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20200823 – The Measure of Civilization

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MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is to provide technical support for author’s other book “Why the West Rules – for Now” by reviewing methodology of social development processes divided into four domains: Energy Capture, Social Organization, War-Making Ability, and Information Technology.

DETAILS:

1 Introduction: Quantifying Social Development  
The problem author discusses here is the one that Western intellectuals had for the last 250 years. It is difficulty of explaining why the West took over the world. Author then defines his objectives in this book and moves to provide some key definitions such as:

Social Development: “is a measure of communities’ abilities to get things done in the world; social development is the bundle of technological, subsistence, organizational, and cultural accomplishments through which people feed, clothe, house, and reproduce themselves, explain the world around them, resolve disputes within their communities, extend their power at the expense of other communities, and defend themselves against others’ attempts to extend power.”

Author also provides intellectual background for this discussion starting with Spencer’s idea of evolution increasing complexity of the systems. Author reviews Marxist approach to progress and then return to evolutionary approach. Author also reviewing various attempt to quantify progress and even provides table based on history:

Finally author looks in some detail at core conceptps of social evolution:

  • Differentiation
  • Complexity
  • Evolution
  • Progress
  • Stage Theories
  • Society
  • Quantification

 2 Methods and Assumptions  
Here are assumptions author puts in the core of his ideas:

  1. Quantification
  2. Parsimony
  3. Here is how author defines traits using of Human Development Index (HDI):
    1. The Criteria of Useful Trait”: The trait must be relevant: that is, it must tell us something about social development as I defined it in chapter 1.
    1. The trait must be culture independent. We might, for example, think that the quality of literature and art are useful measures of social development, but judgments in these matters are notoriously culture bound.
    1. Traits must be independent of each other—if, for instance, we use the number of people in a state and the amount of wealth in that state as traits, we should not use per capita wealth as a third trait, because it is a product of the first two traits.
    1. The trait must be adequately documented. This is a real problem when we look back thousands of years because the evidence available varies so much. Especially in the distant past, we simply do not know much about some potentially useful traits.
    1. The trait must be reliable, meaning that experts more or less agree on what the evidence says.
    1. The trait must be convenient. This may be the least important criterion, but the harder it is to get evidence for something or the longer it takes to calculate results, the less useful that trait is.
  4. Focusing on East and West rather than the whole world
  5. The Meaning of East and West
  1. Chronological Intervals of Measurement
  2. Units of Analysis
  3. Approximation and Falsification

Author also provides notes on calculation and geographical representation of meaning of East and West:

MY TAKE ON IT:

Generally, I believe the technical content of this book is valid and makes lots of sense, except for linking Social development to the size and population of the cities. The size of cities is probably more depends on density of population, which in turn depends on productivity of land: rice supports more people per acre than wheat. I think author could easily avoid it by linking Social development to share of urban population. This parameter would provide picture consistent with other domains. For example, China achieved 50-50 breakdown between urban and rural population in 2010, while USA in 1920. Probably if one makes adjustment for different levels of technology, he would find similar parity between USA of 1920 and China of 2010 in other domains.


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