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Response to Review of The Rise of Western Power: a Comparative History of Western Civilization

The eminent environmental and world historian, John McNeill, apparently both loves and hates my book. He writes: ‘As a story of innovation and achievement in the history of the West, this is a fine book, with many insightful passages and interesting details. As a comparative history, it is peppered with intellectual disasters’.

As the title (‘The Rise of Western Power’) of my book suggests, its main purpose is to explain how a region of the world, Europe, advanced fairly quickly, by world historical standards, from relative insignificance to exerting the greatest worldwide influence of any culture in history. It is a ‘Comparative History of Western Civilization’, not of world history. The frequent but relatively limited number of comparisons are intended not to explain and thoroughly analyze the great achievements and contributions of other cultures – a very worthy project – but to help account for what Marshall Hodgson called the Great Transmutation and Kenneth Pomeranz has termed the Great Divergence. Accounting for this development – roughly how the modern world came to be – is arguably not only a ‘perennial question’, as McNeill puts it, but one of the fundamental problematica of modern history.

As I argue in the prologue, my guiding insight, borrowed from studies of evolutionary biology and ecology, emphasizes the universal creativity of all living things and especially human beings. It seems best to quote extensively from the relevant passage (minus citations):

‘All living things – from bacteria to humans – are phenomenally creative in their ability to adapt. At every moment, we must process almost infinite data relating to our surroundings and our own bodies and mental processes. We create from this manifold an awareness of our corner of the world. On this basis, we act, react, invent, build, and collaborate. If each individual displays such extraordinary creativity on its own, imagine how much vastly more he or she can achieve in communities. All human collectives – from hunter-gatherer bands to sophisticated civilizations – connect organically among themselves and with their environments. This alone makes them all worthy of the profoundest respect and even awe.

‘According therefore to an ecological model of evolution, no living thing can thrive in isolation but only in intricate interplay with the widest range of living and nonliving things. At various points in their development, however, the leaders of a host of cultures and civilizations found many reasons to impede further experimentation and innovation. One can point, for example, to decrees by the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368–1398) forbidding private voyages overseas and trade with foreign countries. Such prohibitions presumably hampered innovation; they could not stifle it altogether. China under the Ming Dynasty flourished in nearly every sphere. Yet Europe, despite its smaller population, was rising faster, developing more ecologically, more organically – was more open to other cultures and to its physical environment – than the other great civilizations. Therein lay the secret of its success’.

My intention, therefore, is in no wise to disparage or downplay the great achievements of other cultures and the universal creativity of humanity. On the contrary: I repeatedly marvel at those achievements and that creativity. Yet my book, while surveying 1000 years of European (and Western) history, is above all a monograph aimed at comprehending how such a relative backwater came to engender the modern world. Therefore, my comparative approach involves (a) cataloging the prodigious contributions of other cultures to the West's eventual divergence and (b) delineating the ways and means, both positive and negative, by which it unfolded. For instance, I discuss how Islamic civilization contributed to Western development through the diffusion of inventions, practices, institutions, values, and ideas and by posing the general psychological challenge of a more advanced culture, on the one hand, and I also analyze the intellectual impediment to further advancement inflicted by the assault on philosophy of al-Ghazali and subsequent thinkers, on the other hand.

In quoting from my book, McNeill does not always fairly sample my phrasing. For example, he claims that I attribute China’s early extraordinary development ‘to ‘its enormous population’ and ‘good communications’, which does not sound very convincing. In reality, the passage reads as follows:

Two factors help explain China’s extraordinary inventiveness for over 1,000 years. Most important was its enormous population, which was bigger than any other in history. If all human beings in the aggregate possess similar ingenuity, then a society with more people will produce more innovation. Second, good communications, a shared culture, flourishing educational opportunities, and a huge and relatively unified market gave China’s vast pool of talent myriad opportunities for sharing ideas and learning from one another.

