Tuesday 26 June 2012

How many geniuses does it take to make an industrial revolution?


The industrial revolution (including the agricultural revolution) was a product of genius: that is my contention.

It was a product of a sudden ample supply of geniuses in North West Europe who generates breakthroughs (in the necessary fields) so thick and fast that productivity took-off and out-ran population growth for... well about 10 generations so far.

The breakthroughs came from NW Europe and its diaspora, but spread across the world: the main beneficiaries were the poor (although you'd never guess this from the reality-denying nonsense which masquerades as Leftist politics): for the first time in history, for multiple generations the children of the poor would survive to reproductive adulthood at a rate of more than two per woman.


The ground for the industrial revolution was prepared during the middle ages, when average (and peak) intelligence increased in a population which was also creative.

Then, from about 1800 and due to factors including the demographic transition I refer to above, the process went into reverse, and average intelligence (and peak intelligence) began to decline - so the proportion of geniuses began to decline to the current situation when there are very few or none.

Breakthroughs dried-up, the industrial revolution began to unwind, and a return to the agriculture based society began.


So, how many geniuses are needed to make an industrial revolution?

Well, how many did we have compared with now?

If average intelligence has declined by at least a standard deviation in the past century


then what effect could that have?


If we assume that to be in the top 1 percent of the population is the minimum threshold for genius (modern IQ 135) then that level of intelligence would have been found in ten percent of the population in the past - ten-plus times more common.

Among these highly intelligent people, what proportion would have the creative personality (moderately high - but not too high - in Psychoticism/ Schizotypy)? - say very roughly 1 percent,one in a hundred.

So there would have been be about one potential genius per thousand.


From these potential geniuses, how many would realise their potential in relevant fields (because genius is art, literature, music etc is not relevant to the industrial revolution) - plus some would die before maturity, some would be too ill or oppressed to work, some would have sheer bad luck...

Maybe one percent?

So we are now at one genius per 100 thousand population, or 100 geniuses in relevant fields in a country of 10 million - about half that number active at any time (the others being too young or too old).

A point prevalence of 100 geniuses (or somewhat less) to make an industrial revolution?


If intelligence was the whole story, then the growth in population over the past century or two would have been expected to just-about compensate for an approximately tenfold ('order of magnitude) decline in genius - yet genius has apparently all-but disappeared.

So there must be other factors at work.

I do know a couple of people from the British Isles whom I regard as geniuses - the psychiatrist David Healy and the economic historian Greg Clark (from whom I pillaged many of the ideas underlying the above analysis).

But neither are recognised as such, neither are especially 'successful' in career terms. This may be related to the fact that both work on a much broader canvas than is normal - but it also shows that our society does not recognise genius when, rarely, it comes along; or if it does recognise genius, then it is either indifferent or hostile.



dearieme said...

Continuing on my theme of where the civilisation-making geniuses haven't come from, consider France. For centuries she was the culturally dominant Western power: for centuries her population was far bigger than, for instance, Britain's. Yet if you were to list the c-m geniuses from the top drawer, she would seem to me to be underrepresented. Descartes, presumably, Lavoisier, Pasteur. Argue about Pascal and Fermat if you must. But given her dominance, why so few? Did she depend on legions of second, third and fourth drawer men? Did she rely on military power too much? (Should we add Napoleon (do generals count?) or do we treat him as just another Italian genius? I incline to the latter.) Rummer and rummer.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dearieme - with France I think you are making too much of modest quantitative differences. There are certainly plenty of French geniuses in several fields - with the small numbers and small sample size involved, it is hard to know whether this is significant.

But, I understand that France lost a truly enormous number of young men in the Napoleanic wars; just as the industrial revolution was taking-off. That would surely have had a significant effect - there is a sense in which ever since then France has been hanging onto the coat-tails of Germany and Britain (in intellectual and cultural terms - although the Germany inferiority complex wrt France was an important factor right up to around 1900).

Nonetheless - there have been many major French geniuses in the past few hundred years. Pasteur, whom you mention, is incomparably the greatest medical scientist ever.

dearieme said...

It wasn't just France that lost great numbers: most of the Grande Armee, the one that died in the snows of Russia, was not French.

Anyway, my point is the contrast between France's longstanding cultural dominance, and large population, and her individual inferiority to, say, Italy.

dearieme said...

Mind you, everyone loses to Ancient Greece.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I've just been hunting for my copy of Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment - and can't find it. But from memory (dubious) I just don't think your premise of the inferiority of France holds-up.

Britain, France, Germany (incl Austria/ Switz/ Netherlands) and Italy all had a lot of geniuses - but they came at different points of history and in (somewhat) different fields).

Italy, for example, made virtually no contribution to the industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution geniuses came from ethnic Northern Europeans (probably including the French - perhaps esp in mathematics and medicine) plus their diaspora (e.g Yankees in the NE USA).

The Ashkenazi Jews contribution came somewhat later - but anyway this group are of course, as the name implies, specifically 'Germans' in the sense of coming from Greater Germany - i.e. metropolitan Central Europe, including Hungary, Prague, Baltic ports such as Riga etc.

Wm Jas said...

I happen to have my copy of Murray's Human Accomplishment handy, and your memory is correct, Bruce. In the period from 1400 to 1950, Britain, France, and Germany (not including Austria, Switzerland, or the Netherlands) are essentially tied for first place. Italy is a respectable runner-up to this trio, and no other country begins to compare with those four. France's strongest contributions are in chemistry and mathematics.

dearieme said...

But even if they are tied, that's a poor performance from France, given her dominanace culturally for so long, and her population (at least her population vs Britain).

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - I hope this population adjustment line of reasoning is not leading-up to a claim of superior performance by the Scotch (i.e. just one tenth the population of England)...

dearieme said...

No. Though Scotland vs the North American colonies/USA/Canada is a striking comparison.

England stands out for Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare. Quite remarkable. By far the best since the Greeks. And the Greeks didn't do an Industrial Revolution into the bargain..

dearieme said...

Maybe this would be a more fruitful way to phrase my point: how did France become so culturally dominant for so long without having a noticeable surplus of first rate geniuses of the "Makers of Western Civilisation" standard?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - To clarify - I do not believe that through most of human history nations were dominant because of having more geniuses - I only think that this was the case for 'modern' societies from the industrial revolution onwards.

France's domination was pre-industrial revolution and was probably due to military/ political effectiveness - so that they could gets large numbers of people to cohere under a unified monarchy and deploy them in military operations.

This kind of traditional dominance may not have anything to do with any kind of genius except that of military/ political genius such as great generals, kings and religious leaders may exhibit.

The prosperity of these old style empires comes from 1. extraction of wealth from conquered peoples (loot, taxes, slaves etc) and 2, trade. These are fuelled by increased population.

Only post industrial revolution has prosperity come from rapidly increasing productivity faster than population (although population growth remained important - and population decline has been a feature of the death of modernity).

Cantillon Blog said...


Would you say that there is a difference in kind between the Latinate elegant and refined style of thought that characterizes French culture, and the vaguer, confused, but richer and more empirical bent of Germanic thought (both English and German - and probably including N Italy)?

Might it be that the left-hemisphere orientation of French thought (see McGilchrist) that led to a reduced emphasis on tinkering and other kinds of empirically-based discoveries in the more recent era?

Note for example in today's world the prominence of French people in the world of quantitative finance; also in blowups in this field. Most recently Bruno Iksil appears to have caused a little bother for JP Morgan... Latinate thought is fantastic for grappling with quantitative models, but not so good at identifying their practical flaws, and when you need to over-ride them.

Bruce Charlton said...

WmJas - analyses top-top geniuses by nation: