Civilisation by Niall Ferguson [A Review]

Civilisation is historian Niall Furguson’s attempt to answer what he sees as perhaps the most important historical question; how did the West go from being the world’s backwater, in the early 15th century, to come to dominate the rest?


Furguson was inspired to write this book in the wake of China’s impressive rise, exemplified by the speed of their economic ascent, their superlative Olympic Games and their impressive cities. Furguson notes that there is an air of concern in the West that we are witnessing our own decline. In order to consider whether that is in fact the case, he argues, we need to identify what Western dominance consisted of.

Furguson argues that it was six things, which he calls ‘killer apps’; Competition, Science, Property Rights, Medicine, the Consumer Society and Work Ethic

Competition between the many small states that comprised Europe allowed the West to develop a ruthlessly competitive streak. The Scientific Revolution gave the West a distinct advantage, particularly in warfare. The fight for property rights in the age of revolution, led inevitably to other rights and democracy. Medical science allowed the West to heal soldiers, colonise the world and experience large improvements in health, infant mortality and life expectancy. Consumerism is the key to why American capitalism triumphed where European imperialism and communism failed. Finally a cultural change as a result of the Protestant Reformation encouraged a strong work ethic and thrifty living leading to increased productivity and surplus capital.

Already, anyone reading this will feel their argumentative juices flowing. Some might argue for another aspect that has been overlooked, or challenge the basis these six have been formed on or even the legitimacy for simplifying historical forces into such a format. But overall there is nothing terribly controversial or particularly new in the above summation. A lot of the strengths of this theory will come down to how well Ferguson has argued, presented and demonstrated his case.

Unfortunately this is where the book fails terribly. I am not necessarily saying that I disagree with the importance of the factors listed, but this book is a poor attempt to support them. The book is distracted, wayward, unanalytical and ultimately, in its greatest failing, unpersuasive.

The chapter on Competition is less than 30 pages. If you are expecting a strong rationale for competition as a driver for efficiency and innovation – economically, politically, scientifically and militarily – supported by carefully considered historical evidence, with consideration of alternatives, you will not find it here. Most of the chapter is an anecdotal comparison of the voyages of Zheng He’s Ming fleet against the voyages to the East by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

In principle there is nothing wrong with using a historical story to illustrate the points you are trying to make. Ferguson’s point is that, as Ming China was largely unified and without rival and Confucian philosophy made it increasingly insular, the lack of competition stifled innovation and led to decline and stagnation. The voyages of the Ming fleet were not about discovery, trade or conquest, but about showing off might and commanding tribute. European voyages of discovery by contrast were driven by the prospect of conquest and achieving trading advantages over rivals.

Interesting as all this may be, it is disappointing for anyone wanting a strongly argued case for the value of competition over rival systems, its limitations, the sources and influences in its evolution, and causative relationships to Western ascendency. It is emblematic of the shortcomings throughout the book.

The chapter on Science has similar failings. In attempting to answer the question of how the West overtook the scientific achievements of the Ottoman Empire, Ferguson mostly uses a comparison of Prussia under Frederick the Great against the declining Ottomans, where an increasingly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam led to a rejection of science and mathematics as blasphemous. The fact that a similar  restraint of science within Christendom had also existed and how it was overcome is not thoroughly examined.

The chapter on Science also contains much that is not, strictly speaking, ‘science’. For instance Ferguson spends much time talking up the value of Prussia’s meritocratic civil service. The Ottoman’s too had a very meritocratic bureaucracy and benefited from it, but without constant reinforcement it declined into favouritism and corruption. The value of appointments based on merit as opposed to high-birth is a good point, but why does it come under ‘Science’? The issues and inconsistencies of labelling, categorising and defining things are a persistent problem in this book and provide strength to arguments against its format.

These issues continue in the next chapter. Ferguson argues that Western democracy began with lawmaking aimed to protect ones property. Fair enough, but the chapter spends most of its space comparing the Spanish/Portuguese colonisation of South America to the British/French colonisation of North America. It is interesting and some good points are made but again the relevancy of the material varies, is sometimes questionable and it fails to be persuasive.

In his chapter on Medicine, Ferguson briefly mentions the work of Louis Pasteur and the French scientists that followed him in revolutionising medicine. Here his anecdote is a comparison of French and German attempts to colonise Africa, how they dealt with the significant medical hurdles and how all of us benefited. This argument, in addition to the previous chapters lengthy comparison of the colonisation of the New World, will make some readers question what this book is really about. It increasingly feels less of an analysis of Western ascendency and more a polemic championing imperialism, colonialism and interventionism.

