A few days ago I started writing an idle thought into a short post. It turned into a long post. So I split it in two. Then I realised it was reliant on ideas I had but hadn’t written down, which might confuse others. So I wrote posts on them. Then they required another post. Eventually I ended up with a series – later entries somewhat reliant on former ones – although they’re not really built on top of each other and they don’t form a thesis. Maybe I’ll tie the ideas together into a more detailed and too large for blog piece later, but this is a chance to get the thoughts together roughly. I’m tagging each one with “modernity virus” and I’ll post each every 3 or so days so they don’t clog up the front page.
Lets take a very materialistic view of history. In this view we are concerned mainly with material human welfare. We are concerned with how many humans there are, and we are concerned with their material level of well being. We treat one human life as equal to another in our evaluations. Kings, dates, battles, ideas and technology may all figure, but only for how they effect the most important elements of the human existence – life and material comfort (if effect, food).
If we do this, we find there are essentially only two important events in all human history. Everything else is details. These are the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The first allowed humanity to break the population limits set by food availability in nature, by allowing us to increase our own food supply, and thus population. The latter allowed, for the first time, large populations to rise above subsistence.
The latter point is striking, and it’s what really took me when I read Gregory Clarke’s “A Farewell to Alms”. The first half of the book is a rigourous empirical look at living standards throughout history in the form of caloric intake. In short, whether they were hunter gatherers, roman citizens or dark age peasants, or whether they lived under Chinese Emperors, Mughals, Caliphs, kings, republics or in anarchy, average caloric intake remained constant.
Think about the implications of this compared to the history we’re used to. As far as long terms effects on how much you, as an average person, ate, the decline and fall of Rome meant nothing. The cultured Song were no better than the barbaric Yuan. The Dark Ages were not famine followed by feat in the Renaissance. Changes and advances still occured of course, but they were not what we celebrate. A nameless soul in the dark ages inventing the horse drawn plough allowed a population to expand. Plutarch and Gutenberg are worth celebrating, but we can see no legacy of their deeds in either population nor sustenance – the most intrinsic interests of humanity. The chaos of the War of the Roses or the black death saw caloric intake rise as the population dropped and more food was around for those who were left, but the Tudor golden age saw the population expand again, driving the average intake back down to sustenance.
It’s no wonder that when Malthus wrote, he could not anticipate any sustained increase in human welfare. Population would just expand to eat up any gains, just like it had always done for all of human history. It is just unfortunate for Malthus that he was writing right as history was breaking. The modern age, the age of growth had broken this iron rule, but there is no reason on earth why Malthus should have anticipated it. It really was a Black Swan, and the greatest we’ve ever seen.
For the vast vast vast vast vast majority of human history, it was unimaginable that a society could have more obesity than hunger. The modern world takes alot of explaining.
Clarke does an amazing job illustrating that why it so important we find out why this happened. What caused the industrial revolution? He then does a rather unconvincing job of doing so. This isn’t his fault. Many, many, many people have tried to answer the greatest question in human history, and have failed. We do not have a single theory, and I enjoy studying as many as possible, that is satisfying in its explanatory power. Some get tied up by nationalist agendas, and others get tied up by teleological fallacies (i.e that we should view all history as inevitably leading to the present) . Many more are sincere, but come across the simple fact that because the phenomena of industrialization, of growth, spreads so quickly, it only spontaneously started once. Everywhere else it has appeared has received it from contact.
The modernity virus (as I’ll call it) started in North West Europe, but we cannot experiment to determine what was important. We can’t rerun time, adding or removing a feature at a time as controls to see if they are important – we can guess, but without a counterfactual this is informed speculation. We can’t even run the same Earth over and over from some time to see if it always occurs in North West Europe, or whether it happens much at all. If we could look across the quantum multiverse, would we discover that roughly half the time it first occurs in China, or Zimbabwe or Peru? Maybe we are one of the tiny minority of universes where the exceedingly improbable phenomena occurs at all.
We have difficulties answering why the modernity virus began . We cannot adequately explain why it happened in North West Europe. We can’t even be sure whether the fact it happened in North West Europe matters at all.[fn1] Since we only live in one world we have no choice but to compare and contrast North West Europe with other countries as our only counterfactuals, in an effort to try and work out what mattered and what didn’t.
Since I scheduled these posts I’ve had a flareup in my arthritis, so I may not be able to reply to any comments, but I will be reading them.
[fn1] Jared Diamond does do a relatively good job of answering similar questions about the agrarian revolution, but there’s not much in his work to explain the latter revolution. If we were to accept that the former was necessary for the latter, we may know why the modernity virus didn’t happen in Australia, but there’s nothing that really differentiate between, say, Britain and China, or even Britain and Sulawesi.