December 06, 2002
Joel Mokyr Has Written The Gifts of Athena

Virginia Postrel has already managed to read Joel Mokyr's brand-new The Gifts of Athena:


When Knowledge Was Spread Around, So Was Prosperity: ..."The true question of the Industrial Revolution is not why it took place at all but why it was sustained beyond, say, 1820," Professor Mokyr writes. The reason, he argues, lies in what he calls the Industrial Enlightenment, a series of cultural changes that connected practical and theoretical knowledge and made both more widely accessible. Beginning in the late 18th century, he writes, the Industrial Enlightenment "sought to reduce access costs by surveying and cataloging artisanal practices" so best practices could spread. Through "search engines" ranging from Diderot's huge Encyclopédie to handbooks and periodicals, "useful knowledge" traveled from individual practitioners to anyone with an interest in improving techniques.

"The idea that knowledge is power did not translate into the idea that knowledge should be monopolized," Professor Mokyr said in an interview. Instead, the ideal of open science prevailed. Even patents required that inventors make ideas public. In addition, the Industrial Enlightenment "sought to understand why techniques worked by generalizing them" — a critical step in turning new knowledge into an engine of continuing progress.

"In the Middle Ages they invented lots of things," said Professor Mokyr, whose 1990 book "The Lever of Riches" (Oxford University Press) chronicled many medieval inventions. "But the people who invented things were people out in the field who were smart and came up with things" by trial and error, he added.

These inventors had no connection to the educated elite, and they had no general theories to explain and extend their inventions. Medieval inventors could not generalize from a water mill to the laws of hydraulics, for instance. Without widely applicable scientific theories, one invention was not likely to lead to another.


I got my copy this morning. I'll move it up to the sixth spot in the pile of things I read in my Copious Spare Time...

The New York Times Sponsored by Starbucks

December 5, 2002

When Knowledge Was Spread Around, So Was Prosperity

By VIRGINIA POSTREL

The "knowledge economy" did not begin (or end) with the Internet boom. But technology, institutions and attitudes that lower the cost of information and encourage people to share knowledge have not always been around.

Indeed, a new book argues, to understand why the West not only grew rich after the Industrial Revolution but also kept growing richer, we have to understand the revolution in how people organize and exchange "useful knowledge."

"The main thing I'm interested in is how societies can end up knowing more and how that changes us," said Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University and author of "The Gifts of Athena" (Princeton University Press).

Through most of human history, periods of invention did not create sustained economic growth. Population might increase because, say, agricultural yields improved. But eventually the standard of living returned to its old equilibrium.

That pattern changed in the 19th century. Individual inventions not only flourished but also sparked still more inventions and continuing economic growth.

"The true question of the Industrial Revolution is not why it took place at all but why it was sustained beyond, say, 1820," Professor Mokyr writes.

The reason, he argues, lies in what he calls the Industrial Enlightenment, a series of cultural changes that connected practical and theoretical knowledge and made both more widely accessible.

Beginning in the late 18th century, he writes, the Industrial Enlightenment "sought to reduce access costs by surveying and cataloging artisanal practices" so best practices could spread.

Through "search engines" ranging from Diderot's huge Encyclopédie to handbooks and periodicals, "useful knowledge" traveled from individual practitioners to anyone with an interest in improving techniques.

"The idea that knowledge is power did not translate into the idea that knowledge should be monopolized," Professor Mokyr said in an interview. Instead, the ideal of open science prevailed. Even patents required that inventors make ideas public.

In addition, the Industrial Enlightenment "sought to understand why techniques worked by generalizing them" — a critical step in turning new knowledge into an engine of continuing progress.

"In the Middle Ages they invented lots of things," said Professor Mokyr, whose 1990 book "The Lever of Riches" (Oxford University Press) chronicled many medieval inventions. "But the people who invented things were people out in the field who were smart and came up with things" by trial and error, he added.

These inventors had no connection to the educated elite, and they had no general theories to explain and extend their inventions. Medieval inventors could not generalize from a water mill to the laws of hydraulics, for instance.

Without widely applicable scientific theories, one invention was not likely to lead to another.

"In 1796 Edward Jenner invents vaccination, but he has no clue why it works," Professor Mokyr noted. "There is no other vaccination for almost another 100 years, because nobody has an idea why it works."

In the 20th century, by contrast, deeper scientific understanding allowed the development of a host of new vaccines. That pattern, he said, "is true of almost any field of human production that you can think of."

Fertilizer has been used since antiquity, for instance. But before the 19th century, farmers did not know that nitrogen was a crucial ingredient or how it got into the soil. They thus engaged in practices like burning stalks, which released nutrients into the air rather than returning them to the soil.

