Origins of Innovation: Bakewell & Breeding

A review of Russell 1986’s ‘Like Engend’ring Like: Heredity and Animal Breeding in Early Modern England’, describing development of selective breeding and discussing models of the psychology and sociology of innovation.
biology, history, genetics, reviews, sociology, transhumanism, insight-porn
2018-10-282019-11-09 finished certainty: likely importance: 6


Like any­thing else, the idea of “breed­ing” had to be in­vented. That traits are ge­net­i­cal­ly-in­flu­enced broadly equally by both par­ents sub­ject to con­sid­er­able ran­dom­ness and can be se­lected for over many gen­er­a­tions to cre­ate large av­er­age pop­u­la­tion-wide in­creases had to be dis­cov­ered the hard way, with many wildly wrong the­o­ries dis­carded along the way. An­i­mal breed­ing is a case in point, as re­viewed by an in­tel­lec­tual his­tory of an­i­mal breed­ing, Like En­gend’ring Like, which cov­ers mis­taken the­o­ries of con­cep­tion & in­her­i­tance from the an­cient Greeks to per­haps the first truly suc­cess­ful mod­ern an­i­mal breed­er, (1725–1795).

Why did it take thou­sands of years to be­gin de­vel­op­ing use­ful an­i­mal breed­ing tech­niques, a topic of in­ter­est to al­most all farm­ers every­where, a field which has no pre­req­ui­sites such as ad­vanced math­e­mat­ics or spe­cial chem­i­cals or me­chan­i­cal tools, and seem­ingly re­quires only close ob­ser­va­tion and pa­tience? This ques­tion can be asked of many in­no­va­tions early in the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, such as the fly­ing shut­tle.

Some veins in eco­nom­ics his­tory and so­ci­ol­ogy sug­gest that at least one in­gre­di­ent is an im­prov­ing at­ti­tude: a de­tached out­sider’s at­ti­tude which asks whether there is any way to op­ti­mize some­thing, in de­fi­ance of ‘the wis­dom of tra­di­tion’, and looks for im­prove­ments. A rel­e­vant Eng­lish ex­am­ple is the Eng­lish Royal So­ci­ety of Arts, founded not too dis­tant in time from Bakewell, specifi­cally to spur com­pe­ti­tion and im­i­ta­tion and new in­ven­tions. Psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­ri­ers may be as im­por­tant as any­thing like per capita wealth or peace in in­no­va­tion.

Like En­gend’ring Like: Hered­ity and An­i­mal Breed­ing in Early Mod­ern Eng­land, Rus­sell 1986, is an in­tel­lec­tual his­tory of the , re­view­ing some of the early Eng­lish breed­ing lit­er­a­ture, fo­cus­ing on thor­ough­bred horses and then sheep. There is not much orig­i­nal re­search as far as I can tell, it is pri­mar­ily re­view of ex­ist­ing pri­ma­ry/sec­ondary sources, but it gives a use­ful over­all arc from the dark ages of Eng­lish agri­cul­ture to and the British agri­cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion to post-Bakewell.

What is most in­ter­est­ing is the in­tel­lec­tual his­tory we can ex­tract from it in terms of in­vent­ing her­i­tabil­ity and as im­por­tant, one of the in­ven­tions of progress in the grad­ual re­al­iza­tion that se­lec­tive breed­ing was even pos­si­ble.

The Invention of Heritability

I was in­ter­ested pri­mar­ily in the sec­tion on Robert Bakewell, the Mon­ey­ball of sheep breed­ing, about whom in­for­ma­tion re­mains diffi­cult to get, but also in the broader ques­tion high­lighted by “Hered­ity Be­fore Ge­net­ics: A His­tory”, Cobb 2006: given how bla­tant the gen­eral phe­nom­e­non (how­ever diffi­cult the ac­tual math­e­mat­i­cal analy­sis of mod­ern quan­ti­ta­tive ge­net­ics) ap­pear to be—av­er­ages or ad­di­tive effects every­where, equal parental effects, nor­mal dis­tri­b­u­tion of traits, se­lec­tion on mea­sured traits pro­duces grad­ual but cu­mu­la­tively enor­mous gains and lead­ing to cre­ation of breeds or even spe­ci­a­tion—why were Bakewell and other breed­ers such an in­tel­lec­tual rev­o­lu­tion? Why could they in­flu­ence Charles Dar­win1 and Mendel so much and grad­u­ally rev­o­lu­tion­ize agri­cul­ture? Why in­deed could British agri­cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion fig­ures like , or in­ven­tors in gen­er­al, make such im­prove­ments?

Peo­ple, both or­di­nary and men of leisure, often in­tensely in­ter­ested in agri­cul­ture, have been farm­ing an­i­mals for mil­len­nia and pre­sum­ably in­ter­fer­ing in their re­pro­duc­tion, and had am­ple op­por­tu­nity to in­for­mally ob­serve many mat­ings, long pedi­grees, crosses be­tween breeds, and com­par­isons with neigh­bor­ing farm­ers, and they had great in­cen­tive to reach cor­rect be­liefs not just for the im­me­di­ate & com­pound­ing re­turns but also from be­ing able to sell their su­pe­rior spec­i­mens for im­prov­ing other herds. With par­tic­u­larly in­tense se­lec­tion fea­si­ble in prac­tice (like us­ing a sin­gle sire in a herd), large im­prove­ments could’ve been seen well within a per­son’s work­ing life­time.

But sur­viv­ing the­o­ret­i­cal sci­en­tific dis­cus­sions of hered­ity are baffling. Early dis­cus­sions of breed­ing which ini­tially seem to make sense, like Pla­to’s Re­pub­lic, sud­denly veer into non­sense when Plato em­pha­sizes the im­por­tance of breed­ing only from those best in­di­vid­u­als who are also “in their prime”—should you breed us­ing your prize spec­i­mens who have got­ten a lit­tle too old, well, then, your an­i­mals will in­evitably “greatly de­gen­er­ate”2, as the age of the fa­ther was far more im­por­tant than mere abil­i­ty, a prin­ci­ple the Spar­tans also fol­lowed in dis­cour­ag­ing young or old men from re­pro­duc­ing. (Aris­to­tle ex­plained this as older an­i­mals de­vot­ing food con­sump­tion to cre­ation of fat, rather than cre­ation of blood, and since se­men was pro­duced from blood…) Xenophon in­sisted that dogs be nursed by their orig­i­nal moth­ers, and not fos­ter moth­ers, as the milk of the lat­ter would be use­less. Ro­man au­thors, fol­low­ing , em­pha­sized fur­ther the im­por­tance of starv­ing fe­male cat­tle be­fore mat­ing; nat­u­ral­ly, cat­tle were to be cho­sen solely on the ba­sis of their coat col­or. In­deed, the cir­cum­stances of the mat­ing were at least as im­por­tant as any qual­i­ties of the fa­ther. (The be­lief that cir­cum­stance at con­cep­tion could ‘im­press’ them­selves on off­spring is an an­cient one, ex­am­ples of which can be found even in the Old Tes­ta­ment, where Ja­cob places striped branches near mat­ing goat­s/sheep to make the off­spring also striped3; one might also men­tion the con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar­ity of epi­ge­net­ics as a causal ex­pla­na­tion of every­thing.) Mat­ters im­proved lit­tle in the Re­nais­sance and lat­er, as in­tel­lec­tu­als lurched be­tween ‘only fa­thers mat­ter’ & ‘only moth­ers mat­ter’, end­lessly elab­o­rat­ing on wildly spec­u­la­tive (and wildly wrong) mech­a­nis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of how ex­actly sperm & eggs & em­bryos con­nected and formed, and in an ex­am­ple of “hard cases make bad law”, the fo­cus on ‘mon­sters’ and other ex­treme cases among hu­mans or an­i­mals badly mis­guided their pre­ma­ture at­tempts to elu­ci­date uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples com­pa­ra­ble to that of as­tron­omy or physic­s—the ex­am­ples did not ‘prove any rule’, but baffled every­one try­ing to come up with a rule to prove. Other so­ci­eties held to the­o­ries of . (Cobb re­marks “Réau­mur and Bon­net’s dis­cov­ery of aphid in the 1740s had not helped mat­ters”, to say the least­—and partheno­gen­e­sis, aside from ex­ist­ing in an­i­mals too, is far from the odd­est re­pro­duc­tive sys­tem or ge­net­ics in in­sects or plants!) We now know that here are an in­defi­nitely long list of ways that de­vel­op­ment can go wrong with thou­sands of en­vi­ron­men­tal in­sults or de­vel­op­men­tal er­ror or dis­tinct ge­netic dis­eases (each with many pos­si­ble con­tribut­ing mu­ta­tion­s), and that for the most part, each case is its own spe­cial case; some­times ‘mon­sters’ can shed light on key as­pects of bi­ol­ogy like meta­bolic path­ways, but that re­quires bi­ol­ogy cen­turies more ad­vanced than was avail­able, and that the search for uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples was fu­tile. There are uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples but they per­tain mostly to pop­u­la­tions, must be in­ves­ti­gated in the ag­gre­gate, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, and in­di­vid­ual coun­terex­am­ples can only be shrugged at, as the uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples can be and often are over­rid­den by many of those spe­cial cas­es.

