Around 1500, the lev­els of tech­nol­o­gy and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in Europe and Asia were not dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­en­t. But by 1700, Europe had leaped ahead and, by the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, most­ly come to dom­i­nate the world; the la­bels “Enlightenment” and “Industrial Revolution” are com­mon­ly ap­plied. A Cul­ture of Growth: The Ori­gins of the Modern Econ­o­my, a 2016 book by Joel Mokyr asks “Why?” and tries to an­swer.

A Culture of Growth by Joel Mokyr

I en­coun­tered many jew­els of in­sight and eru­di­tion in this book, which how­ev­er is dif­fi­cult, a rough read; I’m not en­tire­ly com­fy rec­om­mend­ing it. But it’d feel wrong not to pass a few jew­els along, and in a cou­ple places add per­spec­tives that I think will res­onate among geek­s. [Apolo­gies in ad­vance for the length of what you are about to prob­a­bly not fin­ish read­ing.]

He’s not the first to ask, of course. It’s a sort of cen­tral prob­lem in His­to­ry and ex­pla­na­tions are, as it were, all over the map. They in­clude Europe’s rel­a­tive agri­cul­tur­al and min­er­al wealth, the­o­ries in­volv­ing pop­u­la­tion ge­net­ic­s, and (not so much re­cent­ly) Chris­tian­i­ty and of course the in­her­ent won­der­ful­ness of us gwei­lo hon­key gringos. Let’s see…

…any sug­ges­tion that Chris­tian­i­ty as such cre­at­ed a civ­il so­ci­ety and en­hanced eco­nom­ic per­for­mance as such is sheer non­sense. [This, like all sub­se­quent block quo­ta­tion­s, is from the book.  —Tim]


It is im­por­tant to stress that noth­ing sug­gests that any in­her­ent qual­i­ties of Euro­peans or Chris­tians were sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from oth­er so­ci­eties in a way that would fos­ter the de­vel­op­ment of use­ful knowl­edge.

I’ve of­ten thought that as a re­sult of Europe’s be­ing in­ter­pen­e­trat­ed by bod­ies of wa­ter in­clud­ing the Mediter­ranean, Adri­at­ic, Baltic, and North Sea, ma­rine technology’s be­ing less op­tion­al than it might have been in In­dia or Chi­na was a prob­a­ble con­trib­u­tor.

But Mokyr thinks it’s most­ly about cul­ture, en­abled by for­tu­nate his­tor­i­cal ac­ci­dents. I’m not go­ing to re­pro­duce his ar­gu­ment (Brad DeLong does here, but miss­es some of the re­al­ly good stuff in the last third.) I’m just go­ing to pull out a few of the lessons and ques­tions and ex­am­ples that grabbed my at­ten­tion, and link to juicy re­lat­ed read­ing. Way down at the bot­tom of this piece, I’m go­ing to gripe about the book’s prob­lems and why you pos­si­bly don’t want to read it; but let’s do the good stuff first.

The idea of progress · For me, this was the biggest mind-bomb be­cause, like ev­ery hu­man who reads these word­s, I as­sume as a mat­ter of course that the work of sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers im­proves the world, and that by deep­en­ing our un­der­stand­ing of how things work, we can make them work bet­ter so that we can live bet­ter.

But ca. 1500, that was a rad­i­cal idea. In Europe, the “Wisdom Of The Ancients” was the watch­word. There was no point try­ing to im­prove on Aris­totle, Galen, and Ptole­my; in fact at­tempts to do so, tak­en too far, could win you a star­ring role in a scene in­volv­ing a stake and fire­wood.

This wasn’t just Eurostu­pid­i­ty; Chi­na had its own “Wisdom Of” cul­ture, where the an­cients were most­ly just one an­cien­t, name­ly Con­fu­cius, and in fact the wis­dom was strict­ly as trans­mit­ted in the Four Books as cu­rat­ed by 朱熹 (Zhu Xi) some­time be­fore 1200.

Cen­tral to this whole dis­cus­sion and thus, ar­gues Mokyr, the En­light­en­ment and In­dus­tri­al Revo­lu­tion, was gen­er­al­ly the no­tion that Progress Is Good (Corol­lary: The An­cients didn’t know it al­l):

Galen had no mi­cro­scope, Ptole­my no tele­scope, Archimedes no cal­cu­lus. More than any­thing, the mod­erns stressed, knowl­edge was cu­mu­la­tive.

