How 'The West' Beat 'The Rest' With Six 'Killer Apps' Historians have long struggled to explain how the West became the preeminent political and economic force in the modern world. In Civilization, historian Niall Ferguson credits six "killer apps" and explains how China is quickly catching on — and catching up.

How 'The West' Beat 'The Rest' With Six 'Killer Apps'

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Six centuries ago, a leisurely trip down the Yangtze River would have revealed an empire at its height: bustling cities, extensive canals, graceful buildings and a busy trade to and from Beijing, the sparkling new jewel of the Ming Dynasty.

A sail down the Thames in 1411 would have felt dismal by comparison. London was busy but disease-ridden, shabby and just plain filthy. In a new book and television series, historian Niall Ferguson asks how the backward West would come to dominate not just China but the rest of the world for 500 years or more, and he identifies six institutions. He calls them killer apps and argues that China is now catching up fast because it downloaded those lessons while Westerners lose faith.

History teachers, what should we teach students about the role of the West these past 500 years? Give us a call. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Mr. Mom is dead. Say hello to Captain Dad. But first Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard and author most recently of "Civilization: The West and the Rest," he joins us from our bureau in New York, and nice to have you with us today.

NIALL FERGUSON: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you begin with that tale of two rivers. The contrast, you argue, is the key to your first killer app: competition.

FERGUSON: Yes, if you're trying to work out why in the course of the period after around 1500 or the 1490s the West, meaning Europe and later on its colonies and settlements, forged ahead of the rest and particularly the big empires of the Orient like Ming China, the one answer that leaps out is that there was a very different institutional structure at the western end of Eurasia.

And that took multiple forms. For example, there are many, many small states. It's very fragmented politically, whereas China is this monolithic empire with a centralized bureaucracy. And even within the European states, there's competition between corporate entities, like for example the corporation of the City of London, which the English crown doesn't really control.

So it's a very different institutional setup, and this manifests itself when, in the early 1400s and the 1420s and the 1430s, the Chinese emperor decides to stop oceanic navigation, cancel the great voyages of Admiral Zheng He, which had far exceeded anything Europeans had achieved at that time, going right across the Indian Ocean to the African coast, whereas in Europe, nobody could have done that.

The competition between Portugal and the Italian city-states and then Spain, later The Netherlands and England, the competition to get trade routes and wrest them from the control of other countries propelled an age of exploration, an age of navigation, of commerce and conquest and colonization quite unlike anything that emerged from the Orient.

So that's the starting point for my argument. What I'm really saying is it's the institutions that matter, not national character, not geography, not the weather, not the various theories that have been tried in the past, but these institutions, manmade things that fundamentally changed the incentives that the people had.

CONAN: To just illustrate, those great treasure fleets the Chinese sent out, their purpose was largely to win some form of glorification for the emperor, that these far-flung places would accept suzerainty, that they would make tribute to China, but the money itself was not that significant. It was the idea of political glory and empire, whereas Vasco De Gama was out for two things: One, to get very, very rich, and to do it by sticking it to those Venetians.

FERGUSON: Right, so the spice trade is one of the things that propels the Portuguese to keep on sailing until they find, finally, that there is a way around the bottom of Africa. And it's clear that that kind of motivation wasn't at work in the case of Zheng He. I mean, there may have been some exchange of goods, but the main model for the early 15th century Ming expeditions to the gulf and the East African coast was essentially to get tribute, to get people in these far-flung places to acknowledge that the emperor of China really was top dog.

And that in a sense created no particular reason to keep on going there. And they don't establish a trading post. They just show up in Malindi, and they say: Hey, you know, we're from China. Could you bow? And we'd like a giraffe because we don't have anything like that.

And they'd literally take a giraffe back to the emperor as a token of esteem. So it's a completely different model. And I think crucially, the power exists in China for the successor to the Yongle Emperor who got the giraffe to say: We don't really need these things. That's not our priority. In fact, I'm a little suspicious of this stuff.

There's great scholarship on why it was that the Ming turned away from oceanic navigation and essentially abolished that capacity. I mean, we don't even have good drawings of Admiral Zheng He's treasure fleet. The drawings were destroyed, as well as the ships.

Maybe it was because they were more worried that the northwestern frontier, that the Great Wall border, maybe it was some kind of palace infighting that was going on in the Ming capital - which incidentally was Nanjing in 1411. It was - later it was moved to Beijing, when they built the spectacular Forbidden City.