After the discovery of nitrogen's role, soil scientists and chemists developed synthetic fertilizers and improved farming practices.

Connecting practical invention to broader "epistemic knowledge" also avoids blind alleys. "When no one knows why things work," Professor Mokyr writes, "potential inventors do not know what will not work and will waste valuable resources in fruitless searches for things that cannot be made, such as perpetual-motion machines or gold from base metals."

The third important aspect of the Industrial Enlightenment was the bridges it built between "those who controlled propositional knowledge," including scientific generalizations, "and those who carried out the techniques contained in prescriptive knowledge," the expertise in fields like agriculture, engineering and navigation.

Practitioners and theorists no longer remained socially or intellectually isolated from one another.

The pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood, one of the earliest industrialists, corresponded with leading scientists like Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestly. He also "consulted artisans who had specialized in areas of interest to him, such as a Liverpool glassmaker," Professor Mokyr writes.

For this exemplar of the Industrial Enlightenment, he adds, "useful knowledge was to be accessed and applied wherever it could be found."

In a sense, the Industrial Enlightenment represented the end of pure science. Now "knowledge isn't just because we're curious and we want to know things but because we're going to do something with it," Professor Mokyr said.

In the Middle Ages, Chinese science was the most advanced in the world. But its discoveries belonged to a courtly elite who had little interest in the applications of inventions like the mechanical clock.

"It rarely occurred to them that it might be of interest to an artisan or engineer," Professor Mokyr said.

With the advent of the Industrial Enlightenment, "those bridges were built increasingly in the West," he said. "That is a truly momentous historic development. We're no longer investigating nature just because we want to know what it means. We really are curious about how we can exploit nature for all kinds of purposes."

Posted by DeLong at December 06, 2002 10:48 AM | Trackback

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Comments

I really did read (and would recommend) the whole book, but the column focuses only on the early chapters. There's only so much you can cover in 900 words.

Virginia Postrel

Posted by: Virginia Postrel on December 6, 2002 12:53 PM

I could not help but think, while reading Virginia Postrel's superb book review, about the current crisis in the Muslim world. We must not forget that while the West was undergoing these changes---the Islamic leaders opted to to sit on the sidelines. Joel Mokyr’s “The Gifts of Athena” concerns the evolution of the West’s scientific advances. The Muslims virtually brought nothing to the table during this time period. This is one of the central reasons why their more radical elements are so bitter and enraged.

Posted by: David Thomson on December 6, 2002 12:58 PM

They had already brought a lot to "the table"; corrections of Ptolemy, for instance. Algorithm. An international postal system. Most of this wasted by the Ottoman Empire, granted.

Once you admit that the centers of civilization have traded the lead more than once in history, there's no excuse to rest on the laurels of being ahead now.

Posted by: clew on December 6, 2002 04:55 PM

You'd notice a crisis in the Muslim world based on the shapes of the coffee grounds in the bottom of your cup, David. Put down the shoehorn at some point, perhaps? As clew notes, the 19th century was retrogressive for the Middle East because of the slow failing of the Ottoman Empire, which has precious little to do with Islam per se; after all, the collapse of the Papal States, or subsequently of the Austro-Hungarian empire was all about the failures of Catholicism, no?

Anyway, my one beef with the thesis of the review (not the book, since, of course, I haven't read it) is the contention that the dissimulation of knowledge, methodiz'd, was an invention of the late late (and frankly revolutionary) Enlightenment. I'd be far happier to date that kind of cataloguing tendency a century or so before, in the works of the Jesuits who assembled compendia based upon their travels in the Orient, such as DellaPorta and then Kircher (and yes, David, that means the Muslim world); then, in the virtuosi who established a system of discourse over natural philosophy, from Gresham College through to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; and later still, though still in the 1720s or so, the popularisation and demotic tendency of knowledge seen in Chambers' Cyclopaedia, Black's Medicinal Dictionary and so on.

Anyway, the tools of intellectual transmission were already well in place in the eighteenth century, and were themselves disseminated by the colonial enterprises of the century.

Posted by: nick sweeney on December 6, 2002 06:28 PM

‘They had already brought a lot to "the table"; corrections of Ptolemy, for instance. Algorithm. An international postal system.”

I was actually thinking about more recent history--like the last 500 years! What has the Muslim world accomplished since that time?

“You'd notice a crisis in the Muslim world based on the shapes of the coffee grounds in the bottom of your cup, David.”

