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.
2018-10-28–2019-11-09 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, Robert Bakewell (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 British agricultural revolution, 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/
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.
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 Thomas Coke, 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 Varro, 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/
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 Zuidhof et al 2014), 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 Xenophon & 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 Varro held that twinning in goats/
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.
“But then the rigorous logic of the matter is not plain! Well, what of that? Shall I refuse my dinner because I do not fully understand the process of digestion? No, not if I am satisfied with the result.”
What of this progress do we see in Russell’s trace of history? In an example of The Fable of the Bees, the idle wastrel amusements of the aristocrats & aping by their lessers may have been key: because the development of Thoroughbred 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/
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/
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/
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?
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. Isaac Newton, for example, 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 Laputa 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?
In a recent talk, economic historian Anton Howes9, who studies a similar period of English history, specializing in the Royal Society of Arts (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/
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, William Shipley, 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.12
Other observations follow. Some major inventions are so simple as to defy belief they were not invented thousands of years ago—the flying shuttle, 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; John Kay 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/
Taking Howes’s claims at face-value, we could expand on the model a little more. Passing over Girardian claims of mimesis as the most powerful 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.
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.
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?
…“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 best90?” [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.
“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.
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, Richard Dawkins (The Ancestor’s Tale, 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).
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?
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).↩︎
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 Thomas Browne (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 George Psalmanazar, 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.↩︎
Homepage; relevant writings:
“The Relevance of Skills to Innovation during the British Industrial Revolution, 1651-1851”, Howes 2016 (working paper; previously titled, “The Improving Mentality: Innovation during the British Industrial Revolution, 1651-1851”)
- “How Innovation Accelerated in Britain 1651-1851”
- “Immigration and the Industrial Revolution”
- “Economic Growth in Ancient Rome”
- “Who will watch the Watch-Men?—Celebrating the Watch-Makers of the British Industrial Revolution”
- “The Great British (Industrial) Bake-Off”
- “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee: When Inventions Stealing Jobs was Popular”: how scandiscopes replaced chimney-sweep boys
- “The Ideology of Invention” talk: video (slides)
- “Definite optimism as human capital”; “How Technology Grows (a Restatement of Definite Optimism)”, Dan Wang
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 Academic Skeptics, for example, or even better, the Stoics and Epicureans, who investigated many things and believed they had made discoveries of importance: Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things (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 Herculaneum library would surely astonish us… if the available fragments were not that of a minor poet and further excavation forbidden. What survives of Greco-Roman architectural feats 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 Archimedes Palimpsest (1909–2008) could fairly be said to survive in less than 1 copy; the Antikythera mechanism (1902) is unique & not mentioned in any surviving records; the Nemi ships (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 water mills of Barbegal (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.)↩︎
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.”
“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.↩︎
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?↩︎
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?↩︎