We're not 100 percent sure why this happened, but the fact that it was possible for one man sitting in an imperial capital simply to cancel all oceanic voyages, that was one of the key institutional differences because if anybody had tried to do that in Europe - suppose the Holy Roman Emperor had said, right, enough of this exploration, the peripheral countries like Portugal would just have said, well, forget it, we're going ahead, try and stop us.

CONAN: And then another killer app: the scientific revolution. At one point, the great Caliphate of Arabia far advanced from Europe in science and mathematics.

FERGUSON: That's right. It's a very important point to make that if you had asked who's ahead in terms of science in the 10th or 11th century, the answer would clearly have been it's the Islamic world. The Abbasid Caliphate is streets ahead of any medieval European country. And indeed the medieval universities have to kind of re-import lost knowledge from the ancient world via the Arab world.

So this is a really important point, and yet by the 17th century, when the great scientific revolution we associate with people like Isaac Newton happened, the Islamic world didn't play any part at all. The scientific revolution, which completely transforms our understanding of the natural world and introduces the scientific method in its modern sense, is a purely Western phenomenon. Indeed, it's confined to really quite a small part of Europe with tiny offshoots in further-flung places.

I think that's a really puzzling thing, and why it was that Islamic science declined even as Western science rose, that's one of the big questions that modern scholars debate. I think the main explanation for this is that the power of the clergy was growing, in particularly say the Ottoman Empire, which, you know, by the 17th century is the big player in the Islamic world and certainly the player nearest to Europe.

Meanwhile, the power of the churches is in fact waning in 17th-century Europe in the wake of the Reformation. So there is a kind of fundamental divergence in that respect. Also, Europe had printing, and that had been banned in the Ottoman Empire. And printing is pretty important because it spread scientific knowledge.

As the Reformation raised literacy rates so that people could read the Bible, it created the possibility that they could read, well, anything, including, as it turned out, scientific treatises. So this is another killer app. And I call it the scientific revolution to distinguish it from science more generally.

There was plenty of science in the non-Western world prior to the 17th century, but after the 17th century, it's extraordinary the extent to which scientific innovation is led by the Western world.

CONAN: It is not Euro-centrism or anti-Orientalism to say that the rise of Western civilization is the single most important historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ, writes Niall Ferguson in his book "Civilization," it is a statement of the obvious.

So we want to hear from history teachers and students of history. What should we be teaching about the last 500 years? 800-989-8255. Email Mike's(ph) on the line, Mike calling us from Cleveland.

MIKE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MIKE: Hi, just had a question for you both, whether or not you thought - while I agree about the killer apps discussion that you're talking about, I wonder about truly how much of this advancement was also made as a result of military efforts, or at least during the Crusades, you know, getting that medical knowledge from the Middle East, et cetera, et cetera. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.

FERGUSON: Sure, Mike. Well, the mathematical knowledge doesn't seem to have come from the Crusaders. It's something I wrote about in my last book, "The Ascent of Money." It's from merchants, actually, who cross the Mediterranean and bring the new knowledge of algebra, (foreign language spoken), to people like Fibonacci, whose father was a merchant who worked in North Africa.

That's the route whereby mathematical learning returns into the Italian city-states, where there's a great commercial culture already, and they need this kind of more sophisticated mathematics.

But you raise a really important point about the way military power plays a role in my argument. It's very tempting, and it's been done for years, to say that Western ascendancy is just a consequence of empire and ruthless exploitative expansion. And the point that I want to try and make is that the least original thing that Western societies did after 1500 was empire.

Empire was ubiquitous. It was what the Chinese had. It was what the Turks had. It was the norm. It's what the Incas had, for that matter. And a critical question is: Why was it that when the Europeans went into the empire business, they were consistently successful in the wars that they fought and the territories that they conquered?

And one very good explanation for this is that the scientific revolution made Europeans much more effective at war. I give the example of Benjamin Robins. He's the guy, a self-taught English mathematician, ironically a Quaker, who applied Newtonian physics to ballistics and created modern artillery, made, if you like, Western guns accurate by showing what it was that happened when you fired a projectile out of a barrel.