Put an­oth­er way:

In­tel­lec­tu­al sa­cred cows were in­creas­ing­ly be­ing led to the slaugh­ter­house of ev­i­dence.

To which most of us would say: Wel­l, yeah. And while I try to be open-minded, I ba­si­cal­ly dis­re­spect any ar­gu­ments which in the twenty-first cen­tu­ry ap­peal to the Wis­dom Of The An­cients, no­tably in­clud­ing those of Chris­tian­s, Mus­lim­s, and Bud­dhist­s, to men­tion on­ly those most nu­mer­ous. They say: “This old tex­t, as trans­mit­ted through mul­ti­ple fallibly-mutable scrib­al gen­er­a­tions, says (for ex­am­ple) how wom­en should be­have sexually.” I say: “We know bet­ter now, be­cause we mea­sure what na­ture tells us.” Case closed.

So, who first made an ar­gu­ment like that?

Fran­cis Ba­con (1561-1626) · Mokyr says he did. It turns out that Ba­con, a failed politi­cian in per­ma­nent fi­nan­cial trou­ble, wrote the ur-narrative on what we now call the Sci­en­tif­ic Method. He him­self wasn’t much of a sci­en­tist, but was (ap­par­ent­ly, if you read Lat­in) a good writer, and af­ter all it’s a con­vinc­ing line of ar­gu­men­t: Ob­serve na­ture, come up with ex­pla­na­tions of what you see, try to prove they’re wrong, and the more you can’t the more you be­lieve them.

In this con­text I need to link to two more long-form pieces: First Mokyr’s own Progress Isn't Nat­u­ral last year in The At­lantic. In­trigu­ing­ly, he calls out lots of lu­mi­nar­ies of in­tel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, but not Ba­con. How­ev­er, Ada Palmer, a re­mark­able per­son, cer­tain­ly does in On Progress and His­tor­i­cal Change, a messy, sprawl­ing blog piece that might be even longer than this one will end up. It’s eru­dite, in­struc­tive, and fun! I quote: “In the ear­ly sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, Fran­cis Ba­con in­vent­ed progress.”

Ene­mies of progress · We’ve al­ways had them. Any sys­tem, no mat­ter how im­pov­er­ished, has peo­ple at the top of the pyra­mid for whom things are work­ing just fine, and would pre­fer that they not change.

As we have seen, one bias in cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion is what I call co­er­cion bi­as, the abil­i­ty of those in pow­er who have a strong stake in the cul­tur­al sta­tus quo  —  be it re­li­gious, artis­tic, or sci­en­tif­ic  —  to sup­press in­no­va­tion and per­se­cute het­ero­dox cul­tur­al en­trepreneurs who de­vi­ate from the re­ceived wis­dom. In­no­va­tions can un­der­mine an ex­ist­ing struc­ture of be­liefs and in the pro­cess “erode beliefs” that pro­vide cer­tain groups with rents and le­git­imiza­tion. Another way of look­ing at this bias is to note that in­cum­bents erect high bar­ri­ers to en­try in­to the mar­ket for ideas to pro­tect their monopoly. Th­ese bar­ri­ers of­ten re­ly on such ter­mi­nol­o­gy as “heresy,” “apostasy,” and “blasphemy” and de­pend on raw po­lit­i­cal pow­er to pre­vent new ideas from com­pet­ing.

Could the Con­tras have won? · Mokyr is pret­ty sure they could have:

Fair­ly mi­nor rewrites of his­to­ry could have se­cured Europe for an ob­scu­ran­tist Catholic regime in which the Repub­lic of Let­ters would have turned in­to a be­night­ed theoc­ra­cy dom­i­nat­ed by Jesuits…

The es­say by Ada Palmer that I linked above goes deep on whether his­to­ry has a di­rec­tion, whether any­thing can be said to be in­evitable. The an­swer, of course, is “it depends”. But I thought Mokyr’s case was strong.

