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.
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.
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 (, 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.