Monday, July 16, 2007

Clark's Survival of the Richest meets Mokyr's Industrial Enlightenment   posted by Herrick @ 7/16/2007 12:03:00 AM

Greg Clark's broadly Darwinian explanation for the Industrial Revolution, A Farewell to Alms, should be hitting bookstores in the next few weeks. As previously mentioned, Clark argues that in pre-Industrial Britain, the "survival of the richest" was the norm, and so today's Brits are largely the descendants of past elites. He says this process created a population that was more patient and better at abstract thought (he doesn't use the term "intelligence"). Clark has just enough data backing up his story to spur others to do more and better tests.

To be sure, Clark hedges his bets on how much of this evolution is cultural and how much genetic. But he clearly puts both possibilities on the table, a brave act for any social scientist. With just a little luck, the book will have a major impact.

So, how to prepare for all this? By reading some of Joel Mokyr's recent work, of course! His Lever of Riches is a wonderful, theoretically-informed-yet-historically driven tale of global (mostly European) technological progress. It's always a source of rich new insights.

But Mokyr's newest book, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, speaks more to Clark's point. Mokyr's focus has always been on technology--not just on ideas per se, and not just on economic output per se, but on the interaction between the two. He argues that Western Europe's "Industrial Enlightenment"--the rise of methodical, scientific thinking many decades before the Industrial Revolution--was both a prerequisite for the Industrial Revolution and an elite phenomenon:

A century ago, historians of technology felt that individual inventors were the main actors that brought about the Industrial Revolution. Such heroic interpretations were discarded in favor of views that emphasized deeper economic and social factors....It seems, however, that the crucial elements were neither brilliant individuals nor the impersonal forces governing the masses, but a small group of at most a few thousand people who formed a creative community based on the exchange of knowledge. Engineers, mechanics, chemists, physicians, and natural philosophers formed circles in which access to knowledge was the primary objective.

Where did that few thousand come from? Why then? Why there? Of course, the temptation is to throw around words like "culture," a word that sounds to me a lot like "multiple equilibrium" or "tipping point," expressions that feel good but (usually) mean little. With some luck, Clark's semi-Darwinian explanation for the Rise of the West will give us some tools to figure out where the world's first scientific community actually came from.