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Civilization

Civilization is the latest offering from historian Niall Ferguson (of The Ascent of Money fame), and it tackles the ambitious task of finding out why it is that Western society is pre-eminent in the world today, and has been for the last 500 years or so.

Ferguson’s history is well researched, well presented and quite interesting. He does a good job of contrasting Western nations’ development with other societies of the same time (China, the Aztecs and the Ottoman empire, amongst others), most of which were by almost all measures in a much better position in the 15th century as any of the kingdoms in Western Europe. This approach is not only informative in a big-picture history fashion, but also serves to effectively remind us that why the Western world is so powerful is an important question, and that this ascendancy was by no means guaranteed a mere few centuries ago.

By way of an answer, Ferguson presents six different significant factors that the West have and which are lacking elsewhere. While his arguments are clear and fairly elegant, the analysis feels a bit simplistic. This becomes slightly more so when he extrapolates forward, considering the question of whether the West will retain it’s ascendancy (especially in light of China’s meteoric rise to economic strength in recent years). In all fairness, however, this is a popular science work, so a certain level of simplification is to be expected.

In all I found this an interesting and worthwhile read, albeit more for the history than for the conclusions it draws.

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