Why did­n’t farm­ers & breed­ers cor­rect the the­o­reti­cians? Any ex­pe­ri­ence with se­lec­tive breed­ing or cross-breed­ing should have stran­gled “pre­for­ma­tion­ism” in its crib, and it would not have been hard to look over a good pedi­gree and note that, say, elite moth­ers had elite off­spring about as often as elite fa­thers had elite off­spring, and that it could­n’t be true that eggs were pas­sive sus­te­nance for an em­bryo (or al­ter­na­tive­ly, that the sperm was a mere spark ig­nit­ing the egg).

Un­for­tu­nate­ly, breed­ers & farm­ers were also deeply con­fused. Rather than care­fully pre­serv­ing & breed­ing prize an­i­mals, the best mem­bers of a herd would often be culled for eat­ing or sell­ing at the high­est profit, and the worst left to re­pro­duce4 (a “neg­a­tive breed­ing strat­egy” ie. dys­genic), since, after all, hered­ity did­n’t mat­ter as much as en­vi­ron­ment. Rather than a keen fo­cus on the end-goal, what­ever that was, farm­ers would choose for “beauty” or “fancy points”, what­ever was in fash­ion at the mo­ment, and nat­u­rally there were fierce dis­agree­ments about what a “beau­ti­ful” sheep looked like5. Ab­hor­rence of in­breed­ing (due to hu­man norms or a great fear of in­breed­ing de­pres­sion) pre­vented re­al­iz­ing that in­breed­ing could be used to cre­ate new in­bred lines which fixed de­sir­able traits & were man-made breeds, rather than breeds sim­ply be­ing pre-ex­ist­ing nat­ural kinds from time im­memo­r­i­al. The lack of record-keep­ing or con­sis­tent con­trol over re­pro­duc­tion, with catch-as-catch-can mat­ings, culling, en­vi­ron­men­tal shocks, ad hoc in­tro­duc­tions from other breeds, and ul­ti­mate­ly, tiny av­er­age pop­u­la­tions con­trolled by each in­di­vid­ual com­pared to mod­ern farm­ing—all in­tro­duced noise. (Bakewell’s own ex­per­i­ments re­quired a large herd, and he ei­ther did or al­most went bank­rupt, sources con­flict, de­spite the ex­tremely high sums he was ul­ti­mately able to charge for his an­i­mals.6)

The long-term effect? Sta­sis, or even de­cay. Well-tar­geted se­lec­tive breed­ing can yield ab­surdly large effects in one hu­man life­time (eg ), but it’s diffi­cult to see any im­prove­ment or change in an­i­mal breeds over mil­len­nia. In­deed, the be­lief that only fa­thers mat­tered led horse breed­ers astray: they failed to race mares, and then took the lu­di­crously ex­pen­sive im­ported Ara­bian stal­lions and crossed them with ran­dom mares, and then took the sub­-par per­for­mance of their off­spring as ev­i­dence that race per­for­mance was crit­i­cally de­pen­dent on the dry Ara­bian en­vi­ron­ment and they sim­ply had to keep im­port­ing & cross­ing.7 Many breed­ers, go­ing back to the Greeks like & Plato or Ro­man writ­ers there­after, fo­cused on the cir­cum­stances of con­cep­tion, em­pha­siz­ing the crit­i­cal im­por­tance of breed­ing a male in his prime rather than an older one, no mat­ter how much bet­ter the older one had per­formed in its prime, breed­ing fe­males with large tem­po­ral gaps if high­est qual­ity is nec­es­sary, and par­tic­u­larly avoid­ing any obese an­i­mals, as obe­sity sapped vi­tal­i­ty, im­ped­ing the pro­duc­tion of blood, from which se­men & eggs de­rived—­Greeks sup­pos­edly would de­lib­er­ately starve cows to en­sure svelte­ness be­fore im­preg­na­tion. And held that twin­ning in goat­s/sheep was due to the par­ents, but that the trait could be both in­her­ited by a male but also was com­mu­ni­ca­ble ie. might be car­ried from a fe­male by the im­preg­nat­ing male to suc­ces­sive fe­males, and so a breeder should try to use twin-beget­ting goat/sheep as much as pos­si­ble. (I’ve heard of pa­ter­nal age effects and epi­ge­net­ics be­fore, but this is ridicu­lous!) Con­sid­er­ing all of this, I am no longer sur­prised that se­lec­tive breed­ing was in­vented so late nor that such low-hang­ing fruit went un­plucked for mil­len­nia. Un­der this sta­tis­ti­cal bliz­zard of con­tra­dic­tory noise, how was any­one to dis­cern the sim­ple bio­met­ric pat­terns?

Cobb rous­ingly & con­vinc­ingly con­cludes:

It took hu­man­ity a re­mark­ably long time to dis­cover that there are con­sis­tent re­la­tions be­tween par­ent and off­spring, and to de­velop ways of study­ing those re­la­tions. The raw phe­nom­ena of hered­ity were suffi­ciently com­plex to be im­per­vi­ous to ‘com­mon-sense’ rea­son­ing, to the bril­liant but sti­fling schemas that were de­vel­oped by the Greek philoso­phers, and even to the stun­ning for­ays of the early sci­en­tists. What was re­quired was not a novel piece of ap­pa­ra­tus, nor even a new the­o­ry; the key thing that was needed was sta­tis­ti­cally ex­tra­or­di­nary data sets. On the one hand, these were com­posed of many re­li­able hu­man pedi­grees of un­usual or patho­log­i­cal char­ac­ters; on the oth­er, they were the large-s­cale ex­per­i­men­tal stud­ies that were car­ried out con­sciously by Mendel, or as a by-prod­uct of the com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity of eigh­teen­th-cen­tury live­stock breed­ers.

Like all great truths, hered­ity seems ob­vi­ous once it is un­der­stood. But the fact that so many peo­ple took so long to re­al­ize what we take for granted does not mean that our pre­de­ces­sors were stu­pid. In­stead, it in­di­cates that, be­fore the pat­terns within hered­i­tary phe­nom­ena could be de­tect­ed, so­ci­ety had to de­velop to a suffi­cient level for these kinds of data to be col­lect­ed, ex­am­ined, com­pared and in­ter­pret­ed. How­ev­er, al­though sci­ence, writ­ten fam­ily records and large-s­cale agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion were the pre­req­ui­sites for the dis­cov­ery of hered­i­ty, the birth of our sci­ence was not sim­ple, and re­quired bold thinkers who were pre­pared to re­solve an is­sue that had per­plexed hu­man­ity for thou­sands of years. The re­sult—the twin fields of ge­net­ics and evo­lu­tion—rep­re­sents one of the great­est in­sights in hu­man his­to­ry.

