The Roots of Progress

What I've been reading, November 2023

A ~monthly feature. Recent blog posts and news stories are generally omitted; you can find them in my links digests. All emphasis in bold in the quotes below was added by me.


Finished Lynn White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962). Last time I talked about the stirrup thing. The second part of the book is about the introduction of the heavy plow in agriculture, and how it enabled the shift to a three-field crop rotation. Among other things, this provided more protein in the European diet, which made for a healthier population. The third part is a survey of medieval power mechanisms, including water mills, crank shafts, and clock escapements. Very interesting overall, perhaps a bit dry and technical for casual readers though. Note also that since it is from the ’60s it is not up to date with the latest research.

Also finished Ian Tregillis’s The Alchemy Wars. I can now definitely recommend this sci-fi/fantasy trilogy, even if the cast of characters and the way the conflict unfolded isn’t exactly how I would have written it myself.

Browsed Derek J. de Solla Price, Science since Babylon (1961), while preparing for a talk. Some very interesting charts such as this:

Science since Babylon, p. 97

New on my reading list:

Venkatesh Narayanamurti and Toluwalogo Odumosu, Cycles of Invention and Discovery: Rethinking the Endless Frontier (2016), and Venkatesh Narayanamurti and Jeffrey Tsao, The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions: Rethinking the Nature and Nurture of Research (2021). These have actually been on my list for a while, but got bumped back up after meeting Venky and Jeff at a recent workshop on metascience. (The latter book is required reading at Speculative Technologies.)

Also mentioned at the workshop: B. Zorina Khan, Inventing Ideas: Patents, Prizes, and the Knowledge Economy (2020); and A Michael Noll and Michael Geselowitz, Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation (2011).



Ray Kurzweil, “The Law of Accelerating Returns (2001). Kurzweil strikes me as a grand theorist but not a careful scholar—a risky combination. For instance, he writes: “Homo sapiens evolved in a few hundred thousand years. Early stages of technology—the wheel, fire, stone tools—took tens of thousands of years to evolve and be widely deployed.” Stone tools, fire, and the wheel are often depicted in cartoons featuring cavemen. But stone tools evolved over millions of years; the controlled use of fire is something like several hundred thousand years old; and both predate Homo sapiens. The wheel came much later, well after agriculture and settled society. Details like this are a warning to tread carefully.

That said, I was interested to read this essay because I am starting to see the truth and significance of its core idea: that human progress accelerates over time, following a super-exponential curve. This phenomenon has been documented more broadly in the economics literature, such as by Jones and Romer (2010), who refer to “accelerating growth” as one of the key stylized facts that growth models should attempt to explain.

I have described acceleration as resulting from the compounding of multiple feedback loops: increases in wealth, population, science, markets, institutions, and technology allow us to invent more, improve institutions, expand markets, advance science, grow population, accumulate wealth, etc. Kurzweil sees the phenomenon as not merely technological, but biological—a feature of evolution as such (and he sees technological evolution as simply a continuation of biological evolution by more efficient means). In his telling, as evolution progresses, it sometimes evolves better mechanisms for evolving. This is a very intruiging idea, but he doesn’t argue it with any rigor or present much evidence for it, and I don’t know enough about biology or evolution to evaluate it. He mentions “cells” as the “first step” in evolution, and then refers to “the subsequent emergence of DNA” (but wasn’t DNA present from the origins of life?) He indicates that evolution sped up during the Cambrian Explosion, and credits this to “setting the ‘designs’ of animal body plans”, but doesn’t elaborate on the causal connection except to say that this “allowed rapid evolutionary development of other body organs, such as the brain.” Presumably sexual reproduction should be a major event in this story, since it allows for more variation through genetic recombination, but he doesn’t mention it. So, it’s very unclear to me what to make of this story (although if it’s right, it would extend the “accelerating progress” pattern backwards by more than three billion years).

What even is this chart? What is the y-axis? How are “mammals” and “primates” new “paradigms”? Did he just draw a straight line on a log-log plot and arbitrarily pick some points near the line to label?
What even is this chart? What is the y-axis? How are “mammals” and “primates” new “paradigms”? Did he just draw a straight line on a log-log plot and arbitrarily pick some points near the line to label? Ray Kurzweil

Grand theories aside, I was very interested in his analysis of computing power. He plotted the computing speed per dollar of dozens of devices, all the way from late 19th-century mechanical calculators through early 21st-century microprocessors, and claims to have found a increasing cost-performance curve running through five generations of computing technology: purely mechanical, electromechanical, vacuum tube, transistor, and integrated circuit. Moore’s Law is only the fifth and most recent segment of this much longer trend, one exponential portion of an overall super-exponential curve:

Kurzweil, The Law of Accelerating Returns

I’d like to check the data and sources on this one, but it’s a very intriguing pattern.

The full essay is very long and covers many not-super-well-connected topics, which I don’t have time to comment on; the core idea is in this 2004 Edge question, but doesn’t contain all the most interesting details (such as the computing trends just mentioned).

The same accelerating curve, and the same basic explanation based on feedback loops, seems to be the gist of David Roodman, “Modeling the Human Trajectory (2020), which I have only skimmed but plan to return to.


Deirdre N. McCloskey reviews Acemoglu and Johnson’s Power and Progress (2023). If you know anything about the book, and anything about McCloskey, you won’t be surprised that she is critical:

The invisible hand of human creativity and innovation, in the authors’ analysis, requires the wise guidance of the state. … This is a perspective many voters increasingly agree with—and politicians from Elizabeth Warren to Marco Rubio. We are children, bad children (viewed from the right) or sad children (viewed from the left). Bad or sad, as children we need to be taken in hand. Messrs. Acemoglu and Johnson warmly admire the U.S. Progressive Movement of the late 19th century as a model for their statism: experts taking child‐citizens in hand.

Robert Tracinski, “We Are All Philosophers Now and The Dilemma of Choice (2023). Modernity has replaced a narrow, limited set of social roles and life choices with a smorgasbord of options. This is liberating, but the price of the freedom of choice is the responsibility of choice, which is now everyone’s to bear. Not everyone is happy about this. Rob’s pithy summary: “If Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, well, now it’s not really an option.”

Virginia Postrel, “What ails American culture? (2023). On similar themes:

Human beings need to feel purpose and meaning in their lives. But I am not entirely sure that the current discontent is a product of material abundance, that people did not feel similar discontent in the past, or that the “economic problem” loomed so large in the past that it dwarfed all other problems.

Ben Landau-Taylor, “The Vocabulary Of Power (2023). “Power” can mean many things; here are four more precise terms. Not only will this help clarify your concepts, it will also fulfill your daily quota of thinking about the Roman Empire.

Tanner Greer, “Where Have All the Great Works Gone? (2021):

Spengler … repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance… Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. … Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for? How about for the last two decades? The last three?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “They Studied Dishonesty. Was Their Work a Lie? (2023). A case study of scientific fraud.

Stephen Wolfram, “Are All Fish the Same Shape If You Stretch Them? The Victorian Tale of On Growth and Form (2017) I just thought this idea was kind of hilarious:

Stretch one kind of fish, and it looks like another.
Stretch one kind of fish, and it looks like another. D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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