A Culture of Growth

date Jan 20, 2017
authors Mokyr, Joel
reading time 46 mins

After reading about the history of Silicon Valley, this book of Industrial Revolution gave me more insights on the critical ingredients required for innovation and progress. In summary they are:

  • belief that our present generation is capable in knowing and solving more than the past
  • ditching blind reverence for the ancients
  • establishment of autonomous grassroots groups of interests
  • emphasis on learning by doing and experiments
  • establishment of institutions, checks and balance, property rights
  • curiosity of the new, different and foreign
  • right motivation i.e. progress of society vs glorification of self
  • right incentive and prestige for engineers, scientists that others will be inspired to become one
  • amalgamation of various subjects and topics

What is technology?

Technology is at its very core a relation of people with the physical environment and not with other people.

Powerful institutions

Furthermore, institutions, once in place, can display considerable durability and persistence even if they do not conform with the cultural beliefs of most people. As long as the interests of a few powerful groups are served, they can maintain a set of institutions for a very long time

Relationship among trust, transaction cost and markets

One mechanism through which culture is believed to have affected economic performance is through the idea that higher trust and cooperation reduce transaction costs and thus facilitate exchange and emergence of well-functioning markets.

What’s part of the culture?

The willingness and ability to acquire, disseminate, and harness such knowledge are themselves part of culture and thus determine the intensity of the search for knowledge of nature, the agenda of the research, the institutions that govern the community doing the research, the methods of acquiring and vetting it, the conventions by which such knowledge is accepted as valid, and its dissemination to others who might make use of it.


If the culture is heavily infused with respect and worship of ancient wisdom so that any intellectual innovation is considered deviant and blasphemous, technological creativity will be similarly constrained. Irreverence is a key to progress.

Arts vs Technology

The agenda of the leisurely elite was of great importance to the lovers of music in the eighteenth-century Habsburg lands, but was not of much interest to their farmers and manufacturers. The Austrian Empire created Haydn and Mozart, but no Industrial Revolution.

Individual or Society

Placing low values on individualism means that collective actions are easier to achieve, but it flattens the reward structures and thus discourages individuals from standing out. Hence individualism stimulates innovation by not penalizing heterodox intellectuals who come up with unconventional and possibly heretical ideas and think outside the box

Innovation and incentives

Innovation, because its benefits affect a larger community (and possibly humanity at large), is at least in part more likely to occur in a society that has opted for a more general morality, in which innovators are motivated by a desire to do something for a large number of people, or at least acquire the respect of others who care about such things.

The idea that only ancient people had all the wisdom and are better than us today are present in many culture today

Cultures can be backward-or forward-looking in the sense that some may hold the knowledge and learning of previous generations in such high esteem that novel ideas run a serious risk of being viewed as apostasy.


The key element here is that those who propose the new ideas must have the opportunity to persuade others. Cultural change is to a large extent about persuasion. What makes persuasion possible—though not inevitable—is a technology for discourse and communication that is sufficient to reach the audience that matters, and the establishment of rhetorical rules sufficient to convince them

Technological progress == slow accumulation

None of this refutes the point that for every successful radically new design, there are far more that languished largely forgotten on inventors’ workbenches. Consider the Stirling engine, invented in 1816, or funicular railroads. To be sure, most technological progress and productivity growth are very much the result of the slow and gradual accumulation of small changes.

What is culture?

Culture is about matters of the mind; behavior and actions are the observable outcomes of preferences and knowledge

What is evolution of culture?

  • evolution is about the interaction between a pre-existing environment and the innovation itself
  • evolutionary systems are based on the dynamics produced by superfecundity and selection
  • evolutionary models are rich: they allow change to occur on different levels
  • like all evolutionary systems, culture is resistant to change
  • evolutionary framework implies that any easy generalizations or predictions about the speed and direction of cultural change are doomed
  • evolutionary approach gives us a more reasonable way of thinking about how and why historical trajectories were followed

History and progress

Episodes of scientific and technological flourishing have occurred throughout history, but the one that occurred in Europe after 1700 was in many ways unique. It was not the ineluctable culmination of Western history, nor a sign of the greater dynamism of Western culture, but the unintended and unanticipated result of a set of circumstances that affected the culture of some parts of Europe and through them the institutions that set the parameters of intellectual development.

Socialisation by parents in the past

Cultural evolution of any kind, then, consists of social learning and persuasion. Much social learning occurs vertically: most people are socialized first and foremost by their parents. In past societies this was the source of the bulk of socialization, but rarely was it the only one. Parents could farm out the socialization process to individuals they selected (but did not fully control) such as schoolteachers and masters.

Choice-based social learning

An individual’s total set of preferences, attitudes, and beliefs come from two sources: his or her parents (whether through genes or through vertical socialization), and “all others” which are either oblique (diagonal) sources such as schools and role models, or horizontal transmission from peers or the media.

