The Roots of Progress

What I've been reading, September 2023

A quasi-monthly feature. Recent blog posts and news stories are generally omitted; you can find them in my links digests. I’ve been busy helping to choose the first cohort of our blogging fellowship, so my reading has been relatively light. All emphasis in bold in the quotes below was added by me.


Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (1990). I’ve been a big fan of Mokyr ever since the start of this project; his book A Culture of Growth was part of my initial motivation. I’m only a few chapters in to Lever of Riches, but it’s excellent so far. Most intriguing so far is his comment that classical civilization was “not particularly technologically creative” even though it was “relatively literate and mobile, and ideas of all kinds disseminated through the movement of people and books.” In contrast:

Early medieval Europe, sometimes still referred to as a “dark” age, managed to break through a number of technological barriers that had held the Romans back. The achievements of early medieval Europe are all the more amazing because many of the ingredients that are usually thought of as essential to technological progress were absent. Particularly between 500 and 800 A.D., the economic and cultural environment in Europe was primitive compared to the classical period. Literacy had become rare, and the upper classes devoted themselves to the subtle art of hacking each other to pieces with even greater dedication than the Romans had. Commerce and communications, both short- and long-distance, declined to almost nothing. The roads, bridges, aqueducts, ports, villas, and cities of the Roman Empire fell into disrepair. Law enforcement and the security of life and property became precarious, as predators from near and afar descended upon Europe with a level of violence and frequency that Roman citizens had not known. And yet toward the end of the Dark Ages, in the eighth and ninth centuries, European society began to show the first signs of what eventually became a torrent of technological creativity. Not the amusing toys of Alexandria’s engineers or the war engines of Archimedes, but useful tools and ideas that reduced daily toil and increased the material comfort of the masses, even when population began to expand after 900 A.D., began to emerge. When we compare the technological progress achieved in the seven centuries between 300 B.C. and 400 A.D., with that of the seven centuries between 700 and 1400, prejudice against the Middle Ages dissipates rapidly.

Ian Tregillis, The Mechanical (2015), first book in the Alchemy Wars trilogy. A sci-fi novel set in an alternative early 20th century in which humanoid, artificially intelligent robots had been invented in the late 17th century. Gripping and well-told.

A few I’ve just been browsing:

Some that have come across my desk but that I haven’t had a chance to crack open:


I’ve been continuing to research agriculture for a chapter in my book.

Bruce Campbell, The Medieval Antecedents of English Agricultural Progress (2007). Key quote:

The ultimate challenge, therefore, was to raise land and labour productivity together in conjunction with a general expansion of agricultural output and growth of population. Only when this had been achieved would the productivity constraints within agriculture cease to impede the progress of the economy at large. It is the resolution of this fundamental dilemma which constituted the so-called agricultural revolution. At its core in England’s case lay, on the one hand, structural and tenurial changes in the units of production—notably the size and layout of farms and terms on which they were held—which transformed the productivity of labour, and, on the other, an ecological transformation of the methods of production, which yielded significant gains in the productivity of land.

The key to the latter, it has long been believed, lay in an enhanced cycling of nutrients facilitated by the incorporation of improved fodder crops into new types of rotation, which allowed higher stocking densities, heavier dunging rates, higher arable yields, more fodder crops, more livestock, and so on in a progressively ascending spiral of progress.

F. M. L. Thompson, “The Second Agricultural Revolution, 1815-1880 (1968). (Mentioned this last time but hadn’t read it yet.) One core idea in this paper is that there were “three different kinds of technical and economic changes” that led from traditional medieval European open-field farming to modern farming. The first involved improved crop rotations that eliminated fallowing. The second was the rise of mineral fertilizers. The third was mechanization. Thompson points out that before the second stage, farms were mostly closed loops:

The essence of the second agricultural revolution was that it broke the closed-circuit system and made the operations of the farmer much more like those of the factory owner. In fact farming moved from being an extractive industry, albeit of a model and unparalleled type which perpetually renewed what it extracted, into being a manufacturing industry.

Arnold Kling, “The Two Forms of Social Order (2015):

In any society, who is allowed to form an organization that competes with powerful economic and political interests? In their 2009 master work, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, Douglass North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast give a striking answer. They say that either almost no one is allowed to form an organization that competes against powerful interests, or almost everyone is allowed to form such an organization. In their terminology, there can be a limited-access order or an open-access order, but nothing in between.

Related: Douglass North, “Economic Performance through Time (1993), North’s Nobel prize lecture:

The incentives to acquire pure knowledge, the essential underpinning of modern economic growth, are affected by monetary rewards and punishments; they are also fundamentally influenced by a society’s tolerance of creative developments, as a long list of creative individuals from Galileo to Darwin could attest. While there is a substantial literature on the origins and development of science, very little of it deals with the links between institutional structure, belief systems and the incentives and disincentives to acquire pure knowledge. A major factor in the development of Western Europe was the gradual perception of the utility of research in pure science.

Incentives embodied in belief systems as expressed in institutions determine economic performance through time, and however we wish to define economic performance the historical record is clear. Throughout most of history and for most societies in the past and present, economic performance has been anything but satisfactory. Human beings have, by trial and error, learned how to make economies perform better; but not only has this learning taken ten millennia (since the first economic revolution)—it has still escaped the grasp of almost half of the world’s population. Moreover the radical improvement in economic performance, even when narrowly defined as material well-being, is a modern phenomenon of the last few centuries and confined until the last few decades to a small part of the world.


It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance. While the rules may be changed overnight, the informal norms usually change only gradually. Since it is the norms that provide “legitimacy” to a set of rules, revolutionary change is never as revolutionary as its supporters desire and performance will be different than anticipated. And economies that adopt the formal rules of another economy will have very different performance characteristics than the first economy because of different informal norms and enforcement. The implication is that transferring the formal political and economic rules of successful western market economies to Third World and eastern European economies is not a sufficient condition for good economic performance.

Jamie Kitman, “The Secret History of Lead (2000). Deeply researched article about leaded gasoline and its health hazards. Tells the story of how it was created, the initial health concerns, how it was approved and deployed anyway, and how the health problems were eventually demonstrated and leaded gasoline phased out (at least in the US). The article is slanted, blaming everything on capitalist greed and accusing government agencies who supported leaded gasoline of being corporate lapdogs, but if you can read past the emotional language, there is a lot of interesting history in here.

It’s still unclear to me where this story should fall on a spectrum from “reckless negligence” to “no one could have known,” but it doesn’t seem to have been all the way on the latter end: lead was generally understood to be toxic since antiquity, and there were “well-known public health and medical authorities at leading universities” who expressed concern over lead additives in gasoline as soon as it was introduced in the early 1920s. There is an important question here of how to regulate substances when there is some reason for concern about health impacts, but nothing approaching proof, especially when the impacts might be subtle and long-term, meaning that data would take a long time to collect. This issue is still unresolved in my mind.

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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