How The West Invented Itself

What created the technological “great divergence” between the West and the rest of the world?

Francis Bacon: Pioneer of a fact-based culture

“We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.” These words were written by Edward Gibbon in 1781 at the end of his account of the fall of the Roman empire in the West. The claim seems obviously false when one thinks of the history of Europe over the five centuries after the fall of Rome; more plausible if one thinks of the history of Europe and the world over the two centuries from the French Revolution to the fall of Communism, the two centuries that followed the publication of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. In 1781 the Watt steam engine was newly invented, but the industrial revolution was still unimaginable, let alone all the technological revolutions that have followed from it. Somehow, a belief in progress took root when real progress — scientific and technical progress — was still in its infancy. But perhaps that was how it had to be — perhaps it was the belief in progress that made progress possible.

For the past quarter century Joel Mokyr has been trying to explain how Western Europe became the first society to make rapid, continuous technological (and with it economic) progress. He writes as an economic historian, but his is a new economic history in which cultural factors are every bit as important as prices and profits. This book presents the latest version of his account of the triumph of the West, or (to give it its politically correct name) the great divergence.

It falls into three parts. The first five chapters present cultural history in Darwinian terms. The last two address the Needham question: why was there no industrial revolution in China, which for centuries had a more advanced technology than western Europe? Darwinism is very popular in the humanities at the moment, but as Mokyr grasps there is a fundamental difference between the natural selection of random mutations and the social selection of cultural variations — cultural choices are made deliberately, even if the consequences of those choices are rarely foreseeable. Darwinian language hardly helps to explain cultural change. Equally unhelpful is the application of economic metaphors: to describe Jesus, Machiavelli and Newton as “cultural entrepreneurs” creates a false equivalence between fundamentally different types of activity. It would be more helpful to think about the ways in which market societies turn cultural activities into economic enterprises — Erasmus was the first living author to become a bestseller, Hume the first philosopher to acquire wealth by writing.

But let’s skip past the opening chapters to the core of the argument. Mokyr’s claim is that the West was uniquely placed to enter on an extended period of scientific, technological and industrial progress because of three factors: a respect for useful knowledge (Bacon being the “cultural entrepreneur” who was most important in inculcating this outlook); the division of Western Europe into competing states, each of which had to try to improve on its competitors and no one of which was capable of imposing a stultifying intellectual conformity; and lastly, the emergence in the late 17th century of a transnational “republic of letters” through which intellectuals exchanged information and co-operated to advance useful knowledge. These three factors made the industrial revolution possible. They are the cause of the great divergence.

This seems to me obviously inadequate — the argument simply won’t work in this form. Take for example medicine. Doctors were active members of the republic of letters, indeed they started behaving like members of the republic of letters remarkably early and remarkably consistently. They were firmly committed to the idea of useful knowledge. They attached themselves to competing theories — there was no stultifying uniformity. But there was no real progress in therapies until the second half of the 19th century — despite the invention of the microscope in the 17th century and the elaboration of germ theories of disease. One only has to look at the history of medicine to see that Mokyr has left out some key factor. When were the old therapies abandoned and replaced by new ones? When people started counting outcomes — when Ignaz Semmelweis, to take a famous example, compared the mortality rates in two different maternity wards of a hospital and discovered that trainee doctors were killing their patients and trainee midwives were not, the difference being that doctors came onto the ward straight from dissecting cadavers. What transformed medicine was the application of statistics — useful knowledge, national competition, and a republic of letters weren’t enough until this specific intellectual tool was brought to bear.

Can one identify the intellectual tools that made progress possible? I think so. The first is a belief in “discovery”, in the very possibility of intellectual progress. There was no such belief, there were not even words meaning “discovery” and “progress”, before the discovery of America which shattered the long-established conviction that there was no important new knowledge to be had. Moreover the discovery of the New World was the achievement of semi-educated sailors — it brought about a new cooperation between intellectuals and practical men, a cooperation particularly fostered by the mathematicians who taught the skills of navigation and cartography and who had long believed in the importance of useful knowledge.

After the invention of “discovery” there came a whole series of new intellectual tools, the most important of which is the concept of “the fact”. Facts are both in the real world and in the world of language and symbols, they are amphibious and paradoxical. By definition there is no such thing as a false fact, yet false facts are everywhere. “Facts” replaced authority, tradition, canonical texts with a new sort of critical knowledge, a knowledge based on acquiring evidence, comparing reports, testing claims. “Facts” are an invention of the 17th century (in classical Latin there are only things — the Romans said res ipsa loquitur where we say the facts speak for themselves). Once you have a fact-based culture you get a new sort of intellectual progress. In my view Mokyr massively underestimates the importance of the printing press in contributing to the emergence of such a culture — he seems to think that improvements in the postal service were every bit as important as the growth of the book trade. One need only compare Adam Smith’s correspondence with the catalogue of his library to see this is topsy turvy.

Thus Mokyr’s three conditions are not sufficient. You also need a culture of discovery and of facticity to make sustained progress. You need, in addition, an understanding of the power of experimentation. You need a step change in the exchange of information which printing made possible. And you need luck or contingency: the conceptual foundations of the steam engine were laid by intellectuals keen to prove that Aristotle was wrong when he denied the possibility of a vacuum; without Aristotle no Boyle’s law. It is the absence of a comparable challenge that held back progress in medical therapeutics.

One of the key difficulties that Mokyr’s thesis faces — and he is properly aware of it — is that the industrial revolution of the first half of the 19th century doesn’t seem to depend on specific scientific theories; while later (as with the contribution of Pasteur to the germ theory of disease) specific intellectual breakthroughs begin to have immense practical returns. If the great divergence is the result of a new knowledge culture symbolised by the republic of letters, why was the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge so slow to close?

There are two ways of tackling this question, both I think correct. First, the gap has been exaggerated: Boyle’s law is important for the steam engine, for it makes it possible to grasp that steam power need not be just a toy, like the steam devices of Hero of Alexandria or Giambattista della Porta, but a workhorse, capable of moving heavy loads — which is why we measure “horsepower”. And second, and equally importantly, it is not just new scientific theories that count. What was disseminated by the scientific public lecturers of the early 18th century, such as John Theophilus Desaguliers, was not just knowledge, but a set of beliefs, beliefs in discovery, progress, facts, experiments. It is these beliefs, in a bootstrapping process, which made discovery and progress possible. And why did people believe in progress? Because of the compass, the printing press, the pendulum clock — but above all because of Newton. As the culture of science was disseminated it gave birth to a culture of invention. The intellectual tools required for scientific progress turned out, by happy chance, to be the very same ones required for technological progress. 

A story like this seems to me much more plausible than Mokyr’s story. Karl Popper devised a three-world account of what exists: there is a physical reality (world one), a mental reality of thoughts and feelings (world two), and a third world, one of books and journals, of facts and theories. Scientific and technological advance requires the interaction of all three; Mokyr can handle the first two; he falls down, as perhaps any economist and any Darwinist must, when he comes to the third. In the end this book fails to adequately specify the culture of growth that made the modern economy possible. It misses out on the intellectual tools that made progress possible. But it belongs to that peculiar class of failures — failures that are important and advance our knowledge and understanding. As Samuel Beckett put it “Fail again. Fail better.”