Other ways of socialisation today

Beyond skills and knowledge, the other cultural menus that individuals can choose from in the twenty-first century have expanded enormously: the range of religions, ideologies, philosophies, literature, art, music, and much else has expanded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Rebels and socialisation

Children as well as adults make cultural choices themselves. Biographies are full of rebellious sons and (less frequently) daughters who rebelled against dominant parents or established religion and chose a different culture in some form; scions of wealthy bourgeois families who became Marxist, sons of Orthodox rabbis who became Catholic bishops or secular-minded physicists, and so on. Often this is not only because their socialization by parents and parent-substitutes was incomplete but also as a reaction to it.

Socialisation and learning in adulthood

As noted, becoming an adult does not mean that the absorption of new cultural information is complete. Adults who interact with others are amenable to learning and persuasion (including simple imitation). The rate of cultural change thus depends on the degree of cultural inter-connectedness, that is, how many interactions adults have with one another and with how many others

Authority-based social learning process

The authority-based social learning process at work in direct bias requires society to solve three major problems. The first is who appoints such authorities, who monitors their reliability, and who appoints the appointers and the monitors and so on. The second is what to do when experts disagree and how to choose among conflicting propositions.

Framing of content

In many cases, new ideas are successful not just thanks to the contents of the message itself but also because of the framing of it. Theories and propositions are often described as “elegant” referring to their aesthetic qualities.

Coercive regimes

But while coercive regimes cannot control what goes on in people’s minds, they can control and manipulate oblique and horizontal transmission mechanisms (schools, churches, media) and thus try to influence beliefs and enforce what could be called political and ideological socialization.

Printing press, radio, tv and now Internet

the effect of the printing press was comparable to that of radio and television in the twentieth century. Publishing in the vernacular languages instead of in Latin, too, was a powerful rhetorical device, allowing intellectual innovations to reach people who had not been trained in Latin.

Who are cultural entrepreneurs?

Cultural entrepreneurs can thus be regarded as the exceptional and unusual specimens who are the sources of evolutionary change: they are the ones who do not take the cultural choices of others as given, but try consciously to change them. But they also have a straightforward interpretation in economics. Their function resembles that of entrepreneurs in the realm of production: people who think “outside the box,” refuse to take the existing technology or market structure as given and try to change it—and benefit personally in the process.

Marx codified much of the thoughts at that time - he was not the only one

Most successful cultural entrepreneurs stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. Marx lived at a time when the prevailing interpretations of society were no longer consonant with a new industrial and urban reality, and his work appeared in the wake of myriad disparate socialist ideas.

Exact content vs interpretations later: Sounds like religious texts

The exact content of the writings of cultural entrepreneurs sometimes mattered less than the message that future generations chose to distill from it. Moreover the stature of some cultural entrepreneurs was puffed up by followers whose careers may have been affected by the way the Master was viewed.

Repetition of generations

Cultural entrepreneurs change what people believe, and if enough important people are converted, they will change institutions to conform with the new beliefs and thus the environment in which the next generation of cultural entrepreneurs find themselves.

Cultural success

The question is not only why some environments spawned such entrepreneurs and others did not, but rather why some cultural entrepreneurs are successful. What determines their success? Success was a function of personal characteristics, the capability to inspire a devoted set of followers who would spread the new message, the content of the message, and the lucky coincidence of having the right message at the right time.

Willing to change

The proliferation of successful entrepreneurs is a telltale sign of well-functioning markets. The success that cultural entrepreneurs in early modern Europe had in persuading others to change from the “default option” of their cultural beliefs to new and sometimes radical ideas indicates that such persuasion was indeed effective: others were willing to listen to and evaluate intellectual innovations.

How culture becomes non receptacle to new knowledge: religion and something foreign

Al Ghazali’s famous treatise The Incoherence of the Philosophers was increasingly interpreted to imply that foreign learning was incompatible with Muslim religion and that the concept of a natural “law” contradicted the omnipotence of the creator.

Connecting science and sacred duty

For Farrington, a classicist, Bacon was not so much the great advocate of an inductive methodology in science but rather someone who had one great idea: knowledge ought to bear fruit in production, science ought to be applicable to industry, and it was people’s sacred duty to improve and transform the material conditions of life.

Democratisation of technology

Bacon stressed that technological progress would be successful only if useful knowledge was organized, coordinated, distributed, and made accessible. He felt that for that reason the state needed to “save inventions from the inventors” and knowledge had to be moved from the inventors to the collective, that is to say, the state.

Going beyond technology

One of the most remarkable trends in the cultural development of European intellectuals after 1500 was the slowly ripening notion that “intellectuals should involve themselves in practical matters traditionally considered beneath them” and that their priorities “should take artisans newly seriously”

Cultural entrepreneur

what the function of a cultural entrepreneur is: it is not to pull reluctant people into an altogether new direction they would not have gone otherwise, as much as formulating a coherent doctrine that the followers can all accept as the consensus central message.