Early English agriculture & breeding

What of this progress do we see in Rus­sel­l’s trace of his­to­ry? In an ex­am­ple of , the idle wastrel amuse­ments of the aris­to­crats & ap­ing by their lessers may have been key: be­cause the de­vel­op­ment of race­horses starts Rus­sel­l’s sto­ry!

The aris­to­cratic & gov­ern­ment in­ter­est in race­horses & war horses grad­u­ally led to many spe­cial­ized horses be­ing kept and bet­ter record-keep­ing. The cre­ation of the “stud book” and the clas­sist su­per­sti­tion of “blood” in hors­es, where even dis­tant an­ces­try from a fa­mous thor­ough­bred el­e­vated a horse above com­mon hors­es, ap­pears to have ac­ci­den­tally backed into suc­cess: by cre­at­ing a rea­son to track an­ces­try care­ful­ly, and im­por­tant­ly, en­sur­ing that a thor­ough­bred’s off­spring with a horse not in ‘the book’ would be worth much less (re­gard­less of their per­for­mance or true ge­netic po­ten­tial), a closed breed­ing pop­u­la­tion un­der steady se­lec­tion was cre­ated and en­sured that what progress was made was not then im­me­di­ately un­done by care­less hap­haz­ard mat­ings. Ara­bi­an/­Turk­ish stal­lions were per­mit­ted, and now that they were no longer be­ing im­me­di­ately di­luted by out­side 100%-non-thor­ough­bred hors­es, grad­u­ally “graded up” the closed thor­ough­bred gene pool to­wards more Ara­bi­an/­Turk­ish genes. Fur­ther, the ma­nia for rac­ing was not sat­is­fied by the stock of ma­ture stal­lions so races be­gan ex­pand­ing to in­clude younger horses (ac­cel­er­at­ing gen­er­a­tional turnover and thus an­nual gains) and also mares (fi­nally cap­tur­ing crit­i­cal per­for­mance data and al­low­ing se­lec­tion on the other half of the equa­tion). Be­fore too long, the im­port of ful­l-blooded Ara­bian stal­lions was no longer par­tic­u­larly nec­es­sary as thor­ough­bred per­for­mance had thor­oughly out­raced them. Rus­sell re­marks that thor­ough­breds, like cats or dogs, were then (and still are, based on the cru­dity of the race­horse ge­net­ics pa­pers I’ve read) bred in an un­sys­tem­atic and in­effi­cient man­ner, but this seems to have been enough. Other Eng­lish fash­ions, like the de­mand for car­riage-horses due to in­creas­ing wealth, rapidly molded var­i­ous breeds of horses larger & smaller as nec­es­sary. The sud­den sus­tained progress in race­horses and changes demon­strat­ing mal­leabil­ity prob­a­bly did not go un­no­ticed.

Early cat­tle/sheep pro­duc­tiv­ity was low. Dairy cow yield, for ex­am­ple, ap­pears to have been prob­a­bly be­low 300 gal­lons a year (pg129); for com­par­ison, con­tem­po­rary dairy cow yield is closer to 2,300 gal­lons a year & in­creas­ing (). Dairy cat­tle breed­ing op­ti­mized for as few males as pos­si­ble, since they did not pro­duce milk and were needed es­sen­tially only to im­preg­nate the cows, and so calv­ing would hap­pen as si­mul­ta­ne­ously as pos­si­ble early in the spring. A vil­lage might col­lec­tively pay for a sin­gle “com­mon bull” to ‘tup’ the vil­lagers’ cows, but wealth­ier farm­ers might buy or sim­ply hire in­di­vid­ual bulls. If you only need one, and that one will be kept busy im­preg­nat­ing as many cows as pos­si­ble, you want the best & lusti­est one, and it nat­u­rally de­vel­ops into a se­lec­tive breed­ing pro­gram. (Although hav­ing only one male is far from op­ti­mal for max­i­miz­ing the long-term re­sponse to se­lec­tion.) After a few years, the bull slows down, one fat­tens it for the butcher, and buys a new one. Bakewell, in ad­di­tion to his more fa­mous sheep, was also in­volved in steer & horse breed­ing and would’ve been fa­mil­iar with this. By the time Bakewell be­gan in the 1740s, Eng­lish sheep farm­ers had been strug­gling with chang­ing mar­ket in­cen­tives: small sheep, while tastier, did­n’t fetch a suffi­cient pre­mi­um, and like­wise, fine wool was­n’t pre­mium enough to com­pen­sate for the small amount of fleece on such sheep; they had be­gun ex­plic­itly seek­ing out and buy­ing large high­-meat/­wool-yield­ing sheep.

Robert Bakewell

This per­haps formed the jump­ing off point for Bakewell. Bakewell be­gan care­fully mea­sur­ing his an­i­mals & pay­ing at­ten­tion to the off­spring of any hired-out males to gauge the males’ ge­netic qual­i­ty, op­ti­miz­ing for fast growth and fat­ti­ness, even pre­serv­ing joints in jars from pre­vi­ous spec­i­mens the bet­ter to com­pare with cur­rent an­i­mals, and per­haps prac­tic­ing more in­breed­ing than other con­tem­po­rary breed­ers. Rus­sell is crit­i­cal of the ex­tent to which Bakewell’s Dish­ley sheep was re­ally an eco­nomic suc­cess or to what ex­tent bet­ter mea­sure­ments were re­spon­si­ble for im­prove­ments, call­ing some of the later prices Bakewell charged “more to do with the­atre and the cun­ning ex­ploita­tion of fash­ion than any re­la­tion­ship with the breed­ing value of stock” and not­ing that an un­known but pos­si­bly large amount of the Dish­ley sheep’s qual­ity was due as much to Bakewell’s “su­perb stan­dards of hus­bandry” and as­sid­u­ous in­vest­ment in en­vi­ron­men­tal im­prove­ments like ir­ri­gat­ing fields & feed­ing his an­i­mal high­-qual­ity pas­turage & be­ing ex­tremely kind/­gen­tle to his an­i­mals (some of the many vis­i­tors, do­mes­tic & in­ter­na­tion­al, to Dish­ley would note that the an­i­mals were re­mark­ably hap­py, calm, and good-na­tured, and that Bakewell was also beloved by his em­ploy­ees). One im­prove­ment I par­tic­u­larly liked was Bakewell’s con­struc­tion of a canal for car­ry­ing fod­der around: a worker would toss some into the canal, which would then carry it to the main house into a pool, wash­ing it along the way. Rus­sell con­cludes (pg215), after re­view­ing some later smal­l­-s­cale data from the An­nals, that:

It must be doubt­ful if food con­ver­sion or car­cass ra­tio were sig­nifi­cantly im­proved, or that the fun­da­men­tal form of the car­cass was changed ei­ther in the Bakewell strain of Long­horn cow or in Lin­colnshire Wold sheep. How­ev­er, the an­i­mals looked much bet­ter gra­zier’s an­i­mals, with their ten­dency to fat up and round out well. In a sense, all Bakewell had done was to cre­ate a new, if some­what more ra­tio­nal fancy for sheep of a par­tic­u­lar shape, rather than merely tin­ker­ing with colour or horn form. On the other hand, it would seem that the Lin­coln breed­ers had gen­uinely suc­ceeded in breed­ing an­i­mals with a greatly in­creased fleece yield, al­though the death of the long­wool mar­ket made their achieve­ment a point­less one. Sen­si­bly they re­verted back to­wards the form of the Wold sheep from which they had start­ed, of which the best sur­viv­ing ex­am­ples were the Dish­leys. The use of Dish­ley stock by the Lin­coln breed­ers was, of course, made much of by the Leices­ter­shire men, al­though it prob­a­bly did not have the sig­nifi­cance the lat­ter as­cribed to it. Cer­tainly Bakewell must take con­sid­er­ably credit for pub­li­cis­ing the idea of se­lect­ing stock for eco­nomic per­for­mance, but whether his ac­tual achieve­ments in this field were of any sig­nifi­cance re­mains doubt­ful.