Ferguson has been accused variously of being ‘nostalgic for Empire’, of lacking commitment to scholarship and that his writing fails to be persuasive. It is hard to argue against these claims after reading this book

What you want from a chapter on medicine is a thorough discussion on how the improvements in infant mortality, treatment of disease and longevity benefited society and the variety of impact it had. Instead, as mentioned it spends much time championing colonialism, and then goes on to a lengthy discussion of German racist ideologies. Ferguson argues that legitimising of racist ideologies, such as those adopted by the Nazis, were an unfortunate consequence of the development of medical and biological science (before the further development that would eventually quash those ideas), pointing first to Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, who coined the term ‘eugenics’. In doing so he ignores the social theories that originated in mid-19th century America in response to freed slaves and increased immigration from Mexico, Italy and Ireland (not to mention that most of the Mexicans, Italians and Irish were Catholic). Notions of the supremacy of white Protestants as a race coming from 19th century America have at least an equal claim to inspiring later German ideology.

The book was really starting to lose me at this point.

The chapter on consumerism is the best in the book. It is the longest and here Ferguson for once makes use of his space and gives plenty of examples and evidence and argues his case much more assuredly.

In covering his final ‘killer app’, Ferguson argues that the Protestant Reformation embodied considerable cultural change. The two he highlights as being key to future Western supremacy being a belief in work for the sake of work and of modest living. This, he argues, was a response to some of the issues people took with the Catholic Church leading to the Reformation. Specifically, the emphasis on work as a form of worship was in contrast to the previous belief that the best way to honour God was through a monastic lifestyle of penitence and quiet contemplation, while the thrifty living was a response to the opulence and expensive tastes of the Catholic Church.

These two cultural ideas, Ferguson argues, resulted in a boost in productivity and surplus capital that enabled sustained Western economic growth and improvements in quality of life. Ferguson notes that the West has lost touch with this aspect of its culture – Europe is increasingly secular and less productive and, also with America, no longer spends within its means. Ferguson laments the lack of work ethic and net savings and the bubble-and-burst economics it has created.

There are many problems with this work, some I have already alluded to. The first problem is with the names, labels, categories that Ferguson has applied. To call the book ‘Civilisation’, referring specifically to the West from the 15th century, is irksome to the point of infuriating to anyone who studies and enjoys history. It carries an implication than those who are not Western, or have not embraced Westernism (the way the Japanese, Koreans and increasingly the Chinese have) are not civilised.

Calling the key characteristics of the West, ‘Killer Apps’, is wince-inducing, like a gaudy uncle trying to be cool. It has been suggested the format and language of this book is emblematic of the way history is increasingly being taught to youth in Britain and the US – with an emphasis on categorising, over-simplifying and correlating. Ferguson may be deliberately speaking to the audience he hopes will pick up his book. One can’t help but be concerned if those whose critical faculties are not fully developed take this book as an example of what a history book should be like. This is short-cut history.

The names he has given for his six apps are also problematic. And what are they? Are they principles, practices, ideas? As mentioned, the chapter on ‘Science’ contains much that is not science. Would it be better named as ‘Meritocracy’, ‘The Scientific Method’, ‘Institutionalised Reason’? If they are practices then shouldn’t the sixth app be split into two – productivity and thrift? Are they representative of the source of the app or its final embodiment? The chapter on Property Rights is so-named as it is argued to be the source for later achievements. Should the chapter instead be named for those achievements – ‘Democracy’ or ‘Representation’? It might make more sense since those property rights in turn resulted from earlier achievements, history after all is one thing after another.

Are these six things really ‘apps’? Doesn’t that give the West too much credit?

After all, these things were not invented and developed with much forethought. They were responses to the challenges of the time, and they were not the only ones. At the time no one could have predicted their durability over any other solution that was attempted. Would it be more appropriate to call them the six ‘Accidental Discoveries’, the six ‘Blind Fumbles’?

The Chinese were well aware of glass of course. But glass is ineffective when it came to their beverage of choice, tea. So the Chinese spent much more effort developing something more impressive than glass; porcelain. Meanwhile, beer and wine drinking Europeans continued to develop glass, never realising that centuries later their efforts would put them far ahead of the competition in developing reading glasses, telescopes, microscopes and spyglasses that gave them a distinct scientific and military advantage.

