British historian Niall Ferguson goes on an
historical tour de force in his latest book Civilization:
The Six Killer Apps of Western Power.
In this book, Ferguson takes on the question: why did a
comparatively small number of nations at the western end of
the Eurasian landmass (for example, Germany, France, Britain
and the United States) come to dominate modern civilisation
as we know it?
His answer lies in the West's comparatively better use of
what he calls "the six killer apps" of modernity:
competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer
society, and the work ethic.
He asks these questions within the context of the recent rise
of China. The most interesting part of this book outlines how
China has been an ascendant power once before, during the
Ferguson's basic argument is that China did not become a
leading power until fairly recently, despite having invented
such nascent technology as printing presses and gunpowder,
because its rulers chose to isolate themselves from the West
until the post-Mao era.
He compares China to its ancient neighbour and rival Japan,
which while being similarly slow in opening up to the West,
tended to embrace Western technology and economic principles
much faster than the Chinese did after the mid-1800s. This
book clearly illustrates how the Japanese adapted many
Western ideas, including imperialism, with such successful
(and even devastating) effect.
Indeed, Ferguson's thesis centres on the idea that wherever
Western ideas and ideals have been applied, considerable
economic, social, political and cultural progress has
This Western-centric thesis underpins the book and brings its
many strands together. This is how Ferguson takes the reader
from discussing how poor weapons technology failed the
Ottoman Turks in their siege of Vienna in one part of the
book to how medicine improved the health of colonial Africans
In Ferguson's view, these and other political and historical
events have all contributed to Western dominance.
At a personal level, I disagree with Ferguson's neo-liberal
Also, Ferguson minimises the role that other civilisations
have played in contributing to Western progress - after all,
the Chinese, Indians and Arabs played significant roles in
developing modern numeracy and mathematics.
What Ferguson does well, however, is the melding of a massive
amount of research gathered from the four corners of the
world into one book. In the preface, he mentions that this
book supports another television documentary series from him.
I hope we do get to see the Civilization series on our
screens. To make sense of it all, I would strongly suggest
reading this book first.
And regardless of whether you agree with Ferguson's synopsis
or not, this book makes a good read for those prepared to be
chronologically transported back and forth by his tour de
• Chris Ford is a writer, political commentator
and blogger from Dunedin.