Here’s an­oth­er in­ter­est­ing no­tion, for­mal bar­ri­ers to the in­tro­duc­tion of new knowl­edge. It turns out so­ci­ol­o­gists have a word for it:

A mech­a­nism that has long been known to schol­ars work­ing in cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion is known as trans­mis­sion iso­lat­ing mech­a­nism­s, or TRIMs. TRIMs iso­late a so­ci­ety from for­eign cul­tur­al fea­tures, thus in some sense mak­ing its cul­tur­al macro-evolution more like bi­o­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion.

None of those TRIMs ev­er proved whol­ly ef­fec­tive, al­though those in Toku­gawa Ja­pan be­fore the Mei­ji rev­o­lu­tion came close, and North Korea in our time is mak­ing a se­ri­ous ef­fort in the same di­rec­tion.

But Europe around 1500 was just too easy to move around in, and its cul­tures too in­ces­tu­ous­ly in­ter­min­gled.

Religion’s role · You may have no­ticed above that Mokyr is scathing about re­li­gion. But it’s not that sim­ple; both he and Palmer point out that Ba­con and his fol­low­ers had a line of ar­gu­ment that Science was best seen as a form of Divine Wor­ship, work that in and of it­self glo­ri­fied God, and thus in­trin­si­cal­ly praise­wor­thy. I gath­er it was at least ad­e­quate­ly con­vinc­ing to those who un­like me be­lieve in one or more di­vini­ties and fur­ther that they Have A Plan For Us.

In prac­tice, it turned out that the Catholic church was, on bal­ance but with no­table ex­cep­tion­s, anti-progress; that Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tions leaned some­what the oth­er way, and that England’s Pu­ri­tans in par­tic­u­lar lapped up the Science-as-Worship nar­ra­tive.

After 1650, the pow­er of con­ser­va­tive forces to hold back new ideas dis­solved north of the Alps and the Pyre­nees.

Why, then, did the pro­po­nents of Progress over­come their ad­ver­saries and suc­cess­ful­ly roll the rock down the hill that even­tu­al­ly be­came the In­dus­tri­al Revo­lu­tion?

Euro pol­i­tics · Mokyr’s ex­pla­na­tion re­lies heav­i­ly on Europe’s (then as now) po­lit­i­cal frag­men­ta­tion, with many poli­ties who even in times of peace strug­gle for pow­er, in­flu­ence, and mon­ey. This meant that when Science (or as they said then, “Natural Philosophy”; got­ta love that) start­ed to be­come A Thing, and the lo­cal Je­suits or Wool-guildsmen or who­ev­er de­cid­ed it was A Bad Thing, a Nat­u­ral Philoso­pher In Trou­ble could skip across the bor­der to the near­est un­friend­ly prin­ci­pal­i­ty, where pub­lic dis­fa­vor at home might be enough to win you a court in­come and high stand­ing.

I’m pret­ty well con­vinced on this point, if on­ly be­cause Mokyr of­fers lots of ex­am­ples of thought lead­ers who did just that. It al­so helps ex­plain why Chi­na, where peo­ple are just as smart and in­ven­tive as in Europe, nev­er had its In­dus­tri­al Revo­lu­tion: There were no prin­ci­pal­i­ties a rad­i­cal Nat­u­ral Philoso­pher could sneak across the bor­der of.

Net­work­ing · Part of the ar­gu­ment here is neg­a­tive: “The en­e­mies of Progress failed because…” but the pos­i­tive part is more in­ter­est­ing. Mokyr dis­cuss­es at length the “Republic of Letters”, the ac­tu­al net­work of col­lab­o­rat­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als that pushed back the bound­aries of Nat­u­ral Phi­los­o­phy and, par­tial­ly as a con­se­quence, tech­nol­o­gy.

It was a func­tion­ing more-or-less mer­i­toc­ra­cy, driv­en by reg­u­lar in­ter­change of pa­per let­ters be­tween the thought lead­er­s, which even­tu­al­ly crys­tal­lized in­to in­tel­lec­tu­al cof­fee­hous­es, sa­lon­s, and fi­nal­ly in­sti­tu­tions such as the Roy­al So­ci­ety and its peer­s.

Th­ese para­graphs will prob­a­bly res­onate with any­one who, like me, has lived sub­stan­tial­ly on the In­ter­net:

The net­works of peo­ple who rarely or nev­er met one an­oth­er turned out, para­dox­i­cal­ly, to cre­ate a uni­ty of pur­pose and method in a com­mu­ni­ty that was over­laid on a high­ly frag­ment­ed world.


