The wonder of the west

Niall Ferguson’s new book and TV series tackle one of the fundamental questions of world history – how the west came to dominate the rest. Here he reveals the ‘killer apps’ that powered western civilisation and considers how much longer the west’s supremacy will last

Two women from South America. Six centuries ago South American civilisations matched the west in some respects. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

What do we mean by ‘western civilisation’?

To put it succinctly, ‘western’ is the ideas and institutions that arose in western Europe after around 1400 and were then spread across the Atlantic, to Australia and selected other places over the next 500 years. ‘Civilisation’ is simply the largest unit of human social, cultural and political organisation short of humanity itself. What makes the west different is that it is really the only civilisation in history to achieve such a global reach and to transform the world so comprehensively.

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