Are Barbarians Responsible for the Industrial Revolution?

I’ve been thinking about the Great Divergence the past few days and I came up with an idea that is a little different, perhaps crazy. My idea is basically that Europe was taken over by foragers late in its history whereas China was a society of farmers for thousands of years and continues to be largely descendants of farmers. I’m just spitballing and I know this idea is all conjecture, non-rigorous, etc., but I just wanted to write it down. My idea is a synthesis of a few disparate thoughts I agree with…

1. Biology has some degree of influence on broad outcomes. Ideas about genetic heritability from Gregory Clark, Bryan Caplan, Garett Jones, etc. have greatly influenced my thinking; although controversial, their methodology and results seem valid to me.

2. Robin Hanson’s idea of forager/farmer values. Foragers have liberal/modern values and farmers have conservative/old world values because of the nature of farming (stationary) vs. foraging (roaming/nomads) and farming leads to things like wealth accumulation and inheritance. Here is a link. I’ll excerpt some key thoughts (Type A are foragers and Type B are farmers)…

“Type A folks care less for land or material possessions, relative to people. They spend more time on leisure, music, dance, story-telling and the arts. They are less comfortable with war, domination, bragging, or money and material inequalities, and they push more for sharing and redistribution. They more want lots of discussion of group decisions, with everyone having an equal voice and free to speak their mind. They deal with conflicts more personally and informally, and more prefer unhappy folk to be free to leave. Their leaders lead more by consensus…

TYPE *B* folks travel less, and move less often from where they grew up. They are more polite and care more for cleanliness and order. They have more self-sacrifice and self-control, which makes them more stressed and suicidal. They work harder and longer at more tedious and less healthy jobs, and are more faithful to their spouses and their communities. They make better warriors, and expect and prepare more for disasters like war, famine, and disease. They have a stronger sense of honor and shame, and enforce more social rules, which let them depend more on folks they know less. When considering rule violators, they look more at specific rules, and less at the entire person and what feels right. Fewer topics are open for discussion or negotiation.”

According to Robin Hanson, the industrial revolution aligns with forager notions of equality and sexual behavior and the modern world is reestablishing many forager norms. I’m not sure if he says this, but when I think about the areas of the world that are the most conservative/religious/etc. on different margins; they are often the areas where farming has been established for the longest period of time: the Middle East and China. For instance, the conflict between the US and the Middle East might be in a sense a clash of forager and farmer values/norms.

3. I always thought the idea of White Supremacy was a little ironic. White Supremacy proponents look down on other races as inferior and often as savages or unrefined. But, when you read about Roman, Greek, and others impressions of the various Germanic tribes, they thought exactly the same thing about the Germanic peoples (that they were barbarians, uncivilized) that Germanic descendants would later think about say Africans and Asians.

4. #3 leads me to a thought about a major difference between China and Western Europe. China had been a farming society for thousands of years (5000?) or so and there might have been selection pressures to make Chinese people more conservative and more farmer oriented over that timespan. This is perhaps where my idea is the weakest though as I don’t know as much about European history. From my naïve understanding, the populations of Western Europe (Germany, France, UK, etc.) are different than the populations in those areas during the Roman era with perhaps the exception of Germany. Most of the population in those areas today are descendant from various Germanic tribes that originated from Scandinavia and spread throughout Western Europe in different waves from 300 – 1000 AD. After the fall of the Roman empire, Western Europe was increasingly made up of people of the Germanic tribes. There’s also an implicit assumption here that the Germanic tribes were more forager oriented than say the Romans or the Chinese and that this made them genetically different (more forager/liberal oriented and less farmer/conservative oriented).

So my idea is basically that Western Europe was more inherently forager oriented than the Middle East and China. The next part of my argument is that perhaps to get to a point like the industrial revolution you need to meet a few conditions. First, farming is a necessity because you need to develop large populations to support the benefits of science. Just basic economics, but the return to a cure for cancer is much larger in a world of a billion people than a world of ten thousand people. Also, with a large population you are more likely to have geniuses and perhaps there are network effects where smart people make other smart people better (standing on the shoulders of giants or increasing returns to scale). But, the industrial revolution itself is a liberal revolution so although you need farming, the society that is at the frontier of farming, yet at the same time the most liberal will be the first to adopt the practices that would lead to the industrial revolution. England was a society that was able to piggyback on the farming advances of Rome and the Middle East, but it consisted of a population that was fairly new to these technologies and perhaps had not genetically adapted to them as much. In other words, they were foragers that adopted an already advanced level of farming.

I think about some of the cultural/political innovations that led to the industrial revolution and they seem to confirm my story of needing a more forager/liberal bent in the population: the protestant reformation, development of the scientific method, ideas of economics and the battle between self-interest and passion (I’m thinking of Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph), ideas on liberty and democracy, etc. all seem to be fairly liberal revolutions.

Also, even when I think within Europe or within Asia it maps onto this forager/farmer map. Within Europe, I would label the UK, France, Sweden, and Germany as more forager/liberal and Italy, Spain, and Greece as more farmer/conservative oriented. Their economic development and ideas about women, leaders, and norms seem to map well onto the forager/farmer distinction and so do their historical populations. When I think of Asia, China seems more farmer oriented and Japan seems more forager oriented. Japan’s development of farming was rather late in contrast with China and the Japanese seem more liberal on many dimensions, although not all. My story could also be used to explain why the dark ages occurred and why there was a huge growth reversal in large parts of Europe after the fall of the Roman empire. There’s probably a lot more going on there though.

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