Inas­much as there do not seem to be any sur­viv­ing records from Bakewell (!) and Bakewell never wrote up his data or meth­ods, only dis­cussing it with vis­i­tors, it is diffi­cult to say ei­ther way. Given how many sub­se­quent gains have come from breed­ing and the low ini­tial level and the fact that re­sponse to se­lec­tion is ex­pected to be great­est at the be­gin­ning, I in­cline to­wards think­ing that Bakewell did cause large ge­netic gains by sim­ply be­ing thor­ough and ex­er­cis­ing some care, and of course his en­vi­ron­men­tal im­prove­ments may also have been crit­i­cal to his ge­netic suc­cess by al­low­ing each an­i­mal to reach its ge­netic po­ten­tial, in­creas­ing her­i­tabil­i­ty/re­duc­ing non-shared-en­vi­ron­ment effects. (If the Dish­ley breeds had been main­tained to the present day, it might be pos­si­ble to par­ti­tion gains from en­vi­ron­ment and ge­net­ics by com­mon-gar­den ex­per­i­ments or by us­ing poly­genic scores, but un­for­tu­nate­ly, they ap­pear to have all long since dis­ap­peared or merged into other breeds which have un­der­gone in­tense se­lec­tion since then, and are no more avail­able for study than the Dish­ley record­s.)

In any case, Rus­sell makes an in­ter­est­ing sug­ges­tion there. If Bakewell’s true con­tri­bu­tion was “pub­li­cis­ing the idea” (which can be fur­ther but­tressed by not­ing that Bakewell was widely praised in the 1700s & 1800s, cit­ing Charles Dar­win in­vok­ing Bakewell in the con­text of nat­ural se­lec­tion as demon­strat­ing what ex­plicit se­lec­tion can do even to the point of mak­ing a new breed, the goal of Ger­man sheep breed­ers to em­u­late Bakewell’s sup­posed suc­cess, etc) what can we draw out of this?

Bakewell and the Invention of Progress

One way would be to say that Bakewell played a part in the in­ven­tion of Progress or the “im­prov­ing at­ti­tude”.

It is not a uni­ver­sal be­lief among hu­mans that it is pos­si­ble to ‘progress’; Whig­gism must be learned. , dis­be­lieved that he lived in any kind of ‘rev­o­lu­tion’ or unique event in hu­man his­to­ry, and re­garded con­tem­po­rary progress as ev­i­dence that hu­man his­tory ac­tu­ally con­sisted cy­cles of cre­ation & de­struc­tion, and be­lieved that his re­search on grav­ity or the Philoso­pher’s Stone was merely re­cov­er­ing what the An­cients knew & had been lost. Breed­ers like­wise re­garded se­lec­tion as merely frus­trat­ing the in­evitable de­cay of herds un­der in­breed­ing & lo­cal en­vi­ron­ments. One im­ported a Turk­ish or Span­ish or Ara­bian stal­lion to try to tem­porar­ily el­e­vate one’s hors­es, but that was to try to bor­row some of the an­ces­tral power of a born & raised for­eign race­horse—no per­ma­nent gain was looked for nor, ap­par­ent­ly, seen, and one sim­ply kept im­port­ing. The idea that it is pos­si­ble to al­most ar­bi­trar­ily im­prove a breed’s traits, or steer a breed in a di­rec­tion to the point that it would have to be con­sid­ered a new and clearly dis­tinct breed for all in­tents & pur­pos­es, ap­pears to have not been in cir­cu­la­tion. It would have been deemed ab­surd, wor­thy of par­ody in the of Gul­liv­er’s Trav­els, to imag­ine that dairy cows could one day yield >8x more milk. Most mer­chants & aris­to­crats dreamed of noth­ing more than to own a large landed es­tate with an an­nual in­come of sev­eral hun­dred or thou­sand pounds ster­ling, and their de­scen­dants liv­ing off the land-rents for eter­nity (and land prices re­flected this, with pres­ti­gious full own­er­ship cost­ing far more than 99-year leas­es).

The mar­ket is a weigh­ing ma­chine, but where do the things weighed come from? What differ­en­ti­ates a com­pla­cent so­ci­ety from an in­no­v­a­tive so­ci­ety? If chance fa­vors the pre­pared mind, what is the na­ture of this men­tal prepa­ra­tion?

The Improving Attitude

In a re­cent talk, eco­nomic his­to­rian An­ton Howes8, who stud­ies a sim­i­lar pe­riod of Eng­lish his­to­ry, spe­cial­iz­ing in the (est. 1754), brought up many in­ter­est­ing points about in­no­va­tion and pro­gress, putting to­gether a cir­cum­stan­tial case for the role of so­cial im­i­ta­tion & elite com­pe­ti­tion in dri­ving in­no­va­tion, what you might call the Vel­vet Un­der­ground model of in­no­va­tion. Rather than in­no­va­tion & progress just sort of hap­pen­ing on its own or be­ing dri­ven by ac­cu­mu­lat­ing as­sets, progress ap­pears to be caused at least par­tially sim­ply by an at­ti­tude of pro­gress, of peo­ple com­pet­ing to be in­no­v­a­tive, and of sim­ply look­ing at age-old things and go­ing “why do we do it that way? Why not do it this other more sen­si­ble way?” This at­ti­tude ap­pears to be rare out­side of pre-Rev­o­lu­tion Eng­land/Eu­rope9, and was mocked by many (eg ’s , v6c410)

The Royal So­ci­ety of Arts is a case in point: the RSA was founded to en­cour­age tech­no­log­i­cal and prac­ti­cal in­no­va­tions by con­tests, funded by ‘sub­scrip­tions’ from aris­to­crats & well-to-do bour­geoisie, But it did not have the money to di­rectly fund peo­ple to do R&D or pay for get­ting a patent or buy out ex­ist­ing patents, and in­stead, based on votes, pri­mar­ily awarded medals and oc­ca­sion­ally sub­stan­tial but still rel­a­tively nom­i­nal mon­e­tary prizes. (They were not awarded to patented things. This was not as much of a re­stric­tion as it might seem be­cause patents, be­ing so ex­pen­sive in real terms, rarely ob­tained, often not use­ful when ob­tained, and nearly abol­ished in the early 1800s, seem like a mi­nor player at best. Cor­po­ra­tions, like­wise—just about any­thing you might do with a lim­it­ed-li­a­bil­ity cor­po­ra­tion could be done with a trust in­stead.) And this… ap­par­ently worked re­ally well? For ex­am­ple, the RSA takes credit for 60 mil­lion trees planted by the landed gen­try start­ing in 1758, sim­ply by award­ing a gold medal to the Duke of Beau­fort fol­lowed by “var­i­ous other dukes, duchess­es, earls, vis­counts, mar­quess­es, bish­ops, and mem­bers of par­lia­ment, not to men­tion many more un­ti­tled mem­bers of the mi­nor gen­try. Aris­to­crats and their neigh­bours en­gaged in a ‘very laud­able em­u­la­tion’, each vy­ing to out­-do one an­other in the ex­tent and qual­ity of their plan­ta­tions.” The only pay­ment it could make was pres­tige, re­flected from the Eng­lish aris­toc­ra­cy, and this was ap­par­ently ad­e­quate, in­deed, per­haps even more mo­ti­vat­ing than mere wealth. (I’ve often been baffled by how medals were end­lessly awarded be­fore the 1900s, and now I won­der if I over-hastily dis­missed the idea that medals could be real mo­ti­va­tion for any­one, sim­ply be­cause I can’t imag­ine be­ing mo­ti­vated by yet an­other sym­bolic medal.) In cre­at­ing his So­ci­ety, , sought to ex­cite an em­pir­ics of en­vy, em­u­la­tion, and ex­cel­lence. He was, it is worth not­ing, was in­spired by… horse rac­ing: he had no­ticed the tremen­dous efforts in­vested in it, all out of dis­pro­por­tion to the awarded prizes, and the re­sult­ing pro­gress, and sought to har­ness that en­ergy for more so­cial­ly-valu­able pur­pos­es.11