Formation of Royal Society

In 1665 he founded the Philosophical Transactions, the official journal of the Royal Society and the oldest continuous scientific journal in the world. Oldenburg is famous for persuading scholars to publish their findings in it, and thus streamlining his function as a nodal point in ever more efficient networks of useful knowledge diffusion.

Royal Society and Industrial Revolution connection?

Any simplistic causal line that connects the Royal Society with the Industrial Revolution would be misleading, or else the Industrial Revolution would have occurred a century earlier. The Royal Society was one more reflection of a profound cultural change among England’s intellectual and technological elite that gathered power and momentum in the later seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth. Its debt to Bacon is undeniable.

Public open lectures - or dev meetups of the modern day?

In 1799, two paradigmatic figures of the Industrial Enlightenment, Sir Joseph Banks and Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford), founded the Royal Institution, devoted to research and charged with providing public lectures on scientific and technological issues. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, these lectures were dominated by the towering figure of the scientist Humphry Davy, another classic figure of the Industrial Enlightenment.

Language to reach the masses

In his Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, he became one of the first of many writers who called for the establishment of a common scientific language that would provide a more efficient medium for scientists to interact and, as he pointed out, “repair the ruins of Babel” (Strasser, 1994).

Newton and his process

Newton represents a confluence of the Baconian empirical approach that dealt with observations, data, and experiments, and the mathematical approach to physics that came from Galileo. He eschewed suppositions and conjectures, and confined himself to theories that could be inferred from observation.

No explanation, just finding regularities in observations

This is precisely what Newton did. He did not claim to understand why the principles he discovered existed and described physical reality and how two bodies separated at a distance from one another could affect each other, only that these principles were universal and could be understood by generally applicable principles. In that sense his outlook seems similar to Descartes’s mechanistic universe. However, his view of the role of science was to establish regularities and show how they could be exploited, but not to provide any top-down “micro-foundations” the way Descartes and Leibniz had tried.

Scientist as prestige

Newton’s patronage job as master of the mint and the many attractive offers he declined amply demonstrate his celebrity and prestige. His career illustrated the social status that a truly successful scientist could attain in a society that began to value useful knowledge. He was knighted, elected to Parliament, and became quite wealthy.

Rise of public science

The rise of public science and the growth of the appreciation of the value of scientific knowledge through Newtonian lecturers gave rise to a new “technical literacy,” which included the ability to do mathematical calculations and the ability to read and understand technical drawings and explanations

Tiny actions accumulated over time

Many improvements came about through small, cumulative improvements made by unknown craftsmen and diffused through the networks of technically literate masters and journeymen who became increasingly adept at disseminating tacit knowledge. Yet all told, these groups remained a small minority, and economic development in these areas can be viewed as their actions eventually affecting the economic status of the rest of the population, not so much a trickle-down as a dragging-along.

Sounds similar to our times?

The great engineers and inventors who made the Industrial Revolution were rarely well educated. Few of them went to the universities, and many of them acquired their knowledge on their own or through private networks. James Watt was educated at a good grammar school but never had a formal education beyond that, though he networked with some of the best scientists at Glasgow University and was tutored in reading the textbook of the Dutch Newtonian Willem ’s Gravesande (1720). John Smeaton, Watt’s rival for the position of the best engineer of the age, was also largely self-taught in the art of what was known at the time as “philosophical instruments,” though he, too, cultivated friendships and correspondences with people from whom he felt he could learn

collectivism vs individualism

Societies may also be “vertical”—promising upward mobility to individuals who excel in some area (Triandis, 1995, pp. 43–52). None of this is enough to generate sustained technological progress: technologically conservative societies could be individualistic, but it seems reasonable that a high level of creativity and originality is probably more likely in highly individualistic societies. As Triandis notes, “collectivism … often increases the probability of conformity to group norms and results in the development of strong traditions”

Religion and why we should manipulate the natural environment?

If the natural environment is treated with too much respect or fear and if the aversion to playing God or angering a deity was too strong, the willingness of humans to manipulate their physical settings for their material benefit could be impeded. Similarly, if nature is regarded as unfathomable and beyond human comprehension, or as totally arbitrary and capricious, there can be little advantage in controlling it for human purposes. These attitudes bring us back to religion.

Birth of religious tolerance

Moreover, citizens of the Republic of Letters argued against religious persecution, a voice that became louder as wars of religion increasingly showed themselves to be destructive and pointless after 1562. Prominent citizens of the Republic of Letters, from Sebastian Castellio (1515–1563) to Spinoza to Voltaire, argued for religious tolerance and against the persecution of apostates (Zagorin, 2003).

Technology == playing God? Destroying nature?

Technology involves in a deep sense “playing God,” that is, making deliberate and irreversible changes in the original natural physical environment to solve an economic need and further a material interest. Every human society has altered its natural environment permanently to make a living, often with dramatic ecological effects…

Religion and technology merging

have emphasized the growing cultural belief that physical labor was respectable and that artisans were to be honored and esteemed. In medieval Europe, some monastic orders served as the bridge between propositional knowledge, such as it was, and its technological applications. For centuries these monks were at the cutting edge of technological change in Western Europe.

