The West and the Rest

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Niall Ferguson has a new book coming out with an accompanying six-part Channel 4 series, Civilization: The West and the Rest:

Coming just eight months after the Warburg biography, it’s a book that belongs at the more populist end of the Ferguson oeuvre. In fact, he says, he wrote it largely with his children in mind. (He has three, two sons and a daughter, ranging from 11 to 17.) “The book is partly designed so a 17-year-old boy or girl will get a lot of history in a very digestible way, and be able to relate to it,” says Ferguson, who, along with the many other irons he has in the fire, is advising his friend Michael Gove, Britain’s education secretary, on how to redraft the history curriculum. “I have a sense that my son and daughter’s generation is not well served by the way they are taught history. They don’t have the big picture. They get given these chunks, usually about Adolf Hitler, so I wanted to write a book that would be really accessible to them.”

I must admit, I cringed when I read this:

The west’s ascendancy, he argues, is based on six attributes that he labels its “killer apps”: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.

A killer app is not simply something good — or even something insanely great.

A killer app is something small that gets you to buy into something much bigger. The first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, got people to buy an entire computer, just for that one application.

So — all puns aside — the West’s real killer app was probably the gun — or the ship bristling with guns. Once you see what the round-eyes can do with that, you start thinking about adopting their strange ways.


  1. Borepatch says:

    I actually have to agree with Ferguson’s thesis (although the name triggers a little eye-rolling). Each of his six “killer apps” are processes that may indeed be unique to the West. Lots of other cultures have tried to assume the trappings (e.g. guns) without the processes that made them possible, usually with disastrous results.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Agreed. The problem isn’t the list; it’s calling them killer apps.

  3. Bruce G Charlton says:

    Not too sure about all these:

    Competition (economic competition I suppose this means) is not distinctive to the West — nor is competition particularly strong in the West. It is hard to measure, but I have read that many parts of Africa have more and freer competition nowadays, and so did Medieval Europe. Some parts of the West have very little competition and very high security — few sanctions for failure.

    Work ethic — yes. This was naturally selected for during the centuries of stable centralized agriculture societies (see Greg Clark’s Farewell to Alms). But the process went even further in East Asia, where the work ethic is even stronger.

    Democracy. Has it been a good thing? Was the West even democratic when it was most dominant? — certainly not by present day standards. More of a highly selective male oligarchy. If the West had been democratic in late 20th century style it probably never would have done anything.

    Medicine? Well this came pretty late in the West. Hygiene from the late 19th century, effective medicine probably only the mid-twentieth century.

    Consumerism. Not sure what this is getting at.

    Science. Thats more like it. Indeed this probably is it. Specifically scientific and technical creative genius on a massive scale. That was the key factor, in my opinion, and distinctive to the West.

    Of course creative sci-tech genius required a high average general intelligence — which is not mentioned (surprise, surprise).

    And of course there are now no active sci-tech geniuses at all — so that is enough by itself to put an end to Western domination, even without demographic collapse and political correctness.

  4. Isegoria says:

    Ferguson describes the book as answering this question: Why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?

    So, I assume that many of his “killer apps” refer to elements of the Italian city-states, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, when they became rich through trade and then industrialization — although the list does look like it’s meant to describe America in its prime.

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