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RS 184 - Gregory Clark on "What caused the industrial revolution?"

Release date: May 14th, 2017

Gregory Clark

Nothing changed the course of human history as much as the industrial revolution. Yet its cause is a mystery: Why did it occur in the late 1700s, and not sooner (or later)? Why did it occur in Britain, a relatively small and geographically isolated country, and not somewhere much bigger like China, or elsewhere in Northern Europe like the Netherlands? This episode features economic historian Gregory Clark, author of A Farewell to Alms and one of the leading scholars of the industrial revolution. Greg and Julia explore different theories, as well as the epistemological challenges of answering this kind of causal question about history.

Gregory's Pick: "Ache Life History" by Kim Hill and Magdalena Hurtado

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science


Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (20)

I know Julia isn't an adversarial interviewer, which is a good thing of course, not to even challenge "efficiency increases in the american south's cotton industry", and the "benign British rule of India"? This one was a real jaw-clencher for me.
May 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEran
I was about to ask him about "benign," but I thought Greg's follow up comments made it clear that he didn't mean the British rule did no harm, or moral wrong, to Indians -- he meant British rule was relatively non-interventionist in the structure of the Indian economy. (I don't know enough about the Indian economy under British rule to know how true that claim is, but it certainly wasn't obviously wrong to me.)

The comment about cotton in the American South seemed plenty clear to me; one can certainly believe *both* (1) slavery was a morally indefensible atrocity, and also (2) efficiency in cotton production increased. There's no contradiction there.
May 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJulia
Great conversation. I was a little surprised that your guest didn't bring up the theoretical framework for the Industrial Revolution proposed by Ian Morris in his book Why The West Rules - For Now. As an anthropologist, his views seemed to offer a fare basis for discussion and advance a very systemic view of the revolution based on the idea that the course of history as defined by geography and the ability of Western core societies (think near east to north east Europe) increased the probability that Europe, and especially a region with the greatest access to resources via trade routes, would be the first society to develop a leap in harnessing energy (steam, electricity etc). All of the elements Morris covers (naval power, access to resources, population pressure leading to pressures to innovate to meet demands) were covered in the interview without referencing his work.

Great podcast nevertheless. Really enjoyed it.
May 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTimur
I think the author is overfitting the data. Given all the correct ingredients, the industrial revolution might have a 1 in 20 chance of happening. So, why did it happen in Northern England; maybe they got lucky. Assuming luck is not as much fun as assuming English superman.
May 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCarbone
There's no account for the unic invention originated in the seventeenth century agrarian england. History of capitalism record this contingency as a completely new type of social relations set to transform (often brutally) almost every aspect of human activity afterwords. Extreme efficientizacion in the production process as a direct consequence of the new social paradigm, very likely, played a big role in the industrial revolution. But I almost forgot, we"re evolved capitalists.
May 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterraducu427
Please don't say England when you mean the United Kingdom or Great Britain. Adam Smith and James Watt were not Englishmen.
May 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMontgomery Scott
The host really needs to learn to be quiet when their guest is speaking. In this particular interview it was more annoying than usual, but in general making the "continue, continue" noises which may be apropriate in a face to face conversation end up being intrusive and annoying in an interviews.
May 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterScobberlotcher
I apologize for the delay, and thank you for responding.

Regarding the non-inverventionism and benignity of British Raj, while British rhetoric at the time was all "laissez faire", large scale construction of rail, high taxation, and the general bending of the economy to supplying raw materials to British manufacturers went contrary to that. Not surprising since the non-inverventionism rhetoric was a tool to convince the British public/government that the empire wasn't costing them, not some moral principle.

As to benignity, British rule non interventionist rhetoric WAS followed it came to actually feeding their subjects, including during massive droughts. Kinda hard to innovate, or "fall in love with science" when tens of millions of your people are being starved to death.

Regarding slavery, moral considerations be where they may, I was referring to the economic impacts of having swaths of your population kidnapped and treated as property. Makes it difficult to innovate, or "fall in love with science", I'd say.
May 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEran
==economic impacts of having swaths of your population kidnapped and treated as property. Makes it difficult to innovate, or "fall in love with science", I'd say.===

Speculation, at best. Just because you dislike something doesn't mean that it has uniformly bad effects.
May 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres
Thanks for bringing up this topic and guest. It is both an important question by itself (what are the causal factors?) and raises difficult epistemological questions too (how can we know?).
Deidre McCloskey also tried to tackle the question in her recent trilogy. She might be an interesting guest.

I was also glad that the topic of intellectual property came up.
It is my understanding as well that it's not clear that copyright/patent laws improve innovation. You mentioned the steam engine situation as an illustration of the minefield effect. There was a similar situation with aviation (the Wright brothers stymied innovation in the US with their patents), as discussed in "Against Intellectual Monopoly" (Levine and Boldrin).
I'd love to hear further discussions on the topic.
June 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJulien Couvreur
What a great podcast. Fascinating subject and really good interview technique. My new favourite to do bike maintenance to :)
June 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGene
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June 21, 2017 | Unregistered sign up
Fascinating topic and guest. One question and answer I was hoping for but didn't get was, even though we may not know exactly how and why the IR happened where and when it did, we presumably know what its ingredients were because it did spread, even if with a lag. How and why did it spread? Did education change in the rest of Europe? Did innovation become chic? Or was it that Europe just started copying England's innovations, and eventually innovation had became established in the continental culture? Clark says laissez faire and rule of law doesn't explain it, because Holland and India under the Brits had those without an IR. Is it coincidence that Smith's Wealth of Nations was published in England in 1776, and not by a Dutchman or Frenchman? After all, Smith's innovation was to explain in far greater detail than ever before what drives a nation's wealth--essentially specialization and limited government.