Emphasis on experiment and practise

As a scholar-craftsman, his approach to knowledge was highly experimental and empirical. He was convinced that practice was superior to theory and promised to prove the veracity of his ideas by convincing the human senses. Indeed his book was structured as a debate between theory and practice, in which practice was always correct

Industrial Revolution and new world adventures - exposure to other cultures

If we are to understand the Industrial Revolution and the launching of the West on a trajectory of sustained economic growth based increasingly on advances in science and technology, we must unearth what happened in the two centuries following Columbus’s arrival in the New World. It was an age of considerable scientific advances, sometimes dubbed the Scientific Revolution.

Openness and appreciation of foreign culture

Europeans increasingly would sip tea from chinaware, grew corn (maize), potatoes, raised turkeys, wore damasks and calicots, and practiced a technique of black laquer known as “Japanning.” The appreciation of foreign information by Europeans had already manifested itself in the high Middle Ages.

Non Invented Here syndrome abandoned

In the rest of Europe, however, the “not invented here” syndrome was overcome and eventually abandoned. The cotton and chinaware industries, two of the paradigmatic industries of the Industrial Revolution, bear the evidence not only of European willingness to adopt foreign techniques and products but also of their total lack of coyness in doing so by explicitly naming products after their (supposed) origins.

Fear of new replaced by curiosity

The fear of the new and the strange dissipated in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe. Curiosity, which had been condemned by scholastic writers as sinful, began to acquire a more positive meaning. The “hunt for knowledge” of the rare and the freakish was displayed in the proto-museums known as wunderkammern. Weird and exotic exhibits were displayed in these “cabinets of curiosity” and people were invited to gawk

Nothing too unique about Europeans or Christians

It is important to stress that nothing suggests that any inherent qualities of Europeans or Christians were systematically different from other societies in a way that would foster the development of useful knowledge. In other words, it stands to reason that potential cultural entrepreneurs emerged in other societies as well, but for one reason or another did not succeed in bringing about a radical shift in the prevailing culture of the groups that mattered for sustained technological change.

Failure and survival bias: still present today in startups

Cultural entrepreneurs, no less than business entrepreneurs, fail more often than they succeed, but survival bias tends to focus attention on the successful ones. For every Luther and Calvin there were many failed religious innovators, about whom we rarely know much.

What printing did, maybe Internet as well

Perhaps more important is that printing, precisely because it produced hundreds or thousands of identical documents, made it far less likely that any codified knowledge would ever be lost or go extinct.

Science and instruments

It may not be an accident that Bacon, Galileo, and Newton were spanning a period that witnessed the emergence of the telescope, microscope, thermometer, barometer, pendulum clock, and air pump. Evangelista Torricelli and Blaise Pascal showed that Aristotle’s assertion that a vacuum was impossible was contradicted by the facts, and air pumps used by von Guericke and Robert Boyle removed any residual doubt.

Not all revolutions or shocks are good

Yet none of these events made the cultural innovations of early modern Europe inevitable—many shocks create not innovation and dynamic development but retrogression and retreat. Other societies responded to shocks by taking a conservative turn and digging in — as Qing China and Tokugawa Japan both did. Europe was unique.

Why Europe and not China?

why was it that Europeans, after being technologically and scientifically backward for many centuries, came up with new instruments, built better ships, and invented calculus? China had both a printing press and movable type centuries before Europe, yet it did not produce a Galileo, a Spinoza, or a Newton. It was building powerful seaworthy ships in the fifteenth century, yet Chinese sailors never showed up one day in Europe or on the Gold Coast.

Why Europe and not India?

One might ask, had Britain and India been at the same level of economic and institutional development in 1700, why was there no “Western-Europe Company” set up in Delhi that would have exploited the deep political divisions within Europe to establish an Indian Raj in London, extracting high rents from Europeans remitted to nouveaux riche nabobs in India and forced Europe to accept Indian calicoes without tariffs?

Emulation or jealousy?

The boundary between “emulation” and “jealousy” was as vague as the boundary between peaceful competition and a more pernicious nationalism that could end in international violence.

Role of universities

Universities were usually bodies that guarded tradition and the intellectual status quo. They thrived on exegesis and commentary, and made sure that the knowledge of one generation was passed on whole and unaltered to the next. Even those scientists who started their careers as part of universities escaped them when their fame had risen enough to enable them to find better patronage (Galileo and Newton immediately come to mind).

Autonomous groups like dev meetup groups or today?

Something similar can be said about guilds. They, too, were autonomous organizations that to a large extent were self-regulating and enforced their own institutional elements. A long and acrimonious debate has developed over the question whether craft guilds were technologically progressive or conservative in European economic history (for recent summaries, see Prak and van Zanden, 2013 and Ogilvie, 2014).

