beyond perhaps the first chapter. It was a long book, so I understand that this reviewer — I think it might have been in The Guardian — perhaps didn’t get all the way to the final chapters. How do you maintain your equanimity when people are giving you a really hard time and it’s not even obvious that they have read what you had to say?
Ian Morris: I tend to tell myself, “Well, if they’re saying such terrible things about me, clearly they haven’t read my book. Couldn’t be possible to think so badly of me.” But no, I think again, something you learn is that these big history books almost always have some kind of political dimension to them. They’re about big questions that people feel strongly about.
Ian Morris: And one of the things I realised when I started getting asked to come and speak to politicians and political groups about history is that there’s just a fundamental difference between scholarship and politics. Scholarship is about the truth and politics is about power. And these are two different things. If you choose to write a book about big topics that people think are important, then you’ve chosen to stray into the political terrain. And hopefully, you still remain firmly based in scholarship, and your book is the truth as you see it. You might be wrong, but you’re not a liar. This is the truth as you see it.
Ian Morris: But the people who are now reading your books are judging it sometimes by completely different criteria. And lying or distorting what’s in your book is not necessarily the same kind of wickedness as it is within the academic community. The ultimate crime for an academic is to lie about the truth. In the political world, the ultimate crime is to not get elected. So if saying something bad about your book will help you in a political goal, then for many people that makes it legitimate and worthwhile.
Ian Morris: When I feel this is being done to me, I try to remind myself that I brought this on myself. I was perfectly happily writing books about ancient Greek archeology, where these sorts of problems didn’t come up all that much. I decided I didn’t just want to engage with the small questions. I felt that the skills I’d got allowed me to say something useful about the big questions. So if the sort of people who you know are reading your books treat you in the sort of way that you know they will, you shouldn’t be too surprised by it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. You managed to be tolerant of forager values and of farmer values and even of the values of political activists. A true liberal at heart.
Ian Morris: That’s right.
Rob Wiblin: My guest today has been Ian Morris. Thanks so much for coming on The 80,000 Hours Podcast, Ian.
Ian Morris: Well, thanks for having me on the show. This was a lot of fun.
Rob’s outro [03:39:16]
Rob Wiblin: Just before you go, I want to let you know that my colleague Niel Bowerman is running what he’s calling a longtermist census, which you can access at 80000hours.org/census.
It’s an attempt to build a database of people who might (now or any time in the future) be interested in joining or launching a project aimed at improving humanity’s long-term prospects. This includes staff at current longtermist projects.
There’s two goals Niel has with this.
The first is to build a spreadsheet of people who folks might want to get in touch with when hiring or looking for a cofounder. This can greatly speed up matchmaking and allow more people to get jobs who otherwise just wouldn’t.
The second is to help us better understand the skillsets and current employment of people interested in longtermism.
To ensure it’s useful for matchmaking purposes, your responses may be shared with any of several dozen organisations doing longtermist work when they’re trying to hire.
Hiring is really difficult and a big bottleneck to building new orgs and starting new projects.
In fact, folks have been asking 80,000 Hours for a shareable list of people they can hire for years. So we’re finally going to have one! Fingers crossed it’s as useful as it seems like it should be.
If you ever might want to work in longtermism, I imagine filling out the form would be an extremely high-impact use of time. If you just answer the required questions you can probably fill it out in a few minutes, though if I were doing the optional questions I think it would take me more like 10-15 minutes.
Again, you can find the census form at 80000hours.org/census.
All right, The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering and technical editing by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.