McNeill faults me for relying ‘on implicit yardsticks’ without discussing their merits. For the most part this is untrue. Although I nowhere make such assertions explicitly, he is right that overall I would consider civil law, by far the most widespread legal system in the world, to have made a greater contribution to world history than Confucian thought and Christianity, with five times more followers, to have had a greater impact in world-historical terms than Buddhism. (Ironically, in the very next paragraph McNeill acknowledges that I consider that faith of utmost importance in world history.) Yet in various places throughout the text I am quite explicit about the relative importance and influence of these and many other elements of world culture – for example, I point out that ‘given the crucial role in modern times of civil law in the emergence of civil society, of sophisticated commercial systems, and of constitutional government, its absence in China was probably to be regretted’ (p. 13).

McNeill laments that ‘time and again [my] account leaves readers with the impression that European achievements (or contributions to the modern world) count for more than anyone else’s’. Since a host of key attributes of the modern world – including representative government, the rule of law, the free enterprise system, individual liberties, modern science and medicine, and continuous industrial and technological innovation –  count as “European achievements”, in any history of the modern world they will to some extent have to ‘count for more than anyone else's’. But again, my book repeatedly argues that such achievements would have been impossible without earlier and ongoing achievements of other cultures.

In other places, McNeill clearly misunderstands what I'm trying to convey. For example he writes that I find Gothic cathedrals ‘preferable’ to ‘the grandest buildings of the other great civilizations’. Actually, my personal preference is completely beside the point. What I argue, rather, is twofold. First, for many centuries Gothic cathedrals were the world’s tallest buildings – surely a testament to European ambition and technological prowess. Second, and more important, I argue that ‘they were also monuments to a human spirit seeking unity with the transcendent and an expression of the divine spirit infusing the material realm’ (p. 43). Under the influence of Neoplatonic thought, I continue, these architectural marvels ‘celebrated soaring height, radiant color, vast unity of space, and gloriously suffusing light’. Such intellectual and artistic ambitions surely foreshadowed ambitions in various material realms, in ways that lovely fountains, carpets, and even minarets did not.

Again, McNeill misconstrues my argument when he parenthetically notes: ‘Curiously, on p. 277 Daly returns to the comparison of cathedrals and pagodas, but here seems agnostic about which buildings “bespeak a more creative or refined culture”’. This mention was part of a litany of achievements in China ca. 1200–1300 A.D. that, I argue, were hard to compare with those of Europe in the same centuries and that ‘most scholars would no doubt qualify . . . as far superior, grander, and more splendid’. Here I am acknowledging the relative superiority of Chinese achievements but also suggesting that comparisons between the two civilizations were no longer completely absurd as they would have been 200-300 years. In other words, the European transformation had begun.

In the following passage, McNeill misrepresents my argumentation. I do not claim that ‘the carnage of the Taiping Rebellion … did not raise questions about culture and values in China’, as he has it but rather that ‘the destruction of the World War called into question Western culture and values in ways the Chinese unrest did not’ (p. 340). This is part of my overarching claim that European culture was more ‘impressionable’, more prone to radical transformation than the Chinese or other major cultures.

Finally, the reason why timelines and study questions accompany each chapter is because I wrote the book for use in a survey course I developed at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After 10 years teaching the Western civilization course I grew tired of textbooks without arguments, world historical contextualization, or scholarly references. My students, I became convinced, would welcome both  –  and I was right. A companion website with hundreds of historical documents, maps, and images further enhances their learning experience.

Over the past 50 or so years dozens of scholars have labored mightily and often successfully to explain the Great Transmutation. (I recently published a book objectively presenting the arguments of what I consider the two dozen best interpretations.(1)) Many resulting arguments, including some by the reviewer’s father, have influenced my writing. The most convincing, in my view, is the idea that openness to change, to external influences, and to unleashing human creativity is the main factor accounting for both various historical ‘golden ages’ and the extraordinary material abundance and well-being of modern life. My book is the first to narrate the history of Western civilization from the perspective of this insight.


  1. Jonathan Daly, Historians Debate the Rise of the West (London and New York: Routledge, 2015).Back to (1)