We’re seeing more theories exploring the reasons why the West dominates the world order or why the West has developed a more advanced culture. A few years back, a scientist tried to show that geography determined when and which cultures would dominate the globe at any given time. In 1997’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond blamed the fact that “the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies” on the three items in the title of his book. Several scholars like Bernard Lewis have made a living touting the superiority of Western culture and telling us why. A recent Economist took a reverse gambit, dedicating a long article on why the Arab culture has failed—failure of course measured as an inability to move towards a Western political and economic model.
Most of these theories define or assume that following traits define Western superiority:
A free market system
Free trade across borders, with restraint of labor
A representative democracy
An industrialized, and now post-industrialized economy
A consumer society built on cars, cell phones and disposable clothing
The latest to proclaim and then explain Western superiority is Nicholas Wade, in his A Troubled Inheritance, which describes research that found minor differences in the genetic makeup of Asians, Caucasians, sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans and the original inhabitants of Australia and Papua New Guinea. He assumes without any proof or explanation that these differences explain the differences in culture of these peoples and the superiority of white ways.
Too bad that the premise of Wade and of all of these writers—that the West has forged a superior way of life—is false.
One argument against the assumption of Western superiority is to point out the ills caused by Western ways: an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, resource shortages, the mass extinction of species, and human-made global warming.
But I prefer to do the numbers.
We have to start with a measurable standard. I know a lot of readers are going to go for standard of living or gross domestic product per person, but consider this: The only goal in the broadest of all unfolding histories—evolution—is survival. I’m going to assert that the best measurement of surviving is the size of the population.
And the Chinese win, hands down. When population historians analyze every extant population survey of different cultures, countries, continents and parts of the world, they find that at every point in the recorded history of humankind there have been more Han Chinese than any other race, culture and/or nationality. That’s 10,000 years of continual Chinese demographic superiority, even when they seemed to be under the paw of Western Europe militarily and economically.
As obnoxious as the idea of Western superiority is the very notion that we are in some kind of world competition that is culturally or racially based.
The very assumption of Western superiority is inherently racist, as is the sometimes frenzied search for proof that the races are different. It’s true that today the West seems to dominate the world and its cultural aspirations, as Greece and Rome once did for the Mediterranean world and Persia once did among the myriad cultures of the Asian subcontinent. But Asia, the Middle East, the subcontinent and Europe/America have all taken turns being the dominant economic and cultural power over recorded history. To take one moment and call it the end game of all history didn’t work when Marx tried it and it didn’t work when Francis Fukiyama tried it. And it doesn’t work when social thinkers say the West is superior just because it may have dominated and forcibly led much of the rest of the world for much of the last 300 years. This phase will pass as surely as did the Tang Dynasty, Ghengis Khan’s empire and the Moghul empire in India.