The Gradual Revolution

2006-02-10

Historians like to talk about revolutions. They're exciting. Life was going along in its usual humdrum fashion and then -- boom! -- everything changed. The Commercial Revolution of the late middle ages. The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Information Revolution of the late twentieth century. The upcoming Singularity Revolutions.

But have the changes in (and wrought by) Western civilization really been so revolutionary? Has the West grown through the punctuated equilibrium of periodic revolutions or through an ever-quickening, cumulative evolution? John Adams is famous for having said this about another revolution:

The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations...This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.

And those of us who have studied the history of the Anglosphere know that there were deep continuities between the "minds and hearts" of Revolution-era Americans and pre-Revolutionary Britons. And that those continuities have even deeper roots in the culture of the offshore islanders, going back even to the times of the Roman occupation.

So: what caused the Industrial Revolution? Well, first of all, was there even a revolution? Things changed fast in England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and that needs to be accounted for. But that seeming inflection point was preceded by much laying of groundwork. So did the true inflection point occur during the Scientific Revolution? During the Commercial Revolution? Was the critical period 1275-1325, as Alfred Crosby argues in The Measure of Reality (recently reviewed by James McCormick)? Or, as Lex argued in the comments to that review, was there in fact no one inflection point?

The latter view seems closer to the truth. Most everyone wants to find one cause for the rise of the West and of the Anglosphere, but there is no one cause. Consider:

Don't get me wrong, these all played a part. But the key word here is part.

As Lex said:

I think part of the problem of looking for a "take-off point" is that is no take off point. There are just different trajectories, and some have a slightly higher average slope, and over time that allows very major disparities in outcome.

Or as Aristotle said: small differences in the beginning lead to large differences in the end.

Europeans were experimenting with new power technologies and agricultural techniques as early as the 900s, perhaps even earlier. In some ways they had to: they didn't have slaves around to do all the work (unlike their classical ancestors). Christian ideas of human dominion likely played a part. Seriously applying new tools led to a greater interest in machines, and an increasingly mechanical outlook on life. Not that Europeans invented all these tools -- water mills and wind mills were known to the Chinese, Persians, and Romans; the Romans had heavier plows but didn't use them much; the Chinese invented paper, printing, gunpowder, etc. But the Europeans applied and perfected the technologies that they didn't invent, were uncommonly good at borrowing ideas and technologies from other cultures, were flexible and diverse at a time when the other major cultures on the planet were becoming inflexible and monolithic, and eventually became pre-eminent in just about every scientific, cultural, technological, military, and economic endeavor you can think of.

Many commentators have pointed to the fact that Europe contained not one culture or nation, but many. That didn't hurt. Competition and decentralization forced innovation. When one nation closed down or became less innovative, creative people on the forefront of commerce, science, or technology moved on. When northern Italy slowly lost its edge after 1350, innovation moved north, especially to Flanders, Holland, and England. This, again, is a kind of flexibility.

I am reminded of Claudio VĂ©liz's image of the Anglospheric fox, who knows many things. Europe in general knew many things -- early on it was simultaneously innovating in agriculture, commerce, technology, and navigation; later it added science to that list. Let us not forget the rise of independent towns, cities, and city-states, which resulted in competition and innovation in the realm of law. So we have a veritable brew of reinforcing areas of innovation, each growing at different rates, but growing (slowly at first, but then more and more quickly).

The more I read, the more I see a consistent pattern of growth and change starting around 900 and continuing up to the present, rather than one inflection point or transformative revolution. The baton of primary (but not sole) change was passed on to whichever area of Western civilization was most open and flexible at the time -- originally northern Italy, then Flanders and Holland, then England, then America. The Anglosphere has retained primacy in these changes over the last 250 years because it has been the most open, flexible, resilient, forward-driving sub-civilization within the West with regard to technology, law, corporate structures, business processes, scientific methods, military techniques, philanthropic ventures, and more.

That doesn't mean the Anglosphere is inherently better, faster, or more innovative than other sub-civilizations within the West, or civilizations in general. But inherence is not what matters here. The Anglosphere was not always the most open, flexible civilization, and there's no guarantee that its lead in that regard will be maintained. Yet the Anglosphere has been in the forefront of change for most all of the last 250 years, and that shows no signs of stopping. Given that ever-more radical changes are coming soon to a planet near you, the key will be to maintain the open, pragmatic, rational, individualist, flexible, resilient, innovative, market-oriented, fox-like ways that have gotten us this far. It won't necessarily be easy, but understanding the reasons behind the rise of the West over the last 1000+ years should help.

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)


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