And that meant that once you had, from the mid-18th century, European artillery operating on scientific principles, it was really hard to beat a European army, and hardly anybody ever did.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Niall Ferguson, his latest book, "Civilization: The West and the Rest." History teachers, what should we teach students about the role of the West these past 500 years? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. How did Western civilization come to dominate the rest of the world so completely? In his latest book, "Civilization," Niall Ferguson offers an answer: six killer apps. You can read more about all of them at an excerpt from the book we've posted on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We also want to hear from students and teachers of history. What should we teach students about the role of the West these past 500 years? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Niall Ferguson with us from our bureau in New York. You mentioned ruthlessness. One of your critics, Alex Von Tunzelman, writing in the London Evening Standard, wrote: "Civilization" is imperial history without the nasty bits, a comforting bedtime story for neoconservatives to indoctrinate their children. And he goes on to list some things about Western empires that aren't in the world: The Black War in Australia, French reparations forced upon the liberated state of Haiti, Belgians exterminating 10 million people in the Congo, British ordering - and it goes on. The list of atrocities of Western empires is legion.

FERGUSON: Well, one of the things that I found most objectionable about Tunzelman's review is that those things that he lists are mostly in the book. And the book does absolutely everything to try to make it clear that as Western power spread, there was a distinctly dark shadow side to the process.

The Belgian atrocities in the Congo are in fact mentioned. The events in Haiti during the French Revolution are discussed. And I devote pages to the massacre, the near genocide waged by the German empire against the Herero and Nama people in German southwest Africa, now Namibia.

I was extremely angry when I saw that review because it seemed to be consciously defamatory or negligent on the part of the reviewer to allege that things were not in the book that were in fact there, and in the case of the Herero, covered pages. I actually went to Namibia, which is more that I should think than Tunzelman has.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Mark(ph), Mark with us from Fulton, Missouri.

MARK: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I guess I'd like to make the point that I think we're making tremendous progress. If you look at David Hume's history of England, I can't believe that Western civilization even exists, they were so hard on each other, just wholesale slaughter.

But we've slowly made progress. We've become more and more compassionate towards each other and indigenous populations, minorities, et cetera. We clearly have a long way to go, but I think that we're making slow, steady, continual progress.

It's easy to look back and say this was terrible, this was horrendous, but I think the progress is undeniable.

FERGUSON: This is an argument that sounds rather like my friend Steve Pinker's argument in his new book, that we've steadily got less and less violent. And I have some sympathy with this view.

But let me illustrate the point. I explored the way in which property rights came to be seen as central to not only the system of law but the system of government, especially in the English-speaking world. John Locke's concept that there's a link between freedom of the individual and private property rights, that the law should protect these and that representative government is a way whereby property rights can be protected through participatory legislation.

All of this is there in the book, but I also point out that Locke saw property rights applying not only to land but also to people. And of course the land that new colonists settled in North America was often land taken from native peoples, sometimes by force and sometimes just because the depredations of disease left the population so thinned and weakened that there was no resistance.

And when it came to the ownership of people, Western civilization took an ancient institution that was certainly to be found in non-Western societies, namely slavery, and rolled it out in all kinds of new forms in the new world, in the Caribbean and in the Americas.

And one of the things that I think illustrates your point is the way that, over time, there was a debate within Western civilization about the legitimacy of slavery, and the very people who had been the most ardent slavers, the British, end up leading a very successful campaign to eradicate slavery, beginning with the slave trade and then the institution of slavery itself.

And the United States and Brazil belatedly accept that this is no longer a legitimate institution in a society that bases itself on ideas like freedom. Now having said all that and agreed with you, I then have to kind of put the sting in the tail, rather as I tend to do when I talk to Steve Pinker.

There's this small problem and that is that between 1914 and '45, or even longer than that if you include the Korean War, we see extraordinary levels of organized, lethal violence as the great Western empires turn on one another and engage in the two worst wars in recorded history. That's a big problem for the argument about linear progress, and it's one reason that I'm a little skeptical about the idea that we've kind of gotten better, and we just carry on getting better.

One thing that's certainly true is that we've got better at making very, very destructive weapons and that there's one argument which says that the reason we've had relative peace in the world or at least limited wars between major states is that we developed weapons so destructive that we finally became afraid to use them, and that's a funny kind of progress, isn't it?

