Metamorphosis, or Why We Should Study the West

The Metamorphic Nature of the Western Achievement

To argue, in this day and age, that other civilizations deserve equal treatment with the West’s is to ignore the elephant in comparative civilization’s boudoir. What happened in, and through, the Western world during the last three hundred years is unique in the history of civilization. Western civilization does not represent just another civilization. It represents a metamorphosis in humanity’s estate. The other civilizations of the world have been reborn in, and through, that of the West.

There have, in fact, been only two prior episodes in the human story whose importance parallels what recently happened in the West, both pre-civilizational. The first was nothing less than the appearance of modern humanity itself, “homo sapiens sapiens,” roughly 50,000 years ago. This was a biological event, a kind of sub-speciation, probably associated with brain and laryngeal changes that allowed for the development of complex language. Out of it came the cultural effervescence that separated us from the rest of animate creation. While humans continued to evolve biologically, adaptation, often of a radical nature, no longer had to wait upon our genes. Religion, art, and an increasingly complicated technology followed in train, as mankind, hitherto confined to Africa, spread across the face of the earth

The second metamorphic episode, beginning about 10,000 years ago, involved the invention of agriculture, the transition from the Paleo- to Neolithic. What made this metamorphic, what gave it a close resemblance to the appearance of language and culture, was its immense multiplication of possibility. With agriculture came redistributable surpluses and, eventually, states to redistribute them. States concentrate power and their redistributive policies typically concentrate wealth among the powerful. This may not have been fair, but it did provide the basis for high civilization, the arts of luxury, and the advanced technologies of war and rulership, including, ultimately, written language. Populations increased, cities arose, the entire human web became a densely intricate knit – and history began.

Metamorphic events have signature qualities. They generate a rapid increase in innovation, population growth, cultural content, information exchange, energy sources, specialization, the division of labor, and institutional variety. The alterations are not just add-ons, human life is qualitatively altered. By each of these measures recent Western history is surely the third of the great metamorphic breakthroughs. Never before in history has so much, so long taken for granted, been in such flux, including such basics as gender relations and family structure. The advent of biotechnology, genetic manipulation, and artificial intelligence even opens the door to the Faustian possibilities of species modification.

There are those, to be sure, who believe that what took place in the West was not so much a breakthrough as a breaking-and-entering, a kind of global grand larceny. In their view the West travelled (or at least started down) its road to riches by expropriating the wealth of others.

This trivializes something majestic. The West has no doubt done its share of looting – perhaps more than its share – but there was never enough wealth in the world to account for the undreamt powers and possibilities the West (and those regions that have successfully borrowed from it) now possesses.

What happened in the West wasn’t a matter of aggregating “quantities”, it was a qualitative transformation that carried humanity onto a new plane. Old fashioned empires of which the world has seen many amass wealth through booty, tribute, taxes, and enslavement, but this is hardly the same as emancipating imagination, energy, and potential. Rome enriched itself on the backs of its subjects and slaves, yet experienced no breakthrough. A metamorphosis involves profound internal changes that intensify creative powers rather than simply concentrating lucre. It is this Promethean aspect that sets apart the last three Western centuries as something truly extraordinary.