The Roots of Progress

Think wider about the root causes of progress

Too much discussion of the Industrial Revolution is myopic, focused narrowly on a few highlights such as steam and coal. The IR was part of broader trends that are wider in scope and longer in time than its traditional definition encompasses. To understand anything, it is crucial to get the correct scope for the phenomenon in question.

Here are some ways in which we have to widen our focus in order to see the big picture.

Wider than coal and steam

Some explanations of the IR focus on steam engines, and especially on the coal that fueled them. Economist Robert Allen, for instance, has one of the best-researched and most convincing arguments for cheap coal as a requirement for the development of steam power.

A weak version of this claim, such as “coal was a crucial factor in the IR,” is certainly true. But sometimes a much stronger claim is made, to the effect that the IR couldn’t have happened without abundant, accessible coal, and that this is the main factor explaining why it happened in Europe and especially in Britain. Or more broadly, that all of material progress is driven by fossil fuels (with the implication that once we are, sooner or later, forced to transition away from fossil fuels—whether by geology, economics, or politics—growth will inevitably slow).

But much of the early IR wasn’t dependent on steam power:

You could argue that all of these inventions would have reached a plateau and would not have had as much economic impact without eventually being hooked up to steam or gas engines. But the fact remains that they were initially powered by water or muscle, and they were economically useful in those first incarnations, often achieving 10x or more gains in productivity. They didn’t need coal or gas for that, nor were they invented in anticipation that such power would soon be available.

So either it was an amazing coincidence that all of this mechanical invention was going on at the same time—or there was some wider, underlying trend.

Wider than industry

Further, the IR itself only represents a subset of the broader technical innovations that were going on in this period. Here are a few key things that aren’t considered “industrial” and so are often left out of the story of the IR:

To me, the fact of all these inventions happening in roughly the same time period indicates a general acceleration of progress during this time, reflecting some deep cause, not a simple playing out of the consequences of one specific resource or invention.

Wider than invention

In many areas, incremental improvements were being made even before the major inventions that make the history books:

A theory of progress should explain these improvements as well as breakthrough inventions.

Wider than scientific theory

Many of the developments discussed above were made by “tinkering,” before the scientific theory that would ultimately explain them. This has led some to suggest that science wasn’t important for the IR.

I think this is based on too narrow a concept of science. Science is not just theories or laws; it is also a method, and the method includes careful observation, deliberate experimentation, quantitative measurement, the systematic collection of facts, and the organizing of those facts into patterns. Those methods were at work in, for instance, Smeaton’s water wheel experiments, or in inoculation and vaccination against smallpox.

More broadly, the creation of scientific theory is too narrow a concept of the goal of the Baconian program. The program was to collect, systematize, and disseminate useful knowledge—at all levels of abstraction, from the broadest theories all the way down to practical techniques. Naturally, the projects that aimed directly at useful techniques first achieved the earliest results, and those that aimed at theoretical understanding achieved later but more powerful results.

Wider than one century

If we widen our view in time as well, we immediately perceive crucial inventions and discoveries well before the IR. The two that stand out most to me are the improvements in navigation that led to the Age of Discovery, and the printing press—both around the 15th century.

The printing press lowered the cost and increased the volume of communication, including scientific and technical writing. The voyages of discovery led to global trade, which drove the growth of port cities such as London, made new products available to consumers, and generally created economic growth.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these developments preceded the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions by just a couple of centuries—I see a straight line from the former to the latter.

Wider than material progress

Finally, we miss the big picture if we only think about material progress—scientific, technological, industrial, economic—and ignore progress in morality, society, and government.

Consider that, coincident with the Industrial Age, we have also seen the replacement of monarchy with republics, the virtual end of slavery, equal rights for women, and an international consensus against using war to acquire territory. (There are caveats one could add to each of those achievements, but the overall trend is undeniable in each case.) See my review of Pinker’s Better Angels for many relevant details.

Again, something deeper has been going on—deeper even than science, technology and industry.

Not a coincidence

It’s not a coincidence that several non-steam powered mechanical inventions were created around the same time as the steam engine. Or that several non-mechanical innovations were created around the same time as the mechanical ones. Or that the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions happened within a century or two of each other, and in the same region of the world—after millenia of relatively slow progress in both knowledge and the economy. Or that new ways of thinking about government and society came about at the same time as new ways of thinking about science and technology.

There must be some very deep underlying trend that explains these non-coincidences. And that is why I am sympathetic to explanations that invoke fundamental changes in thinking, such as Pinker’s appeal to “reason, science, and humanism” in Enlightenment Now.

You can argue with that explanation—but any theory that ends at “coal” can explain at most a small piece of the puzzle. Such explanations miss the big picture.

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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