Prolific Oxford, Harvard and Stanford professor Niall Ferguson continues his excellent string of publications with a well researched and erudite tour of the past 500 years of western civilization. The book is very, very detailed (over 700 end notes, plus a 30 page bibliography), but extremely readable. Its many facts are both interesting and woven together logically and chronologically to support a central thesis - that the West has predominated because it developed six killer apps: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic.
Not just another book trumpeting the West's superiority, Ferguson highlights the West's good luck as well as it's superior political and economic structure. He notes the West's willingness to have its killer apps downloaded by other countries, which will mean more wealth for all but also a change in the balance of power.
Like all history books, the content is filtered through the author's particular lens - in this case a right wing, British Empire loving polymath and wit - but Ferguson is thorough in supporting his thesis, confronting other historians' theories and mistakes head-on, and documenting his own views with ample political, economic and cultural references and a fair amount of humour. The prolific references range from esoteric to pop-cultural (e.g. Sid Meier's Civilization V
There are some minor flaws - the chapter on medicine is mostly about subjects other than medicine; the slave trade to the Americas listed as beginning in 1450, almost half a century before Columbus' voyage to the New World; and Ferguson seems curiously unscientific in his footnote musing that genetics may explain Jews' disproportionate success in arts, science and commerce - but on the whole this is an excellent, densely packed historical tour.
For those familiar with Ferguson's other works, Civilization falls somewhere between his story filled and highly readable Ascent of Money: Financial History of the World
and his more academic The Pity Of War Explaining World War I
. A broad, detailed canvas with the most interesting of stories laying the foundation for us to speculate about the future of western civilization and the rise of China.
Much better and more thought provoking than other, often economics oriented, books heralding the decline of the West. Civilization the television series will surely cross the Atlantic to North American viewers, just as 'The Ascent of Money' did, but read the book for its rich detail. Buy it, read it, and reflect on the future of both the West and the Rest.