Frankly, even if the rise of the West can be attributed to a small set of principles such as these, I am more inclined to see the source discovery or invention of those principles as the result of a combination of unrelated factors rather than conscious effort or choice. In the century before the West began its steep climb, the plague reached Europe. In wiping out 30-60% of Europe’s population, it provided the beginning of the end of the feudal system as well as people’s faith in the Church regarding temporal matters. This set the West on a path towards universal rights, representation, a reformation of the Church and a scientific revolution. All of which may not have happened to the West when they did if the feudal system had continued to function and the Church’s authority remained unquestioned as they did in other parts of the world.

Let’s consider the series of fortunate events before we start patting each other on the back.

As well as failing to be persuasive as to the effect and import of his apps, Ferguson also does not do enough to persuade us that they represent fundamental principles – is this just how things turned out, or are they the only way they could have turned out, whether by the West or anyone else?

What about the downsides?

For example, competition may have flourished due to Europe’s small states but it also meant near-constant war. Ferguson is not ignorant of the downsides of his apps, the moral questions and the sometimes ugly history of their evolution, but he only briefly mentions them and does not indulge deep discussion. Without that he fails to answer some obvious questions. Is it possible to enjoy the benefits of these apps without the downsides? Can we apply them in such a way that they are universally good, or will we always have to take the good with the bad?

Ferguson does not do enough to convince us we can have the advantages without the downsides or how that might be achieved. The path of Western ascendency is littered with achievements we would consider morally dubious today, in particular the exploitation of indigenous people and the resources of their land that mostly went to benefit their colonial masters. Such things could not be repeated today without offending the moral outlook of most people (although, one could argue such things are being done today, not by nations but by corporations). Given that, aren’t some of these apps more like the six cheats, off-sides, forward passes and no-balls of the West? What good are they if they can’t be repeated as they were in the past?

A better title for this book may be ‘Imperialism: How the West Got Away With it’.

One gets the feeling that Ferguson is an ends-over-means person. Someone for whom the taste of his omelette is the only criteria when considering whether to break some eggs. Whether those eggs could be used for something besides an omelette is not something he thinks about, especially if it has not been done before. Ferguson has defended colonialism in the past, stating that, well maybe a quote will suffice; “Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it’s clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn’t have any credibility at all.”

Balance is another thing this book is missing

Not just in terms of alternative ideas to the author’s, or of presenting a larger amount of info for the reader to consider their own conclusions, but that some of these apps oppose each other. Saying that both shopping and saving were keys to Western advances is a relatively easy conclusion compared to the much harder question of where we find the balance between the two. It is a question Ferguson does not attempt to answer even though he laments the shift to spending on credit in the last thirty years that has been to the West’s detriment.

Productivity may be falling in Europe, where workers have more leave and shorter working hours than Americans, who in turn are less productive than those in developing countries. But what about the benefits in terms of less stress, longer life expectancy, more happiness? It is not considered. Of course, whether this reduced labour is a luxury than can be afforded or sustained in the long term is a good question, but again it is a question that is never asked.

There has been a lot of recent discussion about Scientism. In his introduction, Ferguson argues against using the scientific method to study history. But when the aim of the book is a Newtonian ambition to find the hidden laws underpinning the rise of the West, and yet the book relies heavily on anecdotal, selective evidence, and confuses correlation for causation, it only makes the reader cry out for a better method. I haven’t been this disappointed by a book in a long time and as a non-fiction it is probably unchallenged in frustrating me.

What can we say in conclusion?

We can be kind and see this book as an ugly first draft. A fumbled ball that a better historian can pick up and run with. Again, I do not necessarily disagree with the import of these factors he has highlighted, but my acquiescence is due more to what I have read and learned from other sources rather than anything to be found in this book.

So I am more inclined to say that this is a very poor book, unfocused, full of waffle, selective, poorly written and most of all; unpersuasive.

There is a third option.

A documentary series was produced to accompany this book which I watched in parallel as I read the book. Documentary series that follow a book are most worthwhile if they provide the powerful visual appeal to bring the material to new life. Their weakness is that they cannot deliver the detail in the short format that a book can. You needn’t concern yourself with that issue here. If after all this you are still interested in what Ferguson has to say, you can save yourself the trouble of reading this book and watch the documentary instead. So thin is his argument that you can absorb it all in less than six hours of television and not worry about missing any essential details.


  1. […] Guns, Germs and Steel was one of those books that I avoided for a long time, a bit like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Can a book on science and history be this popular while still embracing the complexity and nuance of its subject? But I think I have been slowly won over by learning more about the book and its author. Having read the preface and learnt the question the book is trying to answer, I think it would make a strong counterpoint to Niall Ferguson’s awfully flawed Civilisation. […]


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