My friend Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz emailed me “King Kong and Cold Fusion: Counterfactual Analysis and the History of Technology,” by Joel Mokry. The piece was originally Chapter 10 in Unmaking the West. The piece is very deep, and should definitely be read on paper.
The article focuses on the question of why there was an Industrial Revolution in the west at the time there was. That is not just where there was this or that invention, but why all of a sudden there this rush of economically productive innovations that’s still going on.
The Industrial Revolution ended the Starving Years (the Malthusian Era) that began some 12,000 years ago. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, technological growth was slow enough in non-violent societies that population growth always kept up, leading to just enough resources to keep the population alive at its standard of living. (East Asians, being more hygienic, required less calories to keep alive, and so suffered worse living conditions. Western Europeans, being filthy, suffered higher losses from disease, and thus more nutritious diets.)
The Industrial Revolution is around 200 years old, but note that’s includes the years of growth that preceeded the return to Malthusian normalcy. It took until about 150 years ago that the average Englishman’s living standards were as high as there were when Columbus discovered America.
The article that Lexington sent makes a big deal of evolutionary analysis, and it’s right to do that. As both the article and Enterra CEO Stephen DeAngelis note, evolution is a process of random change and non-random selection. Two ideas flow from this:
- Any change that actually takes hold was preceded by many identical changes that did not take hold
- Selection can be unfriendly
For the second, consider the history of technological relapse. In a matter of years, the Chinese lost their ability to navigate the oceans, and would be defeated by an island nation that may not have been worth the bother of conquering in Admiral Zheng He’s time. The Mokyr articles notes some other examples of relapse:
The religious strictures that prevented Islam from adopting the printing press for centuries and the politics of insulation and the ban on firearms practiced in Tokugawa Japan…
Thus, we have two questions. “Why was there potential for an Industrial Revolution in Europe at al” and why “Why did the Industrial Revolution happen in Europe” and “why didn’t an industrial counter-revolution occur there, as well?” Why did Europeans have the ability to innovate? And why didn’t Europeans revolt against the machines in the way that the Chinese, the Japanese, the Muslims — and for that matter, the Tasmanians — did?
The first question is quite possibly the result of climate resulting in and interacting with culture and genetics.
To answer the second question: the Europeans did try to overthrow the machines, of course. William Blake, writing in 1804:
And was Jerusalem builded here
among these dark Satanic Mills?
Less obliquely, the Luddites just killed people. There was an Industrial Counter-Revolution, and this was a real war.
However, the European states set themselves to fighting this counter-revolutionary movement. This is strange, because the landed classes should have been united in their fear of industry. The Luddites, the breakers, all those criminals and terrorists, were fighting for King and Country, to defend the Predatory State and extend the Starving Years. The counter-revolutionaries were fighting to keep their chains.
I think the answer is cooperative competition, that existed in Europe but did not exist to the same extent in China or Japan. While primitive by modern standards, Europe in 1800 constained a system of nation-states. England fought the breakers because the English were more afraid of the Dutch than they were of the Revolutionaries.
Fortunately for us, the distracted Europeans focused on fighting each other, allowing the Revolution to overtake them all.