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: There is an argument that many will be familiar with, put forward by Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs and Steel." You address this in the book, as well, that the West benefitted from the fortunes of geography and being exposed to all kinds of germs that it would later spread to all the rest of the world, and having already become rather accustomed to them, and unfortunates elsewhere were not, and that there are other elements of geography, including rivers and ports and that sort of thing that all worked to the advantage of the Western Europeans.

FERGUSON: I'm a huge admirer of Jared Diamond, and I've been inspired by him and indeed influenced by him. I think the idea that competition is a killer app, I credit him with that insight.

But the emphasis that he puts on geography as a determining factor is something I have a slight problem with not because it's not helpful. It's clear that the reason Eurasia ends up being a great deal richer and more powerful than, say, Australasia or, for that matter, the Americas, has to do with geography.

But, and this is the critical point, the Diamond thesis can't really explain why one end of Eurasia ends up dominating the other end, in other words why Europe ends up so much more powerful than China and India and indeed ends up formally ruling India after the mid-18th century.

And I don't think you can get there with a geographical story that there isn't a significant enough difference, it seems to me, in geography between the two ends of the Eurasian landmass. And indeed that's why I press the case for an institutional explanation.

You know, you kind of think of this - you can think of this as a big debate between people who think that it's natural resource endowments that determined history, including geography or for that matter climate, and those like me who say it's the institutions, it's the manmade institutions that make the difference.

And one reason that I incline strongly towards that second view is that we've conducted some interesting experiments in the last 100 years to see what happens when you make radical institutional changes. We took two very similar populations, living in pretty much the same place, and we divided them - the Germans and the Koreans - into communist and non-communist or capitalist parts.

And with incredible speed, the institutional changes had massive material consequences. They just changed the way that people behaved. So Germans living in Germany, Koreans living in Korea started to behave totally differently because they had different institutions.

That seems to me a pretty good illustration of the way institutions matter. And that's why my book is much more about institutions. Although I call them the killer applications to try to attract the attention of my teenage readers, including my own children, I'm really talking about institutions here. And I think they're more important, in the end, than geography.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kyle(ph), Kyle with us from Rochester in Michigan.

KYLE: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to ask about the idea of the Reformation and how that separated the religious aspect of society to the secular aspect of society. And as time goes on, you know, philosophy and science seem to developed, and I just wanted your comment on the role that that might have played in history.

FERGUSON: Well, Kyle, that's a big part of the book, actually. Clearly, the notion of a separation of church and state goes well back to the very origins of Christianity, and it hadn't paid enormous dividends in the first thousand years of Christian history. But with the Reformation, something profound changes, and I spend some time in the second chapter exploring what that was.

I actually think it had to do with information technology. It's the fact that the Reformation, as Marin Luther conceives of it, is about reading. It's about reading the Bible yourself and reading it in your own spoken language, in the vernacular, that's so crucial.

We know from some very good empirical work that's been done that once a town went Protestant, literacy rates went up. You would have much more printing, much more reading. And, of course, with rising literacy, people become much more efficient at what they do. They learn much more. And, of course, you learn more than just what's in the Bible because once you can read the Bible, you can read anything. And once you can print the Bible, you can print anything.

So what happens after the Reformation is that the technology of printing, which was different in its effect from printing as it had developed in China, much more effective at mass producing pamphlets. This technology explodes in its importance and makes accessible to many, many Europeans a whole range of ideas, not only religious ideas but scientific ideas. And I think that's one of the key preludes to the scientific revolution and indeed the enlightenment. The other point that I explore at the end of the book is Max Weber's idea that there's some link from Protestantism to a certain ethic, a spirit of capitalism. In Weber's famous essay, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," he speculated that there was something in Protestantism that made people behave differently, made them work harder, made them save more, made them more rational in the way that they behaved.

And there's, I think a little, tiny shred of truth in this, though it turns out that anybody can have a work ethic. You don't need to be a Protestant. You can be a Catholic. You can be a Jew. You can, in fact, be a product of a Confucian society. The critical thing is: do you have the incentives and do you have the skills? And once again, it turns out to be the word ethic, with a D at the end, not the work ethic, that makes Protestantism special. It's the fact that it causes these big increases in literacy wherever it spreads. And, of course, missionaries spread Protestantism all over the world, especially in the 19th and early 20th century, I explored a way in which that happened in China with sometimes explosive results. So it's a big part of the story. This is a book unlike, say, "The Ascent of Money," which is heavily focused on finance, which tries to look at the role of religion, broadly the role of culture, the role of institutions, of law and government. I've done my best to take as broad a scope as possible in this book.

