The Technium

The Origins of Progress

Every chart of technological progress zooms upward. Ray Kurzwiel has collected an entire gallery of graphs depicting the exponential upward trend in many, if not most, technological fields. All graphs of technological progress start low with small change several hundred years ago, and then begin to bend upwards in the last hundred, and then bolt upright to the sky in the last 50. A fairly typical chart would look like this one:


These charts capture a feeling we have that change is accelerating within our own lifetimes. Novelty arrives in a flash (compared to earlier), and there seems to be a shorter and shorter interval between novel changes. Further more, change in many areas seems to keep moving in one direction. Technologies get better and cheaper, faster and lighter, more common, easier and more powerful as we move into the future. And it is not just technology. The length of human lifespan increases, the rate of infant mortality decreases, and even average IQ inches forward every year.

If all this is true (and it may not be, but let’s accept its appearance for the moment), then what of long ago? Long ago there was not much evidence of progress at least how we now visualize it. Five hundred years ago technologies were not doubling in power and halving in price every 18 months. Waterwheels were not becoming cheaper every year. A hammer was not easier to use from one decade to next.  Iron was not increasing in strength. The yield of corn seed varied by the season’s climate, instead of bettering each year. You could not upgrade your oxen’s yoke for anything much better than what you already had. And your own expected longevity, or your children’s, was whatever it was for your parents. Wars, famine, storms, and curious events came and went, but there was no steady movement in any direction. There was in short, change without progress.

Progress as a notion did not arrive until the 17th century or so, when it appeared in the West during the Enlightenment. Progress is a child of science and technology. It was born out of the observation that our inventions make life better. Sanitation made us healthier, Farm tools make more food for less work. Gadgets made our homes more comfortable. The more inventions, the better. There was a tight feedback loop as increased knowledge enabled us to discover and manufacture more tools, and these tools allowed us to discover and learn more knowledge, and both the tools and knowledge made our lives easier and longer. The general enlargement of knowledge and comfort and choices – and the sense of well-being – was called progress.

The rise of progress coincided with the rise of technology. But what pushed technology? We had thousands, if not tens of thousands of years of human culture, steadily learning, passing on information from one generation to the next – but no progress. Sure, new things would occasionally be discovered and slowly disseminated, or rediscovered independently, but whatever improvement one might measure over centuries in the old days would be very small. In fact the average farming peasant who lived in 1650 AD had a life that was nearly indistinguishable from the average farming peasant who lived in 1650 BC, or 3650 BC. In some valleys of the world in some particular times, the fate of citizens might rise above historical average, but only to descend when a dynasty ended, or the climate shifted. Before 300 years ago the standard of the average human’s life was fairly interchangeable anywhere in time or place: people were perennially hungry, short-lived, limited in choices, and extremely dependent on traditions simply to survive to the next generation. (They may have been just as happy and maybe even more content than us, but that is another story.)

For thousands of years this slow cycle of birth and death crept along when suddenly, boom! technology appears and everything starts moving very fast. What caused the boom in the first place? What is the origin of our progress?

There are several factors but chief among them is the invention of what we loosely call science. The ancient world accumulated many fabulous inventions such as arch bridges, aqueducts, iron plows, stirrups, steel, suspension bridges, watermills, paper, vegetable dyes, and so on. These innovations were distributed unevenly throughout the ancient world because each was discovered in a trial and error fashion, and the dissemination of their benefits was haphazard and unlikely. Geographical and cultural boundaries often prevented many innovations from spreading far. For instance, the Chinese independently invented most of the ancient technologies listed above centuries, and in some cases millennia, before Europeans did. Their use was either very parochial, culturally bound, or even sometimes deliberately restricted. But in all cases of ancient ingenuity in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, each invention was discovered by the typical hit or miss process of tinkerers making small darwinian variations on something that worked and then using the variation themselves. Most of these changes made no difference, but the few that did improve performance took centuries to migrate elsewhere. There was no method for successful invention.

The invention that transformed this uneven haphazard accumulation of improvement was the tool of science. Science entails not only the canonical process of observation and experiment, but also the systematic accumulation of what worked and why. A large system of peer-review journals, science societies, and reference libraries was more essential to the uplifting influence of science than was the notion of a predictive hypothesis. By systematically recording the evidence for beliefs, and investigating the reasons for why things worked, and then carefully distributing proven innovations, science quickly became the best tool for making new things the world had ever seen. Science was in fact a superior method for a culture to learn. It beat the best trial and error approach of the past.

That was why the enlightened West zoomed past the vast lead in innovations that China had built up over centuries. China was the origin of most of the great discoveries up until the age of science. The Chinese culture had invented all these things via trial and error. But the one central invention the Chinese never made was the invention of science itself.  Why China never invented science was the puzzle that obsessed the scholar Joseph Needham; if China could invent the most important inventions of all time, the compass, gunpowder and paper, why couldn’t they invent the scientific method as well? This conundrum eventually became known as Needham’s Question. While Needham proved China’s role in much of the world’s ancient inventions, he never came up with a good answer to his own question.  For whatever complicated cultural reason, ingenious China never devised the system of knowledge improvement we know as science.

It’s really too bad they did not because science is sort of like the third wish for the magic lantern. It is the tool that invents new tools. Once you invent science – which allows you to quickly invent many things – you have your hand on a grand lever that can propel you forward very quickly. And that’s what happened in the West starting approximately in the 17th century. By the 18th century, science had launched the industrial revolution, and progress was noticeable in the growing spread of cities.  As the contemporary charts of progress show, from there its rate kept accelerating over the years until it takes our breath away today.