Other ob­ser­va­tions fol­low. Some ma­jor in­ven­tions are so sim­ple as to defy be­lief they were not in­vented thou­sands of years ago—the , for ex­am­ple. Many in­ven­tors had lit­tle or no train­ing or ex­pe­ri­ence in the field they in­vented some­thing in, and might be a lawyer or some­thing else en­tirely (like a small boy ir­ri­tated at be­ing as­signed to a steam en­gine), and oth­er­wise some­times seem in­com­pe­tent; of the fly­ing shut­tle claimed to have spent only a month ap­pren­ticed be­fore mak­ing the first of his tex­tile in­ven­tions. In­ven­tors who lived in a neigh­bor­hood with a high per capita patent rate are them­selves more likely to file a patent. Fu­ture in­ven­tors might cor­re­spond with their he­roes (shades of the ‘col­lege of let­ters’) and, if they then meet them in per­son, they are more likely to go on to in­no­vate, even if it was only a sin­gle short meet­ing and the hero was in an en­tirely differ­ent field and so it is diffi­cult to see what key fact, skill, or wealth/ob­ject they could have trans­mit­ted which might make any differ­ence. In­no­va­tion ap­pears to be con­ta­gious: the so­ci­ety of clock­mak­ers was often hired by sci­en­tists to make in­stru­ments for their needs, and the hired clock­mak­ers started in­no­vat­ing more and this spread to the rest of the guild. Im­mi­grants (not all Scots, France/Ger­many/Amer­ica are com­mon ori­gin­s), and re­li­gious Dis­senters, such as Scots Pres­by­te­ri­ans mov­ing south into Eng­lish An­gli­can ter­ri­to­ry, are con­stantly over­rep­re­sent­ed, as are men­tions of . For com­par­ison, France ap­pears to have been much less prac­ti­cally in­no­v­a­tive and slower to in­dus­tri­al­ize; why? Howes sug­gested it re­flected differ­ent elite pri­or­i­ties: the French aris­toc­racy was much stronger & wealth­ier than the Eng­lish, and had an in­cli­na­tion to­wards pur­er, more ab­stract, more uni­ver­sal the­o­riz­ing. Tech­nol­ogy and eco­nomic growth and health sim­ply weren’t re­warded with pres­tige from a French RSA. And you get what you in­cen­tivize.

Tak­ing Howes’s claims at face-val­ue, we could ex­pand on the model a lit­tle more. Pass­ing over claims of as the most force in so­ci­ety, it’s still in­trigu­ing to note par­al­lels else­where.

Bakewell, it hardly needs to be said, fol­lows the Howes model well: Bakewell had no spe­cial train­ing or math or tech­nol­ogy to offer, and his breeds have been much crit­i­cized for be­ing use­less in prac­tice and dis­ap­peared, but what he did ac­com­plish was en­dorse the idea of pro­gress, pro­vid­ing a model to em­u­late, and a pres­ti­gious fig­ure to cite as prece­dent. Bakewell may have been grossly over­rated by acolytes, but from this point of view, that is a fea­ture and not a bug—the more praised the bet­ter! His in­flu­ence then spread and sparked Bakewellites else­where and abroad, bet­ter equipped to suc­cess­fully do what (they thought) he did.

Social Contagion?

“One of the things that comes up­…is the ex­is­tence of a cer­tain kind of out­-com­mu­ni­ties that were weirdly over­rep­re­sented among peo­ple who cre­ated new eco­nomic sys­tems, opened up new trade routes, and so on. I’m talk­ing about Huguenots, who were the Protes­tants in France who suffered a lot of op­pres­sion. I’m talk­ing about the Pu­ri­tans in Eng­land, who were not part of the es­tab­lished church and so also came in for a lot of op­pres­sion. Ar­me­ni­ans, Jews, Par­sis, var­i­ous other mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties that, pre­cisely be­cause of their out­sider mi­nor­ity sta­tus, were forced to form long-range net­works and go about things in an un­con­ven­tion­al, in­no­v­a­tive way… it’s the cir­cum­stances that made it pos­si­ble for these weird out­sider groups to find footholds in var­i­ous niches and do new things.”

, July 2019 in­ter­view

“Of the 6 peo­ple who started , 4 had built bombs in high school. 5 were just 23 years old—or younger. 4 of us had been born out­side the United States. 3 had es­caped here from com­mu­nist coun­tries: from Chi­na, from Poland, and from So­viet Ukraine. Build­ing bombs was not what kids nor­mally did in those coun­tries at that time. The 6 of us could have been seen as ec­cen­tric. My first-ever con­ver­sa­tion with Luke was about how he’d just signed up for , to be frozen upon death in hope of med­ical res­ur­rec­tion.”

, on the ()

“For­mer Pres­i­dents Oba­ma, Bush and Clin­ton vol­un­teer to get coro­n­avirus vac­cine pub­licly to prove it’s safe”

CNN head­line (2020-12-02)

In my re­view of The Vac­ci­na­tors, I noted I was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the trick that cracked Japan­ese small­pox () vac­ci­na­tion: it was, ap­par­ent­ly, in­ad­e­quate to offer Japan­ese peo­ple merely a near­ly-free sil­ver bul­let for sav­ing their chil­dren from a fa­tal crip­pling dis­ease which killed >10% of all chil­dren and had for cen­turies—but what did work was to con­vince the great no­bles to vac­ci­nate their chil­dren, and then with that elite en­dorse­ment, the masses quickly im­i­tat­ed. Howes notes an ear­lier small­pox ex­am­ple of aris­to­cratic en­dorse­ment: strug­gled to in­tro­duce Turk­ish into Eng­land de­spite var­i­o­lat­ing her own son, un­til she won over Princess (who had lost her fa­ther & step-fa­ther to small­pox, and nearly died of it her­self), and then, after a suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­ment on con­demned pris­on­ers, Car­o­line had her royal chil­dren var­i­o­lat­ed. (To quote the well-con­nected , who helped co-found the RSA, “a king’s or Princess’s word run­neth swiftly” in­deed.)