Has somebody already forgotten the events of 9/11? No, I had in mind Osama bin Ladin and the roughly one hundred million radical Muslims who desire to put us to death. We are in a life and death struggle with these people partly because of their inferiority complex. The reactionary Muslim culture embraces a nihilistic death wish. Of course, you’d might prefer to blame John Ashcroft and the alleged Jewish conspiracy for these difficulties.

PS: It might behoove a few people to read Bernard Lewis' superb "The Muslim Discovery of Europe."

Posted by: David Thomson on December 6, 2002 07:06 PM

"Turn the other cheek, suffer the little children to come unto me, love thy neighbor as thyself."

Well, yes, Jesus, but that was back in the Roman empire. I was actually thinking about more recent history--like the last 1500 years. What have you and your followers done for us lately? You've brought virtually nothing to the table. Haven't you come up with any, like, new ethical ideas?

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Posted by: Canadian Reader on December 6, 2002 08:46 PM

“Sorry, couldn't resist.”

I’m sorry that I couldn’t resist noticing that some Canadians are going to Iraq to act as human shields. Also, how is everything at Corcordia University? It seems that the Jewish students are not exactly thrilled with the school administration. What is going on?

Posted by: David Thomson on December 7, 2002 01:48 AM

Right, two of them, out of a population of 35 million.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on December 8, 2002 02:35 PM

"Right, two of them, out of a population of 35 million."

There's only two Jewish students in all of Canada?

Posted by: David Thomson on December 9, 2002 12:38 PM

Human shields, not students.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on December 10, 2002 01:22 AM

>>I'd be far happier to date that kind of cataloguing tendency a century or so before, in the works of the Jesuits who assembled compendia based upon their travels in the Orient, such as DellaPorta<<

Oh, a bit earlier I think. If you fancy a good read you could do worse than Hesiod's 'Works and Days'.

Posted by: Edward Hugh on December 10, 2002 04:43 AM

So sad. The first three post-Postrel comments were all correct (ignoring the irritating tendency to take umbrage and toss verbal gauntlets). The Muslim world fell behind just as the West was finding a way to routinize inquiry and make practical use of the results. The Muslim world had preserved knowledge of an earlier age and pushed it forward, but lost its footing as the West began to take advantage of all that the Near East had done. And yes, the West had an earlier narrow culture of gathering and fostering knowledge. Making it routine and widespread put the knowledge culture on skates, which is what Mokyr writes about.

I doubt any of that is unknown to any of you. Why pretend the other guy is wrong when he simply isn't talking about the things you want him to talk about? Why are (some of) you all being so grumpy ... again?

Posted by: K Harris on December 10, 2002 05:59 AM

“The Muslim world fell behind just as the West was finding a way to routinize inquiry and make practical use of the results.”

We would be foolish to ignore the reasons behind the collapse of the Islamic world. Our very lives depend on possessing a clear understanding why so Muslims are angry at Western Civilization. Indulging in political correctness is not a luxury we can afford. The so called root causes have little to do with our political actions in the MidEast. Also, we should give short shrift to those Muslims crying crocodile tears over the Palestinians. These people could care less if the Palestinians live or die. They are simply enraged that a bunch of Jews in the ridiculously small country of Israel are so successful. The very existence of Israel highlights the impotency and backwardness of Islamic culture and values.

Many of the men in countries like Saudi Arabia are so lazy that it’s doubtful they even work three hours a day. This is a masculine society that feels a sense of entitlement. They indeed feel that the world owes them an easily acquired comfortable lifestyle and adulation for doing next next to nothing. I have not had an opportunity to become familiar with the thinking of Joel Mokyr. However, I do know enough about the wisdom of Bernard Lewis to unhesitatingly recommend his many great works. Please do yourself a favor and obtain a copy of Lewis’ recent “What Went Wrong.”

Posted by: David Thomson on December 10, 2002 08:22 AM

Well, that clears things up. David Thomson thinks muslims, in general, don't really care about the Palestinian question; it's all a dodge to cover up their inability to deal with the Renaissance!

Pull the other one.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on December 10, 2002 02:39 PM

"Well, that clears things up. David Thomson thinks muslims, in general, don't really care about the Palestinian question; it's all a dodge to cover up their inability to deal with the Renaissance!"

That is exactly what I believe. The Muslims are far more upset with their "their inability to deal with the Renaissance" than with the Palestinian question. The latter is only a smokescreen because they have enormous difficulty in getting in touch with their feelings. Their inferiority complex is due to the fact that the Islamic world is so far behind the curve. How would you like to belong to a culture that hasn't accomplished anything significant in the last 500 years? This is especially galling when the infidels used to be the losers.

Posted by: David Thomson on December 10, 2002 04:12 PM
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