CONAN: Happily, it also goes into sewer systems, so...

FERGUSON: Yeah, very important.


FERGUSON: Very important. Well, you know, "Civilization," when I was a boy, with Kenneth Clarke, and this wonderful book, which in fact was just an art history book. It's also a television series. And there he would pontificate about how superior European cathedrals were to anything else. And that that was what civilization used to mean - art galleries and cathedrals. And, of course, actually, in those terms the West doesn't have any particularly exceptional lead. I mean, the Forbidden City is a spectacular piece of architecture as anything, the West comes up with. So yeah, it's actually the sewer systems that turn out to be more important than the art galleries in my story. The fact that Europeans figure out how to have really large cities without succumbing to cholera epidemics every few years.

CONAN: Neal Ferguson's most recent book, "Civilization: The West and the Rest." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. At one point in the book you talk about how the West seems to be losing faith in those institutions, those killer apps, as you describe them, that gave it its advantage. In one passage - and maybe I'm reading too much in this - but in one passage, you say there is this almost millennial fear of climate change. Do you not think that climate change is going to be one of the most dominant factors in the history of the next hundred years and more?

FERGUSON: Well, it very likely is. Of course, I'm no authority on this subject, and you've got to asks scientists, not historians, to assess the probability of really lethal changes in the climate. That's not my point. The point is that this idea clearly has a certain appeal regardless of whether you're qualified to understand the science. We are quite drawn to the idea of some kind of great apocalyptic end to civilization. It has a certain fascination. And it's taken all kinds of different forms over time. So we have, I think, developed a certain cultural pessimism, which is familiar from previous epochs. It's just morphed into a concern by climate change, man-made alterations to the climate. I don't want to suggest that I'm skeptical about that. My position has always been if this theory is correct, the costs are so huge that we should certainly take out some insurance against it, even if we're not 100 percent certain. And by the way, nobody is 100 percent certain of what the consequences will be of rising average temperatures and CO2 emissions.

So I'm not going into an argument about that. What I would say with 100 percent confidence is that if the rest of the world is going to end up with a lifestyle modeled on let's say the Western way of life - and particularly the North American way of life - in terms of the consumption of natural resources, then regardless of what happens to the climate, we have a problem. Because even if the rest of the world consumed half of what the average American consumes in a lifetime of all of Earth's natural resources that we get through, then we simply start running out of stuff. I mean, there'd be copper left in 30 years if that was to happen. A lot of the rare earths that make your cell phones work run out within 10 years. So there's a separate issue that I try to foreground in the conclusion of the book, which is while it's highly desirable that 300 million Chinese should leave poverty and the gap between the West and the West should narrow; that gap was really egregiously wide back in the 1970s, at the endpoint at the great divergence. If we're not careful, we are going to create some sort of problem by the sheer weight of numbers and the consumption patterns that seems to be emerging as Asia gets richer.

CONAN: And...

FERGUSON: You don't need to have a view on climate change. I say this in order to make people who are avowed skeptics on that question acknowledge that there's a problem. Even if there's no problem with climate, we're going to run out of stuff if we don't change our behavior.

CONAN: We just have a minute left, but I did want you to address the idea - China, which is racing so quickly to make these adaptations and rising in power, yet a country which has profound political weaknesses and is racing, at the same time, to poison itself.

FERGUSON: In many ways, China has downloaded five, but not six, of our killer applications, and it may have got the competition in its economy, and it certainly have - has made great strides in science, not to mention medicine. The consumer society is flourishing there. Indeed, it's part of the five-year plan to grow it. And the work ethic, you bet. They've got it.

But they don't have the rule of law based on private property rights - they really don't - and they certainly aren't moving in the direction of representative government. And that's their biggest weakness. That's their Achilles' heel.

So I'm not one of those people who says, it's a slam dunk. The future belongs to China. It's more complicated than that. And we actually have the potential to reform ourselves, upgrade our civilization, reboot the software before it's too late.

CONAN: Niall Ferguson, thanks very much for your time.

FERGUSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Niall Ferguson's book is "Civilization: The West and the Rest." Up next: New Yorker cartoonist and stay-at-home dad Pat Byrnes on his alter ego - Captain Dad. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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