High­ly-effec­tive small groups punch­ing far above their weight turn up in the his­tory of tech­nol­ogy or sci­ence or pol­i­tics with eerie fre­quen­cy. Why is half of 20th cen­tury psy­chi­a­try or in one pho­to? Why do some labs ex­cel in dis­cov­er­ies, and men­tors in pro­tege suc­cess­es? (S­e­lec­tion effects & net­work effects, of course, but is that re­ally all? Are there no mi­cro-) Con­sider the Eng­lish Fabian So­ci­ety and the effort they put into at­trac­tive pub­li­ca­tions, sa­lons & par­ties & de­bates, re­cruit­ing bour­geoisie or up­per-class mem­bers; de­spite ap­pear­ing in­effec­tive, it turned out (or the Alzheimer lab or or or …). Star­tups reg­u­larly form around charis­matic lead­ers with in­tense vi­sions, who oc­ca­sion­ally shove some­thing for­ward by decades. (Case in point, Elon Musk12 & elec­tric cars: I re­call pre-Musk elec­tric car fore­casts from be­fore 2003. Often they did not in­volve elec­tric cars at all but hy­dro­gen or fu­el-cell cars. When was the last time you heard about those? And elec­tric car time-lines tended to look more like “per­haps by 2020 or 2030 there may be a us­able ex­pen­sive elec­tric car”.) When I vis­ited Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity in March 2018 to talk & have lunch with some stu­dents, I felt weird for a few hours after­wards; I fi­nally put my fin­ger on it when I re­al­ized that they took launch­ing star­tups & other highly am­bi­tious en­deav­ours so for granted that I had be­gun to feel like a fail­ure & to won­der what I could do to be­come awe­some again. Peo­ple who take in­vest­ment from the Y Com­bi­na­tor ven­ture cap­i­tal firm (some who I know per­son­al­ly) aver that the money is al­most be­side the point, and it is the com­mu­nity they value and the in­spi­ra­tion from Paul Gra­ham & prin­ci­pals & peers.

Are out­siders and “mis­fits” and nec­es­sary for pro­gress? Why don’t iden­ti­cal twins lever­age their pro­found mu­tual trust & un­der­stand­ing to form dy­namic duos reg­u­larly dom­i­nat­ing so­ci­ety? Why do effects turn up in the West for ed­u­ca­tion, in­tel­li­gence, & per­son­al­ity (and per­haps also math­e­mati­cians, physi­cists, & weirdos)?13 Why do teach­ers dis­like their most cre­ative stu­dents so much? What makes a sober pen­ny-pinch­ing man like sud­denly de­cide to bet his life sav­ings on a du­bi­ous gam­ble like the Penn­syl­van­ian oil fields not be­ing a fad which would run out in a few years, and be­come the world’s rich­est man? Why do com­pa­nies & con­fer­ences con­tinue to pri­or­i­tize in­-per­son meet­ings rather than switch­ing to re­mote work­ing or on­line broad­cast­s/dis­cus­sions, and why does it seem so im­por­tant to meet some­one briefly in the flesh when you would seem to hardly learn any­thing from it? Is it nec­es­sary to small groups to meet in per­son, to trust each oth­er, per­haps to have in­ter­ro­ga­tion-crit­i­cism ses­sions like , to fore­stall so­ciopath & MOP in­va­sions, or to cre­ate pri­vate sep­a­rate from the world’s sta­tus hi­er­ar­chies, to give one­self per­mis­sion to be an out­sider and dan­ger­ously stray out­side the box?

Per­haps there is some sort of psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­ri­er, where the mind flinches at any sug­ges­tion bub­bling up from the sub­con­scious that con­flicts with age-old tra­di­tion or with high­er-s­ta­tus fig­ures. Should any new ideas still man­age to come up, they are sup­pressed; “don’t rock the boat”, don’t stand out (“the in­no­va­tor has for en­e­mies all those who have done well un­der the old con­di­tions”). Should they not be sup­pressed, they are then dis­card­ed. One does­n’t have per­mis­sion from one­self. What meet­ing a men­tor does, then, or what a gen­eral at­ti­tude of pro­gress, or what liv­ing on Stan­ford cam­pus does, or what a trin­ket from a Royal So­ci­ety does, or what join­ing a small startup or re­search group ex­plor­ing a ex­cit­ing but con­tro­ver­sial new idea, is it nor­mal­izes & al­lo­cates pres­tige to new things.

The Great Man the­ory of his­tory may not be truly be­liev­able and Great Men not real but in­vent­ed, but it may be true we need to be­lieve the Great Man the­ory of his­tory and would have to in­vent them if they were not re­al.


  1. Dar­win cited Bakewell as the orig­i­nal ex­am­ple of se­lec­tive breed­ing which was brought to such an ex­treme as all the pi­geons which clut­ter On The Ori­gin of Species, in his 1842 “Sketch on Nat­ural Se­lec­tion”:

    Re­mem­ber how soon Bakewell on the same prin­ci­ple al­tered cat­tle and West­ern, sheep care­fully avoid­ing a cross (pi­geons) with any breed. We can­not sup­pose that one plant tends to vary in fruit and an­other in flow­er, and an­other in flower and fo­liage—­some have been se­lected for both fruit and flow­er: that one an­i­mal varies in its cov­er­ing and an­other not—an­other in its milk. Take any or­gan­ism and ask what is it use­ful for and on that point it will be found to vary—­cab­bages in their leaf—­corn in size and qual­ity of grain, both in times of year—kid­ney beans for young pod and cot­ton for en­ve­lope of seeds, etc.: dogs in in­tel­lect, courage, fleet­ness and smell: pi­geons in pe­cu­liar­i­ties ap­proach­ing to mon­sters.

    and his 1844, “On the ten­dency of species to form va­ri­eties; and on the Per­pet­u­a­tion of Va­ri­eties and Species by Nat­ural Means of Se­lec­tion”

    Now, can it be doubt­ed, from the strug­gle each in­di­vid­ual has to ob­tain sub­sis­tence, that any minute vari­a­tion in struc­ture, habits, or in­stincts, adapt­ing that in­di­vid­ual bet­ter to the new con­di­tions, would tell upon its vigour and health? In the strug­gle it would have a bet­ter chance of sur­viv­ing; and those of its off­spring which in­her­ited the vari­a­tion, be it ever so slight, would also have a bet­ter chance. Yearly more are bred than can sur­vive; the small­est grain in the bal­ance, in the long run, must tell on which death shall fall, and which shall sur­vive. Let this work of se­lec­tion on the one hand, and death on the oth­er, go on for a thou­sand gen­er­a­tions, who will pre­tend to affirm that it would pro­duce no effect, when we re­mem­ber what, in a few years, Bakewell effected in cat­tle, and West­ern in sheep, by this iden­ti­cal prin­ci­ple of se­lec­tion?

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  2. Book 5:

    …“They are, in­deed,” I said; “but next, Glau­con, dis­or­der and promis­cu­ity in these unions or [458e] in any­thing else they do would be an un­hal­lowed thing in a happy state and the rulers will not suffer it.” “It would not be right,” he said. “Ob­vi­ous­ly, then, we must arrange mar­riages, sacra­men­tal so far as may be. And the most sa­cred mar­riages would be those that were most ben­e­fi­cial.” [459a] “By all means.” “How, then, would the great­est ben­e­fit re­sult? Tell me this, Glau­con. I see that you have in your house hunt­ing-dogs and a num­ber of pedi­gree cock­s.88 Have you ever con­sid­ered some­thing about their unions and pro­cre­ations?” “What?” 89 he said. “In the first place,” I said, “among these them­selves, al­though they are a se­lect breed, do not some prove bet­ter than the rest?” “They do.” “Do you then breed from all in­dis­crim­i­nate­ly, or are you care­ful to breed from the best 90?” [459b] “From the best.” “And, again, do you breed from the youngest or the old­est, or, so far as may be, from those in their prime?” “From those in their prime.” “And if they are not thus bred, you ex­pect, do you not, that your birds and hounds will greatly de­gen­er­ate?” “I do,” he said. “And what of horses and other an­i­mals?” I said; “is it oth­er­wise with them?” “It would be strange if it were,” said he.

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  3. Gen­e­sis 30:31

    “Don’t give me any­thing,” Ja­cob replied [to La­ban]. “But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tend­ing your flocks and watch­ing over them:32 Let me go through all your flocks to­day and re­move from them every speck­led or spot­ted sheep, every dark­-col­ored lamb and every spot­ted or speck­led goat. They will be my wages”…Ja­cob, how­ev­er, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, al­mond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peel­ing the bark and ex­pos­ing the white in­ner wood of the branch­es.38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the wa­ter­ing troughs, so that they would be di­rectly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink,39 they mated in front of the branch­es. And they bore young that were streaked or speck­led or spot­ted.