Spe­cial nodal fig­ures whose re­spon­si­bil­i­ty it was to copy let­ters and send them on to oth­er mem­bers were known as “intelligencers.” Cor­re­spon­dence clear­ing­hous­es or “offices of addresses” were set up, in which pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions were fur­ther dis­sem­i­nat­ed.

A key fea­ture was rough-and-ready egal­i­tar­i­an­is­m; no­body had the stand­ing to be be­lieved un­crit­i­cal­ly, with­out some­one else hav­ing con­sid­ered and repli­cat­ed their re­sult­s. It’s hard to imag­ine how rad­i­cal this would have been in an era where the Wis­dom was most­ly con­sid­ered to be An­cien­t.

And an­oth­er sup­port­ing ac­ci­dent of his­to­ry that might not have hap­pened:

Much less dis­cussed than print­ing but of great im­por­tance in the op­er­a­tion of the Repub­lic of Let­ters was the im­prove­ment in the continent-wide flow of mail.

Mokyr notes that the rise of postal ser­vices in pre-Enlightenment Europe was part­ly a func­tion of the afore­men­tioned frag­men­ta­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Haps­burg do­min­ion­s. I al­so am cheered by the knowl­edge that the Bri­tish postal sys­tem was built by, more than any oth­er sin­gle in­di­vid­u­al, the nov­el­ist An­tho­ny Trol­lope, in his civil-servant day job.

Real­ly a lot of lucky ac­ci­dents: We came aw­ful­ly close to miss­ing out on moder­ni­ty:

Much of what is to fol­low de­scribes cul­tur­al changes as a re­sult of the in­cen­tives and stim­uli pro­vid­ed by an in­sti­tu­tion­al en­vi­ron­men­t. In­sti­tu­tion­al out­comes, more­over, have a large aleato­ry com­po­nen­t. They are the re­sult of bat­tles, dy­nas­tic ar­range­ments, pow­er strug­gles, the ar­bi­trary pref­er­ences of un­usu­al­ly in­flu­en­tial or pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­al­s, po­lit­i­cal com­pro­mis­es, and maps drawn by gen­er­als or politi­cian­s. There was noth­ing in­evitable in the sur­vival of rel­a­tive­ly tol­er­ant in­sti­tu­tions in the Low Coun­tries and Bri­tain in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, any more than in the emer­gence of very dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tion­al out­comes in Korea or Ger­many af­ter World War II. Such dif­fer­ences of­ten seem to be the out­come of his­tor­i­cal flukes rather than of deep cul­tur­al pro­cess­es.

Does Science work? · Here’s the thing: Driv­en by Ba­co­ni­an think­ing, Nat­u­ral Phi­los­o­phy (er Science) took off in the 1600s, and sort of rough­ly at the same time, there was a surge of tech­nol­o­gy pro­gress, most­ly around man­u­fac­tur­ing. What could be more ob­vi­ous? The Nat­u­ral Philoso­phers did the the­o­ry, and the crafts­peo­ple (A.K.A. en­gi­neer­s) did the prac­tice.

Ex­cept for, no. If you try to draw a line be­tween the Laws of Na­ture as worked out by the­o­reti­cians and ac­tu­al works-on-the-street tech­nol­o­gy, you end up with an em­bar­rass­ing lag of per­haps two cen­turies. What’s re­mark­able is that the ac­tu­al sci­en­tists found wealthy pa­trons to keep them in op­er­a­tion for gen­er­a­tions in which their on­ly out­put was pub­lic demon­stra­tion of things like elec­tro­stat­ic ef­fect­s. In fac­t, Mokyr quotes the “well-worn adage that sci­ence owed more to the steam en­gine than the steam en­gine owed to science”.

Palmer and Mokyr both spin their wheels a bit try­ing to ex­plain this; she of­fers “It is not an easy thing to prove sci­ence works when you have no ex­am­ples of sci­ence work­ing yet” and Mokyr says, un­sat­is­fy­ing­ly:

A coun­ter­fac­tu­al world of tech­no­log­i­cal progress en­tire­ly car­ried by skilled and imag­i­na­tive ar­ti­san­s, with­out any in­put from Baconian-minded in­tel­lec­tu­als and nat­u­ral philoso­pher­s, might have seen some lo­cal tech­ni­cal ad­vances in tex­tiles and met­als in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, but it would not have pro­duced a sus­tain­able and self-reinforcing In­dus­tri­al Revo­lu­tion.

