A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 7 April 2017

Parellels Between the Great Transformations?

Two of the greatest transitions in human history were the Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The Neolithic Revolution was the move from hunting and gathering naturally-occurring crops to agriculture, and paved the way for numerous other changes to society. For example, once one was committed to a particular area of land, it became worthwhile to build dwellings, and so we advanced from nomadic tribes to settled villages.

One curious feature of the Neolithic Revolution, however, is that despite paving the way for great human advancements it was probably a severely negative experience for the people who lived through it. Compared to hunter-gatherers, farmers were shorter, weaker, more-disease-prone, harder-worked, and shorter-lived. This raises something of a puzzle: given that becoming a farmer would make your life worse, and in a one-on-one fight any hunter-gatherer would have a large advantage over a farmer, why would anyone become a farmer?

The answer is that while the Neolithic transition was awful at the individual level, it was enormously powerful at the group level. An agricultural society could extract vastly more food from any given area of land than could a tribe of hunter-gatherers, allowing it to support a substantially larger population. Furthermore, a sedentary group could increase its population towards capacity much faster than a nomadic group, since mothers were now able to concurrently raise multiple young children in a way that was impossible when reliant only upon human milk and when young children had to be carried everywhere.

The Industrial Revolution of the late-18th and 19th centuries is better documented than the Neolithic Revolution, but still we know rather less than we would like. One ongoing debate among historians is why precisely it happened in England in the late 18th century, and why it didn't happen in previous civilisations to approach similar levels of technology (such as China and the Netherlands). I wish to very tentatively suggest that dynamics similar to those of the Neolithic Revolution were in play.

Did people's lives improve or get worse during the English Industrial Revolution? It's hard to say, and it's very easy to underestimate how poor living conditions were for most of agricultural history. But our best estimates are that while they did in time improve, the early decades of the industrial revolution involved little to no improvement in wages. It is true that overall life expectancy was improving, but expectancy appears to have been rather higher in the countryside than in the new urban centres, where not only was disease able to spread like never before but there were introduced a host of new unhealthy occupations (factory work, coal mining). Moreover, there was a trend of increasing life expectancy prior to the industrial revolution, so credit for greater longevity is more probably due to the agricultural revolution than the industrial revolution.

So why did people go along with this? My suggestion is that in most cases, they didn't. This is why previous civilisations which could have industrialised did not: no-one wanted the work it involved, and few people were desperate enough to take it on. England was the first society to be in a position to industrialise and to have social circumstances - presumably the Enclosures - which compelled people to take on industrial work.

I don't think the group-selection mechanic which helped explain the spread of the Neolithic Revolution will do much work here, however. More plausibly, other countries came to industrialise after England had already gone through the horrendous early decades and industrial productivity had begun to skyrocket. If one was living on the proverbial $1 per day as an agricultural labourer, one might quite reasonably refuse industrial work that paid $400/year (the average British wage in 1860) but leap at the chance to do similar work for $800/year (the average British wage a century later).

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