industrial revolution

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Book review: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, by Ian Morris.

This book gives the impression that Morris had a halfway decent book in mind, but forgot to write down important parts of it.

He devotes large (possibly excessive) parts of the book to describing worldwide changes in what people value that correlate with the shifts to farming and then industry.

He convinces me that there’s some sort of connection between those values and how much energy per capita each society is able to use. He probably has a clue or two what that connection is, but the book failed to enlighten me about the connection.

He repeatedly claims that each age gets the thought that it needs. I find that about as reasonable as claiming that the widespread malnutrition associated with farming was what farming cultures needed. Indeed, his description of how farming caused gender inequality focuses on increased ability of men to inflict pain on women, and on increased incentives to do so. That sounds like a society made worse off, not getting what it needs.

He mentions (almost as an afterthought) some moderately interesting models of what caused specific changes in values as a result of the agricultural revolution.

He does an ok job of explaining the increased support for hierarchy in farming societies as an effect of the community size increasing past the Dunbar Number.

He attributes the reduced support for hierarchy in the industrial world to a need for interchangeable citizens. But he doesn’t document that increased need for interchangeability, and I’m skeptical that any such effect was strong. See The Institutional Revolution for a well thought out alternative model.

I had hoped to find some ideas about how to predict value changes that will result from the next big revolution. But I can’t figure out how to usefully apply his ideas to novel situations.

See also Robin Hanson’s review.

Book review: The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations, by Ian Morris.

The ambitious attempt to quantify the sophistication of societies is a partial success.

His goal is to compare the development of the two leading centers of human progress over the past 16000 years (western Eurasia and eastern Asia).

I read this book before looking at summaries of his previous book. The Measure of Civilization was designed to provide support for the claims in the prior book, but was objective enough that I didn’t infer from it what the main message of the prior book was.

When I focus on the numbers in this book and ignore other ideas I’ve read, the most plausible hypothesis I see is that the east followed a more risk-averse strategy than the west. The west suffered at least one crash (200-700 CE) that was a good deal worse than anything the east is known to have experienced.

He tries to measure four different quantities and aggregate them into an index. But the simplest way to scale them leaves two (information use and military power) insignificant until about 1900, then rising at a rate which seems likely to make them the only factors that matter to the index fairly soon. He briefly looks at some better ways to aggregate them, but they still seem inadequate.

In sum, the basic idea behind measuring those four quantities seems sound. If he wasn’t any more arbitrary about it than I suspect, then the book has been somewhat helpful at clarifying the trends over time of the leading human cultures, and maybe added a tiny bit of insight into the differences between east and west.

Book review: Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History, by William J. Bernstein.

This is a history of the world which sometimes focuses on how technology changed communication, and how those changes affected society.

Instead of carefully documenting a few good ideas, he wanders over a wide variety of topics (including too many descriptions of battles and of individual people).

His claims seem mostly correct, but he often failed to convince me that he has good reason for believing them. E.g. when trying to explain why the Soviet economy was inefficient (haven’t enough books explained that already?) he says the “absence of a meaningful price signal proved especially damaging in the labor market”, but supports that by mentioning peculiarities which aren’t clear signs of damage, then describing some blatant waste that wasn’t clearly connected to labor market problems (and without numbers, doesn’t tell us the magnitude of the problems).

I would have preferred that he devote more effort to evaluating the importance of changes in communication to the downfall of the Soviet Union. He documents increased ability of Soviet citizens to get news from sources that their government didn’t control at roughly the time Soviet power weakened. But it’s not obvious how that drove political change. It seems to me that there was an important decrease in the ruthlessness of Soviet rulers that isn’t well explained by communication changes.

I liked his description of affordable printing presses depended on a number of technological advance, suggesting that printing could not easily have arisen at other times or places.

The claim I found most interesting was that the switch from reading aloud to reading silently and the related ability to write alone (as opposed to needed a speaker and a scribe) made it easier to spread seditious and sexual writings due to increased privacy.