Uh, care to in­tro­duce any em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence, Dr Mokyr?

But I think the sto­ry isn’t that com­pli­cat­ed; maybe be­cause I’m one of today’s en­gi­neer­s/crafts­men, down­stream from the sci­en­tist­s.

Here’s the thing: Science is a long shot. Most hy­pothe­ses are fal­si­fied. Of those that hold up, few have any use­ful ef­fec­t. Many aca­dem­ic pa­pers are en­tire­ly uncit­ed.

Oc­ca­sion­al­ly sci­en­tists stum­ble in­to a rich vein of the­o­ry with a short pipeline to prac­tice, for ex­am­ple semi­con­duc­tor physics or an­tibi­ot­ic drug dis­cov­ery. But giv­en the over­all size of the Natural-Philosophy en­ter­prise in the En­light­en­men­t, tiny com­pared to mod­ern Science, it’s un­sur­pris­ing to me that it took a cou­ple of cen­turies to get any good­ies.

It’s worth not­ing that not on­ly is sci­ence a long shot, it’s un­pre­dictable. Who could have pre­dict­ed that cul­tur­ing moulds would bear life­sav­ing fruit, or fool­ing with ger­ma­ni­um and sil­i­con would launch cy­berspace? Or (my fa­vorite) that the ram­bling ed­i­fice of num­ber the­o­ry, its tow­ers of the purest ivory, would give us the first wave of strong In­ter­net en­cryp­tion?

I’m just thank­ful that the En­light­en­ment scientists’ pa­trons hung in there with them through all those decades where all they had were cool de­mos and peers’ plau­dit­s.

What About Asi­a? · That’s the big ques­tion. Why didn’t In­dia or Chi­na make the sci­en­tific/in­dus­tri­al leap? Mokyr digs deep on the sub­ject of Chi­na, and oh my did I ev­er learn a lot about its in­tel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry. The short ver­sion is that sta­sis was ad­van­ta­geous to China’s rulers and so Wisdom-of-the-Ancients be­came Im­pe­ri­al pol­i­cy. Mokyr goes deep on this and he re­al­ly knows a lot about the sub­jec­t; I learned about 墨家 (Mo­his­m) and the 考證 (Kaozheng) move­ment and a few in­ter­est­ing Chi­nese thought lead­er­s; none of whom, how­ev­er, man­aged to break the Im­pe­ri­al in­tel­lec­tu­al shack­les.

…the Kangxi em­per­or banned all ques­tions on nat­u­ral stud­ies from the civ­il ser­vice ex­am­i­na­tion and his suc­ces­sor, the Yongzheng em­per­or, be­gan a closed door pol­i­cy that last­ed un­til af­ter the Opi­um Wars in the 1840s.

That seems al­most as in­sane as, I don’t know, um, walling a billion-strong na­tion off from the In­ter­net? And hey, those wall-builders are al­so try­ing to bring back Con­fu­cian­ism, which they ex­plain as “Listen to your par­ents at home, to your teach­ers at school, to your boss at work and to the state and gov­ern­ment in the country—then you will have happiness.” Feaugh.

What about ed­u­ca­tion? · This shocked me too: It turned out that the great famous-named un­ver­si­ties (Ox­ford, the Sor­bon­ne, and so on) were most­ly part of the es­tab­lish­men­t, in the Wisdom-of-the-Ancients cam­p:

Univer­si­ties in ear­ly mod­ern Europe were, then, most­ly high­ly con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions in which, for the most part, “critical learning” meant purg­ing clas­si­cal texts of dis­tor­tions in­tro­duced through copy­ing and trans­la­tion er­rors in a lat­er time. The goal of the typ­i­cal uni­ver­si­ty schol­ar was “textual pu­ri­ty rather than sci­en­tif­ic truth”.