Sounds similar today as well..

No European country was completely free of suppression. Protestant nations were at times more intolerant than Catholic ones. The leading religious reformers were themselves far from paragons of tolerance, and philosophers of the early Enlightenment did not all believe in a level playing field in the market for ideas.

Suppression and outlet

Fragmentation, footlooseness, and the proliferation of printing presses meant that it became increasingly difficult for politically powerful incumbents to suppress subversive and heretic new beliefs generated by cultural entrepreneurs. Any such suppression would only mean that the persons targeted would flee elsewhere.

Execution for blasphemy was obselete

The last person to be executed for blasphemy in Britain was one Thomas Aikenhead, hanged in pre-Enlightenment Edinburgh in 1697, for explicitly anti-Christian beliefs. Unitarianism, which could be a capital crime in the sixteenth century and still left Newton uncomfortable, was more or less tolerated in his later years.

Ingredients of progress

The liberal ideas of religious tolerance, free entry into the market for ideas, and belief in the transnational character of the intellectual community were essential to Enlightenment thought. These were the cultural underpinnings of the institutions that not only supported a functioning market for ideas, that is, a market in which innovators had a fair chance to persuade their audiences.

Reputation == original contributions

Reputations increasingly were no longer based just on erudition and knowledge of the classics; one had to make original contributions to be assessed by one’s peers in the scholarly community. In this way the system encouraged and incentivized intellectual innovation.

Roughly speaking, the property rights in useful knowledge trifurcated into three categories.

  1. First, propositional knowledge was normally placed in the public realm, with the hope that others would recognize it and attribute it henceforth to the author and thus enhance his or her reputation. Here property rights meant credit but not the exclusion of others—on the contrary.
    • Second, in contrast, those who generated new prescriptive knowledge—that is, technology—in many cases tried to earn rents by exclusion.
    • Third, in other cases, engineers and inventors whose work created novel prescriptive knowledge sought publicity, because reputations could gain them lucrative commissions.

A virtual community

The Republic of Letters was above all a virtual community: it had at first no formal institutions, no annual congress, it did not publish its own periodical, and yet it managed to create and enforce a substantial number of rules that supported the emergence of open science in Europe.

Weak ties vs strong ties

Unlike strong ties, such as families and small communities, the connections among members of the virtual community were not transitive, and the information that members could exchange did not necessarily overlap much. New information and ideas are more efficiently diffused through weak ties than through strong ones because the latter are more likely to provide redundant information. Individuals who are strongly tied are more likely to share the same sources of information and to otherwise be similar to one another. In contrast, weak ties when they are “bridges” (that is, single connections that have no substitutes), are more likely to be the avenue by which new information is introduced to an individual.

Advantage of weak ties!

The main disadvantage of weak-ties networks is that the levels of trust between members may be lower than those in strong-ties network, in which interactions are much more frequent between two individuals. Even when trust is relatively low, weak ties provide more useful knowledge because of their enhanced ability to provide non-redundant information

Foundations of enlightenment

While they were central to Enlightenment philosophy, the foundational beliefs of the Enlightenment themselves were born from rebellion and criticism and established in the two centuries before 1700. Knowledge, it was increasingly believed, was never final and always should be further corrected and extended.


Moreover, merit was global, not local, and was judged by a transnational community in which social connections counted for relatively little. As such it amplified the incentives: a global reputation clearly provided advantages in bargaining power for anyone who acquired one.

Mixing of magic and science

The gap between magic and science in early modern Europe was not nearly as wide as it became during the Enlightenment. Occult, mysticism, and magic coexisted and intersected with experimental methodology and empirical testing. It often employed advanced mathematics. Very slowly, what we call today modern science gained the upper hand and led to the Industrial Enlightenment, but the victory was never final and complete (Tambiah, 1990).

3 ingredients of progress. Just knowledge is not enough

It stressed the two elements needed for the material progress of the nation and society. One consisted of the growth of useful knowledge, and the interaction between theory and practice; the other of improving the political institutions that governed the rules of the economic game and how resources were allocated and income distributed.

What is sciece?

It became increasingly accepted that science was not a search for the Truth but a never-ending road advancing toward more plausible and effective ways of understanding the natural world.

What changed?

While none of the new forms of persuasion was wholly new, the discourse changed. Experimental data became increasingly credible as a way of persuading skeptics. Mathematization and precise computation slowly became a way of defending new propositions, and where precision was hard, empirical regularities could be discerned through the collection of facts and specimens and their organization and cataloging.

Tolerance and pluralism

A century and a half later the catastrophic bloodshed during the Thirty Years War convinced more and more people of the merits of tolerance and pluralism. Both can be seen as examples of salient event bias.

Competitions and progress

But the Republic of Letters also serves as a powerful demonstration that in the competitive environment of a politically fragmented world, progress cannot be blocked by the coercion of a few reactionary powers. Finally, rhetorical bias influenced readers when content alone was insufficient. It helped to have the sharp pen of Voltaire on one’s side.