Bernstein is optimistic that improved communication technology will have good political effects in the future. I partly agree, but I see more risks than he does (e.g. his like of the democratic features of the Arab Spring aren’t balanced by much concern over the risks of revolutionary violence).

Book review: How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, by Rodney Stark.

This book is a mostly entertaining defense of Christian and libertarian cultures’ contribution to Western civilization’s dominance.

He wants us to believe that the industrial revolution resulted from mostly steady progress starting with Greek city-states, interrupted only by the Roman empire.

He defends the Catholic church’s record of helping scientific progress and denies that the Reformation was needed, although he suggests the Catholic church’s reaction to the Reformation created harmful anti-capitalist sentiments.

His ideas resemble those in Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, yet there’s little overlap between the content of the two books.

The early parts of the book have too many descriptions of battles and other killings whose relevance is unclear.

I was annoyed at how much space he devoted to attacking political correctness toward the end of the book.

In spite of those problems, he presents many interesting ideas. Some are fairly minor, such as changes in privacy due to the Little Ice Age triggering the invention of chimneys. Others provide potentially important insights into differences between religions, e.g. “many influential Muslim scholars have held that efforts to formulate natural laws are blasphemy because they would seem to deny Allah’s freedom to act.”

Alas, I can only give the book a half-hearted endorsement because I suspect many of his claims are poorly supported. E.g. he thinks increased visibility of child labor in the 1800s caused child labor laws via shocked sensibilities. Two alternatives that seem much more plausible to me are that the increased visibility made the laws feasible to enforce, and the increased concentration of employers into a separate class made them easier scapegoats.

Book review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.

This ambitious attempt to explain the rise of civilization (especially the rule of law) is partly successful.

The most important idea in the book is that the Catholic church (in the Gregorian Reforms) played a critical role in creating important institutions.

The church differed from religions in other cultures in that it was sufficiently organized to influence political policy, but not strong enough to become a state. This lead it to acquire resources by creating rules that enabled people to leave property to the church (often via wills, which hardly existed before then). This turned what had been resources belonging to some abstract group (families or ancestors) into things owned by individuals, and created rules for transferring those resources.

In the process, it also weakened the extended family, which was essential to having a state that impartially promoted the welfare of a society that was larger than a family.

He also provides a moderately good description of China’s earlier partial adoption of something similar in its merit-selected bureaucracy.

I recommend reading the first 7 chapters plus chapter 16. The rest of the book contains more ordinary history, including some not-too-convincing explanations of why northwest Europe did better than the rest of Christianity.

Book review: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

This book claims that “extractive institutions” prevent nations from becoming wealthy, and “inclusive institutions” favor wealth creation. It is full of anecdotes that occasionally have some relevance to their thesis. (The footnotes hint that they’ve written something more rigorous elsewhere).

The stereotypical extractive institutions certainly do harm that the stereotypical inclusive institutions don’t. But they describe those concepts in ways that do a mediocre job of generalizing to non-stereotypical governments.

They define “extractive institutions” broadly to include regions that don’t have “sufficiently centralized and pluralistic” political institutions. That enables them to classify regions such as Somalia as extractive without having to identify anything that would fit the normal meaning of extractive.

Their description of Somalia as having an “almost constant state of warfare” is strange. Their only attempt to quantify this warfare is a reference to a 1955 incident where 74 people were killed (if that’s a memorable incident, it would suggest war kills few people there; do they ignore the early 90’s because it was an aberration?). Wikipedia lists Somalia’s most recently reported homicide rate as 1.5 per 100,000 (compare to 14.5 for their favorite African nation Botswana, and 4.2 for the U.S.).

They don’t discuss the success of Dubai and Hong Kong because those governments don’t come very close to fitting their stereotype of a pluralistic and centralized nation.