Even more shock­ing:

Econo­met­ric work has found lit­tle sup­port for a ma­jor role for ed­u­ca­tion in ex­plain­ing eco­nom­ic pro­gress. A clos­er ex­am­i­na­tion of the pos­tu­lat­ed role of hu­man cap­i­tal in growth al­so sug­gests that, alas, ed­u­ca­tion (or hu­man cap­i­tal more gen­er­al­ly) is not a mag­ic for­mu­la for rapid eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­men­t.

So there.

Is it ac­tu­al­ly a good book? · Not re­al­ly. It’s on­ly 400 pages long, but it’s a bru­tal, grind­ing read; put me to sleep a cou­ple of evenings. The biggest prob­lem is that it’s not ac­tu­al­ly writ­ten as a pop­u­lar non­fic­tion book, but as an ex­tend­ed social-sciences aca­dem­ic pa­per. Let me give an ex­am­ple from ear­ly in the tex­t:

The im­por­tance of these el­e­ments was al­ready point­ed out by John Stu­art Mill ([1848], 1929, pp. 111–12) and dif­fer­ent lev­els of trust have been shown to ex­plain in­come dif­fer­ences be­tween na­tions (Zak and Knack, 2001).

In the quo­ta­tions up till this point, I have sup­pressed the end­less ci­ta­tion­s. But the book is marred by way too many of these plat­i­tudes with aca­dem­ic fluff on top. Don’t want to hurt Zak and Knack’s feel­ings, but they sound like an third-rate standup-comedy duo.

Mokyr’s core ar­gu­ment is that the En­light­en­ment and In­dus­tri­al Revo­lu­tion grew out of a spe­cial mo­ment in cul­ture when Bacon’s ideas blos­somed in­to the Repub­lic of Let­ter­s, which built schol­ar­ly in­sti­tu­tions and over­turned the Wisdom-of-the-Ancients paradig­m, and wait­ed the nec­es­sary cen­turies for the science-to-technology-to-craftsmanship ecosys­tem to start work­ing well. I think it’s a strong ar­gu­men­t. Ex­cept for, the first hun­dred or so pages are ded­i­cat­ed to painstak­ing­ly defin­ing what he means by “culture”, “institutions”, “progress”, and so on. Tl;­dr: They mean what you think they do, as when said col­lo­qui­al­ly.

It is not the case that in­side ev­ery big fat book there’s a slim one fight­ing to get out, but in this par­tic­u­lar case I think Mokyr’s ma­te­ri­al could be dis­tilled in­to a re­al­ly su­perb lit­tle 200ish-page non­fic­tion gem that might sell a gazil­lion copies, im­prove the world, and make him rich.

I have more gripes. Con­sid­er this:

One might ask, had Bri­tain and In­dia been at the same lev­el of eco­nom­ic and in­sti­tu­tion­al de­vel­op­ment in 1700, why was there no “Western-Europe Company” set up in Del­hi that would have ex­ploit­ed the deep po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions with­in Europe to es­tab­lish an In­di­an Raj in Lon­don, ex­tract­ing high rents from Euro­peans re­mit­ted to nou­veaux riche nabobs in In­dia and forced Europe to ac­cept In­di­an cal­i­coes with­out tar­iff­s?

Good ques­tion! After al­l, In­dia fea­tured the same po­lit­i­cal frag­men­ta­tion and re­li­gious di­ver­si­ty that Mokyr (con­vinc­ing­ly) claims un­der­lay Europe’s in­tel­lec­tu­al surge. Why no In­di­an En­light­en­men­t? He just doesn’t say, which feels like a hole in the book.

Busi­ness bumph · I know how to read through aca­dem­ic ap­pa­ra­tus and am pre­pared to for­give the au­thor, who ap­par­ent­ly thought he was writ­ing for his pro­fes­sion­al peer­s.

Less for­give­ably, the book is suf­fused by fash­ion­able 21st-century busi­ness jar­gon, which Mokyr seems to think use­ful in un­der­stand­ing the En­light­en­men­t. The thought lead­er­s, peo­ple like Leib­niz, New­ton, and Mersen­ne, are de­scribed as “cultural entrepreneurs” and the larg­er in­tel­lec­tu­al land­scape is re­peat­ed­ly re­ferred to as a “marketplace of ideas”.

