The Industrial Revolution:
It can strongly be argued that the Industrial Revolution was quite simply the most important thing that has happened in history so far.  (Gregory Clark A Farewell to Alms, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007)  Before that, the risk of starvation was about the biggest issue in most people’s lives.  Since then, our ability to produce food has grown faster than the growth of populations.  Hunter gatherer societies tend to be well nourished.  There is either enough to eat so people are healthy and strong or there is not, in which case they die and leave behind their good looking bones.  Agriculture produces a more reliable food source, so the population grows until it teeters on the brink of famine, and their bones show it, or showed it until something unique happened in southwest England. 

Stepping back, it is reasonably easy to see why.  The Norman Conquest of 1066 was a reasonably typical example of a nation being overrun.  At the battle of Hastings, the Saxons under King Harold took the high ground and repeatedly turned back the Normal cavalry charges.  There were more than enough Saxons to man the hilltop, so the others with nothing to do drew away.  But as the battle continued, losses piled up on both sides, so that the remaining Saxons could not cover the whole hill.  The Normans rode up the undefended part and the playing field was now level.  What should have been Harold’s victory became William the Conqueror’s victory.  The Saxons did not lose for lack of good soldiers.  They lost for lack of capable officers.  Holding men in reserve was practiced in ancient times and if they had forgotten that, they should have figured it out on the spot.  That’s how nations fail.  The people who should know what is going on do not know. 

William promptly divided up his new holdings among his followers and the country was ruled by a monarch and a band of powerful men below him.  In effect it was a constitutional monarchy.  Later when King Richard started to act as if he had too much power the barons forced him to sign the Magna Charta, and it became a constitutional monarchy in fact.  That lasted until feudalism began to give way to royal tyranny all over Europe and Henry VIII became effectively a despot in the first half of the 1500’s.  One person rule continued through the execution of Charles I and ended with the collapse of the Protectorate in 1659.  Then it was back to constitutional monarchy after only 150 years or so.  The many of the same families that had been powerful before became powerful again, so the period of absolute rule was really just an abortive palace coup. 

Although the titled families do not have real political power any longer, they are still there and they certainly have prestige. 

The Industrial Revolution began in about 1760, or seven centuries into a very long period of social stability.  They had already outlasted anything even Egypt ever managed.  So the cause was they got farther because they had more time to get there.

The way it happened was that the nobles began to push peasants who had been engaging in intensive agriculture off the land and to raise sheep instead.  The last was less productive, but it meant more cash for the landlords.  I think it was just about the most ignoble thing nobles ever did.  But when the making of textiles began, the ultimate outcome was the mechanization of the process and an enormous rise in the productivity of individual people.  They are better off now in England than they were when they were peasants. 

The book A Farewell to Alms goes into detail about the Industrial Revolution, but the reason it happened then and there almost escapes the author, but not quite.  He notices that the birth rate among the more wealthy classes was for a period of time higher than the birth rate of the poorer.  He compares the fertility of the contemporary and politically similar Shoguns of Japan and finds the Shoguns are just not having as many children. 

The author could not have known that the higher fertility of the rich must have been due to a successful mating strategy, keeping the gene pool tight.  It seems easy to attribute their higher birth rate to more wealth permitting better health, as it certainly does.  This higher birth rate among the elite produced what he calls “downward social mobility.”  On average, a man could not expect to have the same income and the same responsibilities as his father. 

That lowered expectation resulted in a couple of things.  For one, having been accustomed to more money, he was disposed to work harder and think harder in order to lessen the blow.  For another, say a farmer becomes a miller under conditions of upward social mobility.  He is comfortable because he is better off, and he brings the knowledge of how to farm with him.  That might be helpful.  He knows what good grain looks like, and he knows how to give advice to farmers that bring grain to him, if they are willing to listen, which is not very likely.  But say a merchant becomes a miller.  He doesn’t know much about farming, but he knows a lot about how a market works.  Not only does he burn the midnight oil trying to make as much money as he did as a merchant.  When it comes time to sell his grain he knows how to shop around.  He knows how to check on what is going on in other places and what implications that has for what he is going to get for his grain.  He has contacts.  He has friends.  Even if the price of grain and flour are fixed by law or custom, he knows how to check around and unload more of his grain faster than the former farmer, who likely just waits for a merchant to show up and make an offer.

What is better for the merchant is better for the farmer.  He may be able to tell the farmer what to expect as the year goes on.  There may be alternative things the farmer can raise that will be easier for the farmer to sell. 

What is better for the merchant is better for the consumer.  Less grain rots in warehouses.  Availability improves.  And even if the price is technically fixed, there may be a nudge and a wink or a deal outside the system so that the price more nearly approximates a fair market price.  That is the best price.  It does me no good if a store is selling at a loss and has to go out of business.  If I want their service, I want them to be able to profit from that service. 

Even though historians do not yet say, “And the wonders of the Industrial Revolution that continues to keep us well fed and clothed and housed to this day, that provides the science the engineering and the medicine that would have once seemed magical and even surpasses things that were only dreamed of as magical, those wonders began with the successful mating strategy that …,” one day they will. 

If we live.

You may feel the urge to cry “foul!”  The English kingdom of Wessex lasted from about 538 until 1066, or about 528 years.  During that time it expanded from a small kingdom to include all of England.  New things were accomplished, particularly an increase in literacy, but mostly they just managed to survive.  Where are the great buildings, the great philosophical accomplishments, the technological prowess of Wessex?  It certainly is not because the area cannot produce such things.  Great structures such as Stonehenge had been built there before, and this was in fact the very home of the later Industrial Revolution.

The problem is one of shifting geography.  Look at Japan.  She is about the same size in one century as the next.  Wessex enlarged greatly.  So I must concede that there is an advantage in size if one is looking for the great treasures of civilization to appear.  There must be three sizes.  There is a size that is small enough to permit population growth and not urban advances and a size that is large enough to permit urban advances but too big to sustain a population of leaders.  In between there must be a size that is just right, permitting both, or a size that is just wrong, permitting neither, but it is unlikely that a population remain an in between size long unless there were a general understanding of what was going on, which has not happened for any society yet. Even I have no evidence if the happy size where both population growth and social growth are possible even exists, but if I had to guess I would doubt it. 

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