In other words, even granting that a mystery remains as to the when and why, what caused its spread into Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century and then into the rest of the world, and what sustained it for 250 years? Perhaps those questions are answered in his book...
July 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEmerich
What caused the Industrial Revolution?

It was the rapid economic evolution caused by the freedom based rule of law, that is defended in the Constitution of the USA. Our Natural Rights had to be protected before the pace of economic evolution could pick up and leave the rest of the world behind.

When the British left Hong Kong, they gave it a freedom based constitution and the rule of law. Fifty years ago their standard of living was third world. Now they have one of the highest stands of living in the entire world. And they did it with zero natural resources. No oil, no gold or silver, no copper etc., etc. Just the rule of law, not men. Where freedom rings, prosperity reigns.
July 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom in Puerto Rico
I'm glad the host asked him to clarify his suggestion regarding inheritability and genetic traits, but was disappointed when the host didn't challenge Clark when he asserted that, "there's actually good evidence from a variety of sources that the majority of people's social status is actually genetically determined." From his February 21, 2014, New York Times column, Clark's bizarre theories indicate he's a eugenicist.
July 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKen
The reason we continue to work so much instead of using our increased efficiency and productivity writing poetry isn't because we are genetically programmed to do that, as he implies. It is because the fruits of increased efficiency and productivity are NOT equally shared. They are disproportionately seized by a small group who work no harder than the rest of us but who have the force of law to back up their usurpation of what should be shared wealth. And so the great majority of us have to keep laboring.
He also said that social status is 50% to 100% genetically determined. What? This was very briefly challenged, but then dropped by Julia. I can't imagine who he's hanging out with if he has an idea like that.
September 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Wood
The most interesting insight to me was that there were major productivity advances in certain areas (watch-making, printing), but that these advances did not set off advances in other fields and therefore are not considered the first stages of the Industrial Revolution. Before these breakthroughs, waterpower had been harnessed extensively throughout Europe, providing a major increase in total non-human energy. But, the needful catalyst for the Revolution was this type of productivity advance in a field that was large enough to impact the overall economy. Textiles were sufficiently significant; watches and books were not. In a pre-Industrial Malthusian economy, textiles were necessary and constituted an important proportion of economic activity. Watches and books were niche luxury items, probably much less than 1% of the economy. Textiles were a large industry and the massive automation that occurred was highly visible. The visibility probably had effects on the perspective of possible innovators, increased their impatience with traditions and their optimism that they might be overcome.

This perspectival shift was mentioned in the talk: the intellectual atmosphere in Western Europe was irrevocably altered by the great scientific achievements of the century preceding the Industrial Revolution. This intensified the swerve toward heterodoxy of which the Reformation was the key herald in Northwest Europe (in Italy, the Renaissance was the signal). Did France's Catholicism retard its innovative potential? France experienced more of the Renaissance than England and more of the Reformation than Italy. Yet, in the eighteenth century, it surpassed Italy and lagged England.

As to the argument from evolutionary selection--evidence in favor of this theory continues to accumulate. A recent study showed evolution toward narrower waists in women, blonder hair, and several other characteristics in England over the last 2,000 years. Ancient DNA will continue to provide more information on human evolution in historical and pre-historical times.
October 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraken
Very good point about the intellectual property protections. IP creates monopolies that distort the economy severely. Thus, perhaps we should limit IP protection regimes.
December 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
I think Gregory missed addressing some crucial factors.
The abolition of slavery. When you have invested heavily in buying and keeping slaves, you are not interested in replacing them with machinery.
The role of religion. The effect on innovation of top down Catholicism as compared with self reliant Protestantism. The protestant work ethic.
Private property rights. When you get to keep what you earn, and it is protected by law, you are more likely to invest in things that have a longer time before they give you a return - such as machinery.
Climate. Surviving in a cold climate takes a lot of forward planning and delayed gratification. You need to build up and keep resources when it is warm, in order to survey when it is cold. The UK was moving from a comparatively warmer period to the Dalton Minimum.
IQ. People who live in a colder climate have a higher IQ, on average. Having to exercise delayed gratification correlates to higher IQ. Using more brain power and less muscle is smart.
April 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKenneth from NZ
"The majority of people's Social Status is actually Genetically determined." "Evolved Capitalists." ?

Were those Freudian slip's perhaps? Or maybe just a few suppositions there? Social Status, Capitalism are just part of the Social Constructs we have created. We decide what these things mean and how they will affect our lives. While Genetics are part of our Natural Biology that we don't control therefore we don't get to choose how they will pertain to the type of Society we have created because they have different purposes. So then someone's Social Status isn't really dependent on Genetics because these have two different makeups and functions behind them. Not so much in Humans at least.
September 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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