I know some­thing about en­trepreneur­ship and mar­ket­s, and this is just to­tal­ly cock­eyed. En­trepreneurs know what they’re try­ing to ac­com­plish and are es­pe­cial­ly dis­tin­guished by an un­usu­al amount of risk tol­er­ance. With a stretch, the term might ap­ply to, say, Hitler or Mao. But these En­light­en­ment geeks were mono­ma­ni­a­cal­ly chas­ing what­ev­er idea had its claws in­to them at any giv­en mo­men­t, with­out any con­cern at all for what the re­sults might be. That’s how thought lead­ers thought-lead.

And “markets”?! Gimme a break. The cen­tral defin­ing fea­ture of a mar­ket is that the en­ti­ties ex­changed there­in have prices, and that prices are im­por­tan­t. But ideas are free. When they com­pete, it is nev­er on the ba­sis of cost, it is the ba­sis of pow­er, sim­plic­i­ty, and cred­i­bil­i­ty. Sub­tract­ing this crap would be an­oth­er step to­ward ex­tract­ing the many gems from this messy lump of prose and com­bin­ing them in­to a bright clean in­struc­tive sto­ry.

A few more jew­el­s:

Some schol­ars have pro­posed get­ting rid of such cat­e­gories as “science” and “technology” al­to­geth­er and in­stead pro­posed some­thing like a “mindful hand”, which stress­es the dif­fi­cul­ty of draw­ing a line sep­a­rat­ing skill from knowl­edge.

We should in­deed stress that knowl­edge was pro­duced by a con­tin­u­ous range of peo­ple, from mind­ful hands to handy minds…


The two most pro­gres­sive na­tions in eighteenth-century Europe, the Nether­lands and Bri­tain, were the most heav­i­ly taxed on average…


To re­peat: the key to Europe’s suc­cess was its for­tu­nate con­di­tion that com­bined po­lit­i­cal frag­men­ta­tion with cul­tur­al uni­ty. If it had had one with­out the oth­er, the end re­sult would in all like­li­hood have been pro­found­ly dif­fer­en­t.


…economists to­day speak of tech­no­log­i­cal progress but in­sti­tu­tion­al change: the di­rec­tion­al­i­ty of the lat­ter is much less self-evident.

And, in the end · On one of the book’s last pages Mokyr in­tro­duces a no­tion he’s ap­par­ent­ly writ­ten about pre­vi­ous­ly:

But most so­ci­eties that ev­er ex­ist­ed were sub­ject to what I have called else­where Cardwell’s Law, which is a gen­er­al­iza­tion of the phe­nomenon that tech­nol­o­gy in any econ­o­my crys­tal­lizes at some point, and progress slows down and then fiz­zles out.

Wel­l, that’s a sur­prise. I won­der if it’s true. For­tu­nate­ly, he has in­put on how to dodge it:

Break­ing out of Cardwell’s Law re­quires, above al­l, a com­mu­ni­ty that com­bines plu­ral­ism and com­pe­ti­tion with a co­or­di­na­tion mech­a­nism that al­lows knowl­edge to be dis­tribut­ed and shared, and hence chal­lenged, cor­rect­ed, and sup­ple­ment­ed.

It may sound hack­neyed in 2017, but: Me, I be­lieve in pro­gress. I be­lieve in build­ing un­der­stand­ing cu­mu­la­tive­ly and striv­ing al­ways for Truth. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, there are places in the world, some quite near­by, where the en­e­mies of progress are strong. As Joel Mokyr teach­es, progress is not pre­des­tined to win; we have to fight for it and nev­er stop, or we can lose it; it’s hap­pened.

I don’t want to diss the An­cients. It’s just that we know more now.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Grahame (Aug 24 2017, at 02:37)

Elsewhere I've read about the importance of ware between peers in Europe - this provided strong incentives to shelter innovators who might come up with new military tech and help you get ahead... one reason why borders were so open for transferring difficult people. (also explains why Europeans were so good at war, which relates to your question about India)


From: Gavin B. (Aug 24 2017, at 03:05)

A erudite recent counter-stance is provided in The Penultimate Curiosity - - How science swims in the slipstream of ultimate questions.



From: John Roth (Aug 24 2017, at 07:41)

Minor point on the enabler for the internet: the major enabler was Claude Shannon's master's thesis at MIT (1937) which combined symbolic logic (invented in 1859 or thereabouts) with relay control system design (relays were invented in the 1830s IIRC) to create a systematic digital circuit design methodology.