Institutions and incentives

These two trends, institutional improvement and technological progress, were the product of the thought and labors of many people, some famous, most obscure. What accounted for the success was the institution within which these intellectuals and scholars worked and which set the incentives that drove them and the constraints that disciplined them. That institution was the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Republic of Letters.

Religious tolerance

In the market for ideas, one of the most successful ones that won out in the seventeenth century in much of Western Europe was the idea of tolerance. Religious bigotry did not die easily, as the follies of the aging Louis XIV attest, but in its most extreme and virulent forms, it was doomed. What was needed was not just a set of incentives and motives for those who did science, but also an ideology that protected them from those whose entrenched monopoly on explaining the world was being threatened by science and its insistence on evidence and logic.

Difference between French and British progress

French academies had a somewhat different objective than that of British institutions: it is often argued that the Académie Royale (founded in 1666) linked the aspirations of the scientific community to the utilitarian concerns of the government, creating not a Baconian society open to all comers and all disciplines but a closed academy limited primarily to Parisian scholars and a few select foreign superstars.

Fusion of variations of progress

The development of an Industrial Enlightenment in France serves as a useful reminder of the transnational character of the cultural transformation: different national versions evolved over the long eighteenth century (say, 1660–1789), but they constantly interacted and influenced one another, freely mixing and exchanging cultural beliefs across national boundaries.

Being humble and realising that the current generation is better than the past

The idea of progress is logically equivalent to an implied disrespect of previous generations. As Carl Becker noted in a classic work written in the early 1930s, “a Philosopher could not grasp the modern idea of progress … until he was willing to abandon ancestor worship, until he analyzed away his inferiority complex toward the past, and realized that his own generation was superior to any yet known

The current generation can do better

The same age that fostered a belief in progress shed its excessive respect for earlier thinkers, exuding a confidence that “we can do better.” Bacon sensed that the deepest obstacle to the advance of science was the stubborn belief that knowledge has its ebbs and flows and that when it reaches a certain point “[ it] can advance no further.”

Yes, admiring the past and we are worse is deep-rooted in human culture

Decades later, Hume noticed a general tendency: “The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has an influence even on persons endued with the profoundest judgment and most extensive learning

Abandoning Aristotle science

Those areas, the legacy of Galileo and Bacon, were expanding continuously. From that point on, it was beyond any question that a reference to Aristotle or any other author in the canon, from the Bible down, would not be regarded as sufficient proof of an argument in a serious conversation in natural philosophy.

Combining the best of past and present knowledge and arts

The age of Enlightenment never abandoned the classics altogether, but it tried to combine the best of that civilization with the best of their own, hoping to preserve the baby of classical literature and philosophy while tossing out the bathwater of its obsolete cosmology and physics.

Can the present generation be better than the revered past generation?

The idea of progress is thus inextricably linked to the cultural issue of how people regard the capabilities and wisdom of their own generation relative to the wisdom of previous ones. Many cultures, including some rabbinical Jewish and fundamentalist Muslim traditions, believed that truth had been fully revealed to individuals living in the remote past, and that the best current scholars can do is to interpret and exegesize earlier writings and search for deeper meaning in ancient texts.

Education will not always amount to progress

Education, literacy, and learning did not amount to material progress unless they were accompanied by a willingness to abandon venerated traditions and slaughter sacred cows, no manner how many generations had believed in their truth. 17 To return to Triandis’s (1995) terminology, by comparison to their neighbors in the European setting, Jews in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a tight society, in that there was widespread agreement on what was true and what was false, and there was a consensus on who was to make the judgment call in cases of doubt.

Once a newcomer, then an incumbent

Moreover, intellectual innovation will eventually end up being increasingly resisted by an incumbent technology; if that resistance is not overcome, technological progress may be extinguished. If it is not, there is the further danger that the new technology, when it becomes dominant, will in its turn resist the next round of innovation.

Cardwell’s Law

The net result is what I have called “Cardwell’s Law”—the empirical regularity that no society remains at the cutting edge of technological creativity for very long (Mokyr, 1994).


Nations that somehow were taken over by reactionary regimes realized eventually that resisting innovation was not a sustainable strategy in a competitive environment.

Minor improved steps

It did not seek perfection, just a continuous flow of relatively minor incremental steps toward an improved, if still imperfect, society. It is in this kind of environment that the continuous advance of technology could emerge and ironically cause the most disruption.

Heroism became science and engineering

The impact of the cultural change was decisive, especially in Britain, in which a scientist (Newton) and later an engineer (Watt) became symbols of a national spirit and a heroism that had nothing to do with the battlefield and everything to do with the creation of useful knowledge.