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  4. Such a strat­egy sounds com­pletely ab­surd and it’s hard to be­lieve the an­cients would do it even if Rus­sell tells us they usu­ally did up to the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, but on the other hand, (, pg46) notes that:

    …It was prob­a­bly more diffi­cult [for peo­ple] to work out that it might be a good idea to keep back the best seed for plant­i­ng, rather than fol­low the ob­vi­ous course of eat­ing the best and plant­ing the dross (my fa­ther, as a young man fresh out of col­lege, taught agri­cul­ture to peas­ant farm­ers in cen­tral Africa in the 1940s, and he tells me that this was one of the hard­est lessons to get across).

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  5. The agri­cul­tural writer , a main source on Dish­ley & Bakewell due to his vis­its, dis­cussed Bakewell’s de­trac­tors with with­er­ing scorn:

    No man that is a judge will deny, or ques­tion for a sin­gle mo­ment, that this breed of sheep, whether in­trin­si­cally good or bad, has been im­proved more than any other in the king­dom. I have con­versed with Nor­folk, Sus­sex, Dorset, and Wilts flock mas­ters, but I have never heard any of them pre­tend that any very great im­prove­ments have been made in the last ten years, one or two men in a coun­try ex­cept­ed; and not every where even one. If then there has been a greater im­prove­ment made in this breed than in oth­ers, it fol­lows, in all fair­ness of rea­son­ing, that those max­ims, those prin­ci­ples, and that con­duct, what­ever they may be, which have had this effect, have been more suc­cess­ful and ought ce­teris paribus to be ac­knowl­edged bet­ter and sounder than those prin­ci­ples and max­ims which have been ap­plied to other breeds of the king­dom….what has that mode con­sisted in? In one great lead­ing point—in rais­ing the value, and thereby an­i­mat­ing the spirit of ex­er­tion.

    …It is re­mark­able, that in these coun­ties, which are each in pos­ses­sion of dis­tinct and much vaunted breeds, rams have not been let [rent­ed]; they are sold, and at such low prices, that 20 guineas must every where be con­sid­ered as the high­est heard of. It surely de­serves not­ing, that these breeds have been ei­ther very lit­tle, or not at all, im­proved at low prices, while that of Leices­ter has been prodi­giously im­proved at very high ones.

    It is not that these breeds are in­ca­pable of im­prove­ment, they are all greatly ca­pa­ble of it, even on the ideas that re­spec­tively gov­ern those coun­ties. If a black face, and a black long leg, and a thick long horn, many times curled, are ad­mit­ted ex­cel­len­cies in Nor­folk, why not breed the faces till black­er, and the horns yet longer? If naked bel­lies, white faces, and horns falling back be­hind the ear are ob­jects in Wilt­shire, why not breed for those ex­cel­lences, so as to com­mand them to more per­fec­tion? If rough heads and horns, flick­ing out from the head, be the marks of merit in Dorset­shire, why not carry such points fur­ther than any one has done yet? And if a patch in a speck­led face is a cri­te­rion in Sus­sex, surely a brighter speckle and a thicker patch might be bred?

    Now is it not a mar­velous sys­tem, that amidst all this at­ten­tion to these points, so ut­terly non-essen­tial, or rather so ridicu­lous, these whites, blacks, speck­les, horns, and patch­es—that the car­cass should every where seem to be out of all con­tem­pla­tion, ex­cept in Leices­ter­shire? It surely is for­tu­nate that men should arise, who re­ject­ing all these foo­leries as noth­ing, have paid at­ten­tion to the car­cass alone!

    But sup­pos­ing Leices­ter wrong, and all the rest right, then comes the ques­tion pointed and ap­po­site; why have not you made as great im­prove­ments in your horns, your legs, and your faces, as Leices­ter has in the bar­rel? Leices­ter has not stood still a mo­ment, but most of you have been sta­tion­ary these 20 years. Why?—Be­cause you have not been pushed for­ward by high prices. If men could have been found to buy horns at £10 an inch, or colour at £20 a shade, is it to be sup­posed they could not have been bred?

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  6. It’s in­ter­est­ing to note that de­spite the so­cial stigma of be­ing a mere ten­ant & not a gen­tle­man-farmer who of course owned the prop­er­ty, and oc­cu­py­ing it for many decades, and in­vest­ing enor­mous long-term efforts in im­prov­ing it, Bakewell never bought his farm, Dish­ley, out­right. Per­haps the nec­es­sary up­front money was al­ways more pro­duc­tively spent im­prov­ing his an­i­mals. It’s been no­ticed that 99-year leases for Eng­lish prop­erty were ex­tra­or­di­nar­ily cheap com­pared to out­right pur­chase prices in the pre-mod­ern era (“Pric­ing the Fu­ture in the Sev­en­teenth Cen­tu­ry: Cal­cu­lat­ing Tech­nolo­gies in Com­pe­ti­tion”, De­ringer 2017).↩︎

  7. For all that peo­ple as­sume that his­tor­i­cal peo­ple were su­per-ge­net­ic-de­ter­min­ists about any­thing and every­thing, a re­mark­able amount of naive en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism was cur­rent: for ex­am­ple, the Eu­ro­pean as­sump­tion, crit­i­cized by Sir (among other nat­u­ral­ist de­bunk­ings), that Africans were black only be­cause of their sunny en­vi­ron­ment! Some first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence with their off­spring in Eu­rope even­tu­ally re­futed that, al­though Rus­sell in­di­cates that even this was not enough to con­vince en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists: “it was thus des­tined to be dis­cussed in­ter­minably in the 18th and 19th cen­turies, with few able to ac­cept that it was an en­tirely her­i­ta­ble phe­nom­e­non.” Also pe­cu­liar to the mod­ern eye is the case of , a French­man who claimed to be born and bred on the hith­erto un­known is­land of Tai­wan, de­spite his “pale skin and hon­ey-col­ored locks”, which made ob­servers note “that the for­eigner seems to ‘look like a young Dutch-man’”, ap­pear­ing to re­veal the hoax on sight.↩︎

  8. Home­page; rel­e­vant writ­ings:

    See al­so:

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  9. Where else might the ‘im­prov­ing at­ti­tude’ be found?

    Sung China is often men­tioned as a “proto In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion” in dis­cus­sions of the Great Di­ver­gence, but I don’t know much about in­no­va­tion or in­tel­lec­tual cli­mate there.

    An­other can­di­date is Rome: I’m struck by the ex­tent to which Gre­co-Ro­man phi­los­o­phy be­lieved in pro­gress—as ma­jor fig­ures as Aris­totle, Pla­to, and Socrates were in phi­los­o­phy, Gre­co-Ro­man phi­los­o­phy did not hold them as founders who said all that could be said about nat­ural or moral phi­los­o­phy, and be­lieved that ma­jor in­tel­lec­tual ad­vances had been made since them. The , for ex­am­ple, or even bet­ter, the and , who in­ves­ti­gated many things and be­lieved they had made dis­cov­er­ies of im­por­tance: (1417) cov­ers Epi­curean the­o­ries of every­thing from atom­ism to light­ning to the rain cy­cle to the Nile’s source to the speed of light, which I am fairly sure Epi­cure­ans did not sim­ply copy from a Pla­tonic di­a­logue.