Everything else came from a well-motivated and well-funded search for better computers and telephone switching systems. Semiconductors as a replacement for vacuum tubes were certainly critical, but if the upstream invention hadn't happened, they'd probably never have been discovered, or, if discovered, exploited.


From: Joshua (Aug 24 2017, at 08:07)

Try reading Francis Schaeffer, "How Should We Then Live?" for an opposite opinion.


From: Gord Wait (Aug 24 2017, at 08:47)

You might like the book

It's an interesting read, definitely controversial, and mostly panned by other historians, but the themes you shared here about China align with this books' argument, that evidence of China's seafaring was destroyed wholesale to protect the "Wisdom of the Ancients".

I thought it was a bit of a weak point until I read your blog today..


From: Doug K (Aug 24 2017, at 13:11)

thank you for the review, and for reading the book so we didn't have to ;-)

I do disagree about that tap-dancing team of Zak and Knack,

"dif­fer­ent lev­els of trust have been shown to ex­plain in­come dif­fer­ences be­tween na­tions (Zak and Knack, 2001)."

This isn't a platitude - it is a recondite discovery, the failure to acknowledge which has given us the modern Republican party, destroying trust in people, institutions and government. If only they knew that destroying trust was a sin against the Great God Profit.

Cardwell's Law is much like Moore's Law. That is, not a law at all, but a persuasive speculation based on observations of certain regularities in the seen world, interesting but not usefully predictive.

"India featured the same political fragmentation and religious diversity that Mokyr (convincingly) claims underlay Europe’s intellectual surge. Why no Indian Enlightenment?"

I find Jared Diamond's arguments quite persuasive. It is difficult to make progress when you spend much of the year in a malarial fever or schistosomiasitic lethargies or - pick any of the NTDs, really. NTD = neglected tropical disease.


From: IanRae (Aug 25 2017, at 11:57)

This book could be a good argument against the trend toward world government and large deeply-integrated trading blocks. Being able to "skip across the border" to a different environment gets harder in an ever more connected world.


From: Walter Underwood (Aug 25 2017, at 15:15)

For more on the transfer from science to technology, read "Managing the Flow of Technology" by Tom Allen.

He estimates it takes about 30 years for a scientific discovery to turn into technology. Unless it is wartime, when it is much faster. The klystron was invented in 1937 and already being used to build radar in 1939.

This book is also the source of the oft-quoted "you most talk to people who sit within 100 feet of you." The original research is 30 meters and extends far out on a log scale.


From: Oleg Mihailik (Aug 28 2017, at 22:41)

The notion that Natural Philosophers didn't immediately contributed to technology feels cliched and false.

It may be true in Physics or Medicine, or Chemistry, but in Mathematics the path must have been WAY SHORTER.

Geometry very obviously is rooted into daily practical life, and being proficient in it must have been extremely valuable (building, land disputes, navigation).

Algebra is less practical, but it helps to speed-up and clarify certain processes, esp. taxation (funny you should mention most advanced nations had higher, and necessarily more complex, taxes).

I propose there wasn't a 200 years gap for science and technology to lock into cooperation. It's your perception blindness, you look for Tesla, Large Hadron Collider or Moon landing kind of cooperation, missing the daily practical leakage from high phylosophy into lowly daytime tech. Just like the great Cardano invented his clever carriage transmission.


From: Gordon (Sep 01 2017, at 07:57)

This sounds like a solid read and in a similar vein to Deidre McCloskey's Bourgeois Virtues.

McCloskey's argument is that it was a change in values that allowed the growth - eg. Treating inventors and marketers differently. This overlaps with the "ideas" were key.

Here's a summary from the Wayback Machine -


From: Bruno (Sep 04 2017, at 04:22)

I enjoyed this book:

It has a broader scope, but the part on the "scientific revolution" touches some of the same ideas, although probably less deep.

It makes the case that the rise of science, capitalism and imperialism were related, which surprised me.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights

August 20, 2017
· The World (112 fragments)
· · History (6 more)

By .

I am an employee
of, but
the opinions expressed here
are my own, and no other party
necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my
professional interests is
on the author page.