They describe Mao’s China as “highly extractive”, but it looks to me more like ignorant destruction than an attempt at extracting anything. They say China’s current growth is unsustainable, somewhat like the Soviet Union (but they hedge and say it might succeed by becoming inclusive as South Korea did). Whereas I predict that China’s relatively decentralized planning will be enough to sustain modest growth, but it will be held back somewhat by the limits to the rule of law.

They do a good (but hardly novel) job of explaining why elites often fear that increased prosperity would threaten their position.

They correctly criticize some weak alternative explanations of poverty such as laziness. But they say little about explanations that partly overlap with theirs, such as Fukuyama’s Trust (a bit odd given that the book contains a blurb from Fukuyama). Fukuyama doesn’t seem to discuss Africa much, but the effects of slave trade seem to have large long-lasting consequences on social capital.

For a good introduction to some more thoughtful explanations of national growth such as the rule of law and the scientific method, see William Bernstein’s The Birth of Plenty.

Why Nations Fail may be useful for correcting myths among people who are averse to math, but for people who are already familiar with this subject, it will just add a few anecdotes without adding much insight.

Book review: The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.

This is an ambitious book centered around the nature of explanation, why it has been an important part of science (misunderstood by many who think of science as merely prediction), and why it is important for the future of the universe.

He provides good insights on jump during the Enlightenment to thinking in universals (e.g. laws of nature that apply to a potentially infinite scope). But he overstates some of its implications. He seems confident that greater-than-human intelligences will view his concept of “universal explainers” as the category that identifies which beings have the rights of people. I find this about as convincing as attempts to find a specific time when a fetus acquires the rights of personhood. I can imagine AIs deciding that humans fail often enough at universalizing their thought to be less than a person, or that they will decide that monkeys are on a trajectory toward the same kind of universality.

He neglects to mention some interesting evidence of the spread of universal thinking – James Flynn’s explanation of the Flynn Effect documents that low IQ cultures don’t use the abstract thought that we sometimes take for granted, and describes IQ increases as an escape from concrete thinking.

Deutsch has a number of interesting complaints about people who attempt science but are confused about the philosophy of science, such as people who imagine that measuring heritability of a trait tells us something important without further inquiry – he notes that being enslaved was heritable in 1860, but that was useless for telling us how to change slavery.

He has interesting explanations for why anthropic arguments, the simulation argument, and the doomsday argument are weaker in a spatially infinite universe. But I was disappointed that he didn’t provide good references for his claim that the universe is infinite – a claim which I gather is controversial and hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.

He sometimes gets carried away with his ambition and seems to forget his rule that explanations should be hard to vary in order to make it hard to fool ourselves.

He focuses on the beauty of flowers in an attempt to convince us that beauty is partially objective. But he doesn’t describe this objective beauty in a way that would make it hard to alter to fit whatever evidence he wants it to fit. I see an obvious alternative explanation for humans finding flowers beautiful – they indicate where fruit will be.

He argues that creativity evolved to help people find better ways of faithfully transmitting knowledge (understanding someone can require creative interpretation of the knowledge that they are imperfectly expressing). That might be true, but I can easily create other explanations that fit the evidence he’s trying to explain, such as that creativity enabled people to make better choices about when to seek a new home.

He imagines that he has a simple way to demonstrate that hunter-gatherer societies could not have lived in a golden age (the lack of growth of their knowledge):

Since static societies cannot exist without effectively extinguishing the growth of knowledge, they cannot allow their members much opportunity to pursue happiness.

But that requires implausible assumptions such as that happiness depends more on the pursuit of knowledge than availability of sex. And it’s not clear that hunter-gatherer societies were stable – they may have been just a few mistakes away from extinction, and accumulating knowledge faster than any previous species had. (I think Deutsch lives in a better society than hunter-gatherers, but it would take a complex argument to show that the average person today does).

But I generally enjoyed his arguments even when I thought they were wrong.

See also the review in the New York Times.

Book review: The Institutional Revolution: Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World, by Douglas W. Allen.

What do honor duels, purchases of commissions in the army, and privately managed lighthouses have in common?