But why was science invented in the Enlightenment? Why didn’t the Greeks invent it? Or the Egyptians? At first glance there seems to be no technological impediment for Egyptian (or Greek or Chinese) science. The necessary ingredients of the scientific method are conceptual and fairly low tech: A way to record, catalog and communicate written evidence, and the time to experiment.  A time traveler from today could journey back to that era and set up the scientific method in ancient Alexandria or Athens without much trouble. But would it prosper?

Maybe not. Science is costly for an individual. Sharing results is a marginal benefit if  you are chiefly seeking a better tool for today. The infrastructure costs of building a road or bridge are happily paid by individuals because the benefits of a road, bridge or aqueduct to an individual are immediate. The benefits of science are not apparent nor immediate for individuals. Science therefore requires more surplus and leisure in order to attain a sufficient number of individuals to join the collective and to willingly pay its costs of time and energy. Science may require a certain density of leisured population to thrive. That leisure is generated by pre-science inventions such as the plough, grain mills, domesticated power-animals, and other techniques which permit a steady surplus of food for large numbers of people. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond outlines a geographical theory for why Europe was the first to reach this threshold of surplus. Lucky Europe took thousands of years to slowly accumulate the necessary levels of technology needed to increase its population. Its early prosperity also enabled it to build the costly infrastructure of communication and wealth needed for inefficient experimentation and pursuit of abstract theories. While a well-fed population grew in number, the market and source for innovations also grew. Outside of the reign of science and technology a growing population will collapse as it meets Malthusian limits. But inside the reign of science a growing population creates a positive feedback loop wherein more people participate in scientific innovation and purchase the results, driving more innovation, and which births better nutrition, more surplus, more population, which feeds the cycle further.


In no time there is an exponential explosion of both people and progress. But this curious pairing of population and progress has not been examined very much. If we return to the charts of progress we find they fit almost exactly the curves of population. As population rises so does progress and vice versa. The two growths are heavily correlated, but correlated without causation.

We have many examples in modern times of increasing population suffering through declining living standards. That is happening in parts of Africa right now. On the other hand, throughout history we have very few examples of rising prosperity over the long term with declining population. Declining population is almost always associated with declining prosperity. Even during the decimations of the Black Plague, when 30% of an area’s population died, the change in living standards was uneven. Many of the overpopulated peasants in Europe and China prospered as their competition thinned out, but the quality of life for merchants and the upper class declined substantially. There was a redistribution of living standards, but not a net gain in new levels of progress during this time.  From this evidence we might deduce that population growth is necessary but not sufficient for progress.

Clearly the roots of progress lie deep in the structured knowledge of science and technology. But the flowering of this progressive growth seems to also need the growth of large human populations. Historian Niall Ferguson believes that on the global scale, the origins of progress lie only in expanding population. By this framework in order to elevate populations beyond Malthusian limits you need science, but in the end, it is the increase in the number of humans that drives prosperity. More human minds invent more things and buy more inventions, including how to support more humans. More human minds equal more progress. The oft-reviled economist Julian Simon believed the same thing. He called human minds “the ultimate resource.” In his calculations, minds were the prime source of progress. The more the better.

Progress stems from the growth of human minds in two ways. It comes from the increase in number of minds and the increase in their collective structure and power. Science is a collective action. The solitary scientific genius is a myth. All the significant gains in science have come from integrating new knowledge into the deep wells of old knowledge. In fact the definition of a scientific discovery is not really “something we did not know before” but “something we did not know before that now is woven into everything we knew before.” Without that latter part, the new knowledge is esoteric and idiosyncratic, and not part of “what we know.” The rich botanical and medical knowledge of indigenous shamans will remain “undiscovered” until this knowledge can be linked into the entire corpus of existing knowledge. Once that new nonintegrated knowledge is connected to our other knowledge, we can say we know it as a scientific society. In this way science is both the way we know things and what we collectively know. It is performed by individuals, but it inhabits a culture. The greater the pool of individuals in the culture, the smarter science gets.

The economy works in similar way. Much of our current economic prosperity is due to growth. The population of the US has steadily grown over the past few centuries ensuring a steadily expanding market for innovations. At the same time world population has been expanding ensuring economic growth worldwide. That world population has also grown in accessibility and desire as billions moved from subsistence farming into the marketplace. But try to imagine the same rise of wealth and stock prices in the past two centuries if the world market or the US market shrank every year.

If it is true that progress expands as human population expands, then we should be worried. Everyone has seen the official graph of peak human population. The peak number of humans on Earth keeps changing (downward) but the shape of their history does not. It looks like this:


But I bet that you have not seen anywhere a chart which shows you the other side of the peak after the year 2050. After the population peaks what happens? Does it sink, swim or rise again? Why is that never shown? Most charts simply ignore the question. There is no apology for the blank spot. Showing just one half of the curve has been so common for so long that no one asks for the other half. Why does our forecast stop precisely at the peak in 2050? Why don’t we keep the forecast going? The only source I have found for a reliable projection of what happens on the other side of the peak of human population around 2050 is a set of UN scenarios for World Population in 2300, that is, for the next 300 years.

Worldpop 2300.Small

The high scenario assumes fertility rates remain at 1995 rates, or 2.35 children per woman. We already know this extreme version is not happening. The middle scenario assumes that the average fertility dips below replacement levels for 100 years and then for some reason returns to replacement level for the next 200 years. The low scenario assumes 1.85 children per woman. Today every country in Europe is below 2.0, and Japan is at 1.34.


Fertility rates in Europe. Dotted line is replacement level. (Source)

As countries