Most helpful critical review
If you are looking for a good book on civilization, you may find yourself very disappointed with this one.
on April 24, 2015
This was the second book I have read by Niall Fergusson, a prominent economic historian. The first book of his that I read a couple of years ago was The Ascent of Money. While it was quite dense, I thought it was a useful and informative book that focussed on what the title would have you believe it was about. It was certainly good enough for me to take a second crack at Fergusson, but unfortunately, Civilization is just not up to snuff. The book itself actually had very little to do with "civilization". He probably should have just gone with his subtitle - The West and Rest. His book distills Civilization (really affluence, economic progress or economic power) down to six specific areas. Or, as he puts it, six killer apps. Although I would say there is much more to do with civilization than these six areas he focusses on (competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and work), I won't fault him for underscoring what HE believes were the six drivers that brought the West to the dominant position it enjoys today. My main problem with this book is that after laying out these six killer apps, he meanders through each chapter without really focussing on any of these six subject areas. For example, in the chapter on property, I was really expecting a much more focussed and sophisticated argument in support of how property rules and rights have been instrumental to the West's success. I was sort of expecting an argument along the lines of what you found in De Soto's "The Mystery of Capital". But there was little effort made to link his argument back to the title of the chapter, let alone how it contributed to civilization. There was more discussion of slavery (yes, seen as a form of property at the time) than anything to do with property. However, I thought the worst chapter was the one on Medicine. In the first half of the chapter, which exceeds 50 pages, he barely even mentions medicine. And the second half of this long chapter doesn't discuss it a great deal more than the first half. He only vaguely tries to make a case for colonization by arguing that it brought modern medicine and vaccination to the colonies, and therefore, was not as bad as people have made it out to be. A similarly weak argument could also be made for much of the infrastructure colonists introduced in their colonies, but I think we have to admit that this was never intended for the benefit of local populations, so we can dispose of the argument that colonization doesn't get enough credit because it brought modern medicine or some infrastructure to the colonies. The other four killer apps were not developed in the rest of the book either, but I don't think it is necessary to elaborate in each individual chapter.
I would have given this book only one star if it was not for the fact that some of the information provided in these six unfocussed chapters was, at the very lest, somewhat interesting. But if you are looking for a good book on civilization, you may find yourself very disappointed with this one.