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 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?

“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 ()

“One of the things that comes up in the books you’re talk­ing about 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

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?

    ↩︎
  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.

    ↩︎
  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.

    ↩︎
  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).

    ↩︎
  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?

    ↩︎
  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, [and] a mem­ber of the audi­ence pri­vately notes to him­self that the for­eigner seems to ‘look like a young Dutch-man’” appear­ing to reveal the hoax on sight.↩︎

  8. Home­page; rel­e­vant writ­ings:

    See also:

    ↩︎
  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.”

    ↩︎
  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?↩︎