According to Allen, they were institutions which made sense in the pre-modern age, but were abandoned when improvements in measurement (of labor quality, product quality, time, location, etc) made them obsolete in the nineteenth century.

Allen presents a grand theory of how large variations in job performance, product quality, etc, before 1800-1850 created large transaction costs which caused widespread differences from modern life, and which explain a wide variety of institutions which seem strange enough to people with a presentist bias that most have dismissed many pre-modern institutions as obviously foolish.

What starts out as an inquiry into some apparently quirky and unusual practices finishes as an ambitious attempt to explain the industrial revolution as a revolution whose institutional changes were more pervasive and valuable than the technological advances which triggered them.

The book convinced me that it explains the timing of some important and often forgotten social changes. But the frequent implication that the institutions in question were the most rational way to deal with limitations of pre-industrial life seem overdone. I suspect that there was often a mixture of reasons behind those institutions that included some foolishness and some catering to special interests.

For example, his theory requires that honor duels be designed so that skill at dueling is fairly unimportant compared to random luck. He provides some evidence that people tried to introduce randomness into the dueling process, but leaves me doubting that it made skill unimportant.

The book provides a framework that might be valuable in predicting future institutional changes as technological change further reduces transaction costs, and does a valuable job of offsetting the tendencies of economists other than Coase to downplay the importance of transaction costs.

This was the first book I’ve read in several years that seems too short.

Book review: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.

This book is about the globalization triggered by Columbus. The book’s jacket describes this set of changes as “the most momentous biological event since the death of the dinosaurs”. But that was probably written by a poorly informed marketing person. The contents of the book promote a more plausible claim that the effects were bigger than most realize.

Some of the ideas that this book reports are surprising, potentially important, but also somewhat speculative. E.g. large-scale reforestation resulting from smallpox killing existing inhabitants apparently contributed to the little ice age by sequestering carbon.

Much of the book is devoted to the spread of non-human species, but there are long sections on slavery, including speculation about how cheap land might have made slavery more important, and how the differences between Algonkian and Mississippian Indian cultures may have affected attitudes toward slavery in northern and southern U.S.

The first quarter of the book seemed well written, but the remainder of the book wanders through anecdotes of unclear importance. If I’m trying to focus on long-term effects of the globalization that Columbus triggered, why should I care about the details of numerous battles?

The book might come closer to living up to the jacket’s hype if it argued that Columbus caused the industrial revolution. But Mann seems confused about what the industrial revolution was – he treats rubber as a necessary component of the industrial revolution, but that happened well after experts say the industrial revolution started.

It wouldn’t be hard to use the ideas in this book to generate speculation that Columbus caused the industrial revolution, e.g. the potato’s ability to feed several times as many people as wheat, as well as cheaper security due the difficulty of stealing potatoes which are left in the ground until needed, made more people available to invent technology, and might have generated wealth and predictability that enabled inventors to focus on more distant rewards. But my guess is that this is only a small part of what caused the industrial revolution.

Some of the ideas in the 10,000 Year Explosion have got me wondering whether the spread of the Ashkenazi culture played an important role in starting the industrial revolution.

The Ashkenazi developed a unique culture that was isolated for many centuries from the mainstream. Then around 1800, western Europe allowed Jews to interact much more with the rest of society (The 10,000 Year Explosion suggests that it started in 1791 in France).

At about the same time, the same region experienced a sudden shift in values that increased the status of merchants, which is what you’d expect if Ashkenazi culture that had previously been shunned became partially accepted. Those values may have contributed significantly to the industrial revolution.

The 10,000 Year Explosion explains why the Ashkenazi had some unique values that were somewhat unlikely to have been duplicated elsewhere, which would help explain why the industrial revolution didn’t start somewhere other than northern Europe.

This isn’t a complete explanation of the industrial revolution – for one thing, it doesn’t explain why England developed faster than France.

A completely unrelated idea of how agricultural diversity helped British farming productivity around the same time: Agricultural biodiversity crucial to the agricultural “revolution”.