Is the West history?


I am enjoying Niall Ferguson’s new Channel 4 documentary, Civilization: Is the West History? which identifies and explores the ‘six killer apps’ of Western civilization. These qualities, which have set the West apart from the rest of the world, are competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic, Ferguson says. Sunday night’s programme focused on the second app: science.

Ferguson’s thesis was that the West had quickly overtaken the Ottoman Empire (from a position of parity) because it embraced scientific advance, while the Arab world rejected it. He made a compelling case, contrasting the intellectual and technological advancement that came with the European enlightenment and scientific revolution, with the domination of the Arab world by the church, which deemed science unholy and even rejected printing (and thus the spread of knowledge) on the grounds that calligraphy was sacred.

The only place I thought the programme fell down was in its conclusion, where Ferguson suggested that Western dominance was threatened by the embrace of science by countries like Iran and China, and their own technological advance. That zero sum view strikes me as spurious. It surely matters little to us (outside the realm of national defence) if the East starts to invent things, so long as we ourselves retain the values that made us successful in the first place – chiefly the rational, critical and open discussion of ideas, and the desire for scientific advancement.

That, really, was the conclusion I wanted Ferguson to draw. Are we, in the West, abandoning those values? Has the void left by the decline of organized religion been filled by a new kind of superstition, which regards anything ‘unnatural’ as likely to turn the world into grey goo? Has open, critical debate been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness? Indeed, are we losing that ‘pioneer spirit’ which seeks and yearns for development, and instead accepting gentle, parasitic decline?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I wish someone like Ferguson would ask them. If the ‘West’ really is history, it will be the result of our own actions and our shifting cultural values, and not the consequence of new, rising world powers.

Civilization: Is the West History? is currently showing on Channel 4, every Sunday at 8pm. The book that accompanies the series can be purchased here.