Not just knowledge or just doing is enough

in the end economic history confirms Bacon’s statement that by themselves “neither the bare hand nor the unaided intellect has much power” adding that “human knowledge and human power come to the same thing because ignorance of cause frustrates effects” (Bacon, [1620] 2000, p. 33 aphorisms ii and iii). Had skilled artisans and dexterous workers by themselves been able to make more than local and marginal changes in technology, the Industrial Revolution might have taken place in India.

Science and implementation

But as so often was the case, the role of science was captured by Pasteur’s famous dictum that Fortune favors prepared minds (and, one might add, prepared minds coupled to dexterous hands). In many ways, gas lighting is a perfect illustration of the economic impact of the Industrial Enlightenment, and not just in a literal sense. It was based on a combination of imperfect but experiment-based scientific understanding and artisanal brilliance; it was geared toward the solution of a recognized practical need; it was multinational in nature and very much an outcome of open science.

Drawbacks of being just artisan

In other words, a purely artisanal knowledge society will not create a cluster of macroinventions that revolutionized production from the foundation. Artisans were also not well positioned to rely on the two processes of analogy and recombination, in which technology improves by adopting or imitating tricks and gimmicks from other, unrelated, activities. If all that were needed for the Industrial Revolution had been enlightened and ingenious artisans, it could have occurred centuries earlier.

Both artisan and science are required

When all is said and done, the technological revolutions that brought the world economic growth and prosperity were not the result of either artisanal ingenuity or scientific method and discovery, but from the confluence of the two. That confluence is the essence of the Industrial Enlightenment. It saw in the successful application of useful knowledge (including, but not confined to, Newtonian science) the empirical validation of the principles it tried to discover, but its science depended on the tools that technology supplied and the agenda that production difficulties and human needs provided.

Start by cataloging

Botany and zoology were treated in the same way: by cataloging and classifying, it was hoped, some patterns and regularities would emerge. In the absence of a clear concept of evolution, to say nothing of more advanced physiological concepts, many skeptics such as Buffon thought such a project foolhardy.

How the few drag along the many

Technological advance in the period of the Industrial Revolution was a minority affair; most entrepreneurs and industrialists of the time were not like Matthew Boulton or Josiah Wedgwood and had little knowledge of or interest in science or even innovation, just as most landowners were not improvers. But the dynamics of competition in a market economy are such that in the long run, the few drag along the many.

Learning by doing and serendipitous discoveries

Experience-based technological change was not just dependent on raw numbers, but also on the quality of the training and willingness of skilled artisans to innovate. The Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century was in considerable part still based on artisanal knowledge, much of it tacit, and scientific inroads were still rather rare. Only after 1815 did formal, codified knowledge begin to affect technology in a wider segment of production, but learning-by-doing and serendipitous discoveries that are the by-product of normal production remain important until the present day.

Respect for the teacher

In China, he argued, the authority of one teacher was propagated easily from one corner of the empire to another and “none had the courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion, and posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors”

Where fragmentation can be good

Fragmentation, he argued, provided Europe with a set of political authorities that were “mutually restraining” and thus gave nonconformist thinkers in Europe substantial degrees of freedom.

Central vs decentral

What Hume grasped was an important difference: in China intellectual activity was controlled by and transmitted through the central administration far more than in Europe, and as a result the Chinese market for ideas operated in a different fashion.

Technology –> Trade

Instead, their findings show how subsequent industrialization (which included improvements in transportation networks) and institutional changes (which included the reduction or elimination of internal barriers to trade and a movement toward freer international trade) led to higher market integration in Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. In other words, the data suggest that trade did not cause technological progress, but technological progress and institutional change did lead to more effective markets.

Groups by relation vs groups by interest

Greif and Tabellini (2014) have argued that in China the social unit that organized cooperation was the extended family or clan, while in Europe it was a voluntary group of unrelated (by blood) people, which they term “corporations.” They associate these two groups with a stronger “general morality” in Europe and a “limited morality” in which cooperative norms and customs hold mostly for a smaller group of relatives.

Obsession with ancestors, history and glorifying their success

Qian (1985, pp. 57–58), suggests, with some exaggeration, that Chinese scientists in Ming and Qing times were wholly focused on “textual and archaeological research,” and that instead of advancing science, the Chinese were obsessed with their history. He adds that “one can imagine that a man who advocated an experimental, critical methodology would look an eccentric to the public as well as to his peers.”

Stability vs Intellectualism

Stability and domestic peace were increasingly regarded as an overriding value, and this included intellectual stability.

Meritocracy in the wrong direction…

The imperial service examination system eventually turned into a powerful tool to defend incumbent literati against the threat of intellectual innovators who threatened their political influence and the value of their human capital.

Finding answers in ancients and not technicals

The answers, however, were more often than not backward looking: questions about calender reform were answered using dynastic histories rather than technical manuals. Technical learning, Elman explains, was not the ultimate object of the question — the candidates were expected to place such questions within the classical canon

China and India was common, Europe was unique

The prevalence of Chinese conservatism is not a big riddle. Great respect for the inherited wisdom of the past was the default option for most societies, and the odd man out was not China but Europe, and its ever-increasing tendency to show a willingness to overthrow old ideas if they were found to be unacceptable. What mattered here was that in Europe they were found unacceptable not only because the economic and social realities were changing, but because they were tested by evidence and logic and more often than not found to be incorrect, inconsistent, or unproven.

