In This Review

Civilization: The West and the Rest
Civilization: The West and the Rest
By Niall Ferguson
The Penguin Press HC, 2011, 432 pp

This enjoyably sprawling history of “the rise of the West,” written for a general audience, follows in the footsteps of major works by such scholars as John Darwin, Jared Diamond, William NcNeill, and Douglass North. Like them, Ferguson grapples with the grand puzzle of the modern world: Why did the West, which in 1500 was no more advanced than the other world civilizations -- most notably China, India, and Islam -- rise up over the following five centuries to amass great power and wealth and come to dominate the world? Ferguson rejects explanations that focus on European imperialism or the uniqueness of geography, climate, or culture. Instead, he argues that Western ascendency was unleashed by the uniquely decentralized, open, rule-based, and competitive character of European politics, economics, and society. Individual chapters look at the role of competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society, and the work ethic in distinguishing the West. The book is written with an eye on the rise of China and leaves the reader with a crucial question: Are the ideas and institutions of Western civilization becoming truly universal, or will the rise of non-Western states usher in alternative pathways to modernization and advancement?