    The gen­eral im­pres­sion of Rome seems to be neg­a­tive, but how much of this re­flects sim­ply the dras­tic loss of records & bias to­wards nar­row top­ics like re­li­gion? Es­ti­mates that 1% of Gre­co-Ro­man sci­ence sur­vives seem if any­thing to un­der­state the case. The con­tents of the fa­mous would surely as­ton­ish us… if the were not that of a mi­nor poet and fur­ther ex­ca­va­tion for­bid­den. What sur­vives of is enough to in­di­cate that they reached a re­mark­able level of tech­no­log­i­cal & sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ment, and as time pass­es, we con­tinue to dis­cover more re­mark­able things which con­tinue to stretch what we thought Ro­mans had done or dis­cov­ered. On the Na­ture of Things was re­dis­cov­ered based on 1 copy (1417) with 3 ear­lier ones (800s?) even­tu­ally un­cov­ered; the (1909–2008) could fairly be said to sur­vive in less than 1 copy; the (1902) is unique & not men­tioned in any sur­viv­ing records; the (1929), >70m long plea­sure ships us­ing ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy like bal­l-bear­ings, bilge pumps, in­door plumb­ing, lead an­chor stocks, and hulls in­dica­tive of stan­dard­ized (in­dus­tri­al?) de­sign & pro­duc­tion, are briefly men­tioned by one his­to­rian but their strik­ing tech­nol­ogy omit­ted; the (1940), per­haps only 1 of many such com­plex­es, are of truly in­dus­trial scale and served an ad­vanced naval econ­omy but their role must be in­ferred from some peeled-off lumps of min­eral residue; and so on. All of this fed into strik­ing eco­nomic growth. It’s enough to make one won­der, in­deed. (In this con­text, I’m cu­ri­ous to even­tu­ally read Richard Car­ri­er’s Sci­ence Ed­u­ca­tion in the Early Ro­man Em­pire/The Sci­en­tist in the Ro­man Em­pire to see what he turns up.)↩︎

  10. Swift mocks the “pro­jec­tors” (who project fu­ture trends and im­prove­ments), claim­ing the projects come to naught and merely ruin the peo­ple in one pas­sage (be­fore go­ing on to sat­i­rize the Royal So­ci­ety in the form of the La­putan Acad­e­my):

    The next morn­ing after my ar­rival, he took me in his char­iot to see the town, which is about half the big­ness of Lon­don; but the houses very strangely built, and most of them out of re­pair. The peo­ple in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were gen­er­ally in rags. We passed through one of the town gates, and went about three miles into the coun­try, where I saw many labour­ers work­ing with sev­eral sorts of tools in the ground, but was not able to con­jec­ture what they were about: nei­ther did ob­serve any ex­pec­ta­tion ei­ther of corn or grass, al­though the soil ap­peared to be ex­cel­lent. I could not for­bear ad­mir­ing at these odd ap­pear­ances, both in town and coun­try; and I made bold to de­sire my con­duc­tor, that he would be pleased to ex­plain to me, what could be meant by so many busy heads, hands, and faces, both in the streets and the fields, be­cause I did not dis­cover any good effects they pro­duced; but, on the con­trary, I never knew a soil so un­hap­pily cul­ti­vat­ed, houses so ill con­trived and so ru­inous, or a peo­ple whose coun­te­nances and habit ex­pressed so much mis­ery and want.

    …The sum of his dis­course was to this effect: “That about forty years ago, cer­tain per­sons went up to La­puta, ei­ther upon busi­ness or di­ver­sion, and, after five months con­tin­u­ance, came back with a very lit­tle smat­ter­ing in math­e­mat­ics, but full of volatile spir­its ac­quired in that airy re­gion: that these per­sons, upon their re­turn, be­gan to dis­like the man­age­ment of every thing be­low, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sci­ences, lan­guages, and me­chan­ics, upon a new foot. To this end, they pro­cured a royal patent for erect­ing an acad­emy of pro­jec­tors in La­gado; and the hu­mour pre­vailed so strongly among the peo­ple, that there is not a town of any con­se­quence in the king­dom with­out such an acad­e­my. In these col­leges the pro­fes­sors con­trive new rules and meth­ods of agri­cul­ture and build­ing, and new in­stru­ments, and tools for all trades and man­u­fac­tures; where­by, as they un­der­take, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of ma­te­ri­als so durable as to last for ever with­out re­pair­ing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to ma­tu­rity at what­ever sea­son we think fit to choose, and in­crease a hun­dred fold more than they do at pre­sent; with in­nu­mer­able other happy pro­pos­als. The only in­con­ve­nience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to per­fec­tion; and in the mean time, the whole coun­try lies mis­er­ably waste, the houses in ru­ins, and the peo­ple with­out food or clothes. By all which, in­stead of be­ing dis­cour­aged, they are fifty times more vi­o­lently bent upon pros­e­cut­ing their schemes, dri­ven equally on by hope and de­spair: that as for him­self, be­ing not of an en­ter­pris­ing spir­it, he was con­tent to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his an­ces­tors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, with­out in­no­va­tion: that some few other per­sons of qual­ity and gen­try had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of con­tempt and il­l-will, as en­e­mies to art, ig­no­rant, and ill com­mon-wealth’s men, pre­fer­ring their own ease and sloth be­fore the gen­eral im­prove­ment of their coun­try.”

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  11. “William Ship­ley And The Royal So­ci­ety Of Arts: The His­tory of an Idea”, Luck­hurst 1949:

    The suc­cess of Ship­ley’s pro­ject, how­ev­er, is due ul­ti­mately not so much to the force of his char­ac­ter as to the Tight­ness of the idea, sim­ple, in­deed naive, though it was, which he con­ceived and on which he based his So­ci­ety. It is for­tu­nate, there­fore, that we pos­sess, in a pam­phlet dated 1763 and en­ti­tled “A Con­cise Ac­count of the Rise, Progress and Present State of the So­ci­ety for the En­cour­age­ment of Arts, Man­u­fac­tures and Com­merce”, a de­tailed story of how the project grad­u­ally formed in his mind.

    It re­ally grew from two ideas, the first of which came to him as he watched the horse fair which was held twice a year at Northamp­ton, where he resided. When he saw all the buy­ing and sell­ing that went on at the fair, in­volv­ing large sums of mon­ey, he be­gan to en­quire into the cause of its suc­cess. He was told that it was largely due to the in­sti­tu­tion of horse-rac­ing meet­ings; and that many of these had re­cently been pro­moted by the King and oth­ers who had pre­sented plates or prizes for the var­i­ous races. From this it oc­curred to Ship­ley that the gift of a com­par­a­tively few prizes had thus stim­u­lated a whole in­dus­try; and im­pressed by this dis­cov­ery he be­gan to ask him­self whether this, same prin­ci­ple could not be ap­plied to stim­u­late other in­dus­tries. He de­cided that it could, and sub­se­quent his­tory proved that he was right, but in the mean­time there re­mained a sec­ond ques­tion—where was the money for even a few mod­est prizes to come from?

    The 1763 pam­phlet ap­pears to be reprinted in William Ship­ley: Founder of the Royal So­ci­ety of Arts; A Bi­og­ra­phy with Doc­u­ments, Al­lan 1968.↩︎

  12. Speak­ing of Musk, why did I have such a vivid im­pres­sion in 2014 that Musk en­dors­ing the idea of AI risk & Bostrom’s book Su­per­in­tel­li­gence was a huge turn­ing point in pub­lic in­ter­est & in­tel­lec­tual re­spectabil­ity of the top­ic? After al­l—what does Musk know about AI risk, re­ally?↩︎

  13. Would we find on­ly-chil­dren over­rep­re­sent­ed? Left­-han­ders? Does this con­nect to why LGBT seem to be over­rep­re­sented in sim­i­lar cir­cles? Does child­hood emo­tional abuse or bul­ly­ing ac­tu­ally spur great achieve­ment by a lin­ger­ing re­sent­ment & un­quench­able dis­sat­is­fac­tion? Is there some sort of “out­sider” gen­eral fac­tor, or in­crease in vari­ance?↩︎