Thirty years ago the east meant communism. The cold war was a struggle between two political blocs, each of which defined itself in terms of western ideas - versions of Marxism and liberalism. Yet it was commonly described as a clash between east and west, the media conjuring up images of Russian inscrutability and academics peddling a venerable cliché in which the Soviet system was a variant of Asiatic despotism. When the Soviet system collapsed, there was less need to divide the world into opposing parts, but the demarcation reappeared with China's rapidly advancing industrialisation. The east now means something more akin to what it was in colonial times: an exotic region of danger and promise, alluring but at the same time threatening, the mirror image of our weaknesses and our fears.
East and west have always been geopolitical constructions whose shifting cultural meanings - from the conflict between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in the early Middle Ages to the current obsession with China - reflect changing patterns of power. A classical archaeologist by training, Ian Morris begins this highly ambitious volume by returning to prehistoric times, when east and west were geographical expressions. For Morris, "the west" means the societies that expanded "from the original core in south-west Asia to encompass the Mediterranean Basin and Europe, and in the last few centuries America and Australasia, too", while "the east expanded from its original core between China's Yellow and Yangtze rivers, and today stretches from Japan in the north into the countries of Indochina in the south". Refreshingly, Morris does not imagine that the primacy of western societies is due to their adhering to "some supposedly uniquely 'western' values such as freedom, rationality, or tolerance". Instead, he offers a materialist explanation, with the aim of developing nothing less than a law-governed science of history.
In Morris's account, the ultimate origin of the west's primacy is to be found in the domestication of plants and animals that occurred in the western core around 9500BC, some 2,000 years before it did in the east. He is far from claiming that geography is destiny in any simple sense. As he points out, the meaning of geography changes along with technological and social development. Five thousand years ago, society was developing most rapidly in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the geographical location of Portugal, Spain, France and Britain - "stuck out from Europe into the Atlantic" - was a great disadvantage. But when, 500 years ago, new kinds of ships appeared that could cross what had always been impassable oceans, sticking out into the Atlantic became highly advantageous: it was not Egyptian, or Iraqi, but Portuguese, Spanish, French and English ships that reached out to China, Japan and the Americas. As Morris sees it, it is not Greek philosophy, Roman law, Judaeo-Christian monotheism or the European Enlightenment that enabled the west's rise to global power, but the brute fact of location, interacting with universal laws of biology and sociology.
Morris shows how this interaction played out, from the emergence and dispersal of modern human beings through the Ice Age and its aftermath, the rise of the first states, the ascendancy and decline of the east and the Industrial Revolution, to the likely end of western domination during the present century. It is an impressive achievement, a grand theory of history that can be compared meaningfully with those of Toynbee and Marx. Yet Morris's account is not the scientific explanation he imagines it to be, and when he strays from his competence in ancient history the results can be implausible and, at times, grotesque. He tells us that the development of society is governed by universal laws. But what are these laws that he invokes so blithely? No doubt human beings are constrained by biology, and maybe it will be possible some day to formulate laws of evolutionary psychology. But is there a single example of a sociological law that is truly universal?
Of all the social sciences, economics has come closest to formulating law-like principles. The trouble is that they fail to explain some of the largest historical changes. Ask what makes sustained economic growth possible, and economists will tell you that certain institutions are required - private property, enforceable contracts and the rule of law, for example. Yet none of these is common in China, where economic growth has occurred over the past 30 years on a scale unprecedented in history. Economics contains many well-founded generalisations. Price controls tend everywhere to produce black markets; the scope of these markets varies, however, depending on culture and circumstances. Rationing resulted in a thriving black market in many commodities in wartime Britain, but it was nothing like the one that existed in the Soviet Union, where practically everything had a price in the informal economy. Certainly there are recognisable patterns in economic life, but the universal laws of which economists speak exist only on paper.
The flimsiness of Morris's claim to be doing a kind of science is clear when he considers the likely future. Using a graph that purports to measure social development, he suggests that the era of western dominance will end no later than 2103. Indeed, the western age may already be over; driven by India, Brazil and other emerging countries, the global economic shift that is under way will continue even if China falters or collapses. Whatever happens, the US will depend on foreign capital to fund a position in the world it can no longer afford. The US retains an awesome military capability, together with the power to threaten other countries with tariffs and currency war. However, an imperial role cannot be maintained indefinitely along with unsustainable debt.
Morris's distance from anything that could be described as science is most glaring when he considers the further future. Influenced by the American futurist Ray Kurzweil's idea of "the Singularity" (a transformation in human life produced by technology "expanding at infinite speed"), Morris is convinced that humankind is approaching "a massive discontinuity". He considers the fusion of humans with computers and robots and the emergence of silicon-based life forms, and argues that these impending mutations will "obliterate the old geography", including any distinction between east and west. Old-style sociology - to which Morris looks for universal laws of development - will go the same way.
“The important history is global and evolutionary," he writes, "telling the story of how we got from single-celled organisms to the Singularity." But "we" aren't amoebae that have crawled our way up the evolutionary mountain to reach the pinnacle of the Singularity. If Darwin is right, we are highly adventitious animals, chance products of a process of natural selection that is going nowhere in particular. Like so many others, Morris has turned evolution into a kind of fairy tale. He tells us he wants history to be a branch of science, but what he has produced is another myth.
Why the West Rules - For Now: the Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future
Profile Books, 768pp, £25
John Gray is lead reviewer of the NS. His next book, "The Immortalisation Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death", will be published in January by Allen Lane.