Reverence for the past is a path to downfall

In general, most Chinese thinkers, insofar that they recognized a trend, felt that the past was better than the present or that at worst history was a cyclical but stationary process. For the neo-Confucians, who gained definitive control of the intellectual world of China under the Ming, antiquity was the ideal period, followed by a decline, with no guarantee that the world would ever be better

What can severe censorship by authorities do?

The dependence on the Jesuits illustrates a basic issue with Chinese importation of Western culture: it had to be controlled, filtered, and sorted by the authorities, and so the narrow channel of Jesuit missionaries suited them well, but it also limited what they could learn.

Birth of institutions

The importance of the Enlightenment for Europe’s subsequent economic development goes beyond its impact on the exploitation of useful knowledge for material progress, the essence of the Industrial Enlightenment. It also codified and formalized the kind of institutions any society needed to maintain its technological momentum: the rule of law, checks and balances on the executive, and severe sanctions on more blatant and harmful forms of rent-seeking through corruption and highly inefficient forms of redistribution, although the Enlightenment was never able to eradicate rent-seeking altogether.

Gap among those who knew vs those who built must be close!

The information flows between those who knew things and those who made things were far narrower and weaker in China than in Europe, and the realization that this connection held the key to progress in the future was missing in the East.

Some iconoclastic views did exist in China

Li Zhi (1527–1602), a philosopher of heterodox inclinations, who actually seems to have felt that one did not have to be a Confucian scholar to be a philosopher, a truly iconoclastic position for the time (Jiang, 2001, p. 13). Views that are similar to those we associate with the European radical Enlightenment were expressed by Li, including that self-interest was part of human nature and was not to be condemned, and that the pleasures of the flesh might be both virtuous and therapeutic.

Dominated by exams - how the culture has trickled down till today

Yet intellectual life remained dominated by the civil service examination system, in which innovation, pluralism, and contestability were largely stigmatized—indeed the growing monopoly of neo-Confucianism provided the administration with a tool to fight off challenges to the status quo posed by Wang and his followers

Focus on restoring the past until it became inevitable

“during the Newtonian century in Europe Chinese scholars simultaneously focused on restoring native medicine, mathematics, and astronomy to admired fields of classical learning worthy of literati attention. … These developments were not challenged until the middle of the nineteenth century, when modern Western medicine and technology became insuperable and irresistible

Curiosity deficit

While the telescope was introduced into China by the Jesuit missionaries, their star catalogs were not expanded at a rate comparable to that achieved by telescope-equipped European astronomers, such as John Flamsteed. Huff attributes this difference to a “curiosity deficit” in China, but one cannot understand this difference without a deeper examination of the institutional and political environment in which the accumulation of useful knowledge operated.

Firm belief that useful knowledge will help society is required

Attempts to apply this knowledge to practical uses were taking place, and when new ideas or products appeared, the Chinese were not averse to them. But unlike their European counterparts, Chinese scholars never came to believe that useful knowledge and its capacity to generate material progress through its applications was one of the raisons d’être of natural philosophy.

Scientist as defined by Song

Song regarded issues of ritual and morality irrelevant to discussions on human-heaven interconnectedness. As Schäfer points out, this seems to be consistent with the values that came out of the Baconian program, and, in her words, “fits our modern conception of a scientist: someone who suspects indoctrination, challenges contemporary thought, and systematically searches for a rational order in the world that surrounds him”

Exams were based studying the past

But religiosity is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for intellectual conservatism. One explanation of its backward-looking orientation surely is the large investment of human capital of ambitious and bright Chinese youngsters in the learning of the past, in the hope of passing the civil service examinations.

Making books accessible to wider public

Europeans were not the only ones to realize the importance of reference books. But there was a critical difference: while European reference books were made accessible to a wide public, in China they were typically limited to a very narrow audience of mandarins in power.

Contempt for foreign culture and science

Confucian scholar named Cheng Tingzuo had nothing but contempt for European science: “Far-off Europe!… Its people are known for their many-sided cleverness, excelling particularly in mathematics. Apart from this everything else is excessive ingenuity”

Finding out why and how something works: How does TCP/IP protocol work?

On the whole, Chinese science had little interest in finding out why and how techniques worked. One might wonder, moreover, whether Chinese craftsmen and engineers might have found much of the science of their world very helpful.

Culmination of culture that lead to Industrial Revolution

the centuries before the Industrial Revolution was only one of them. The big difference between Europe and the rest of the world was the Enlightenment and its implications for scientific and technological progress. But the rise of the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth century was the culmination of a centuries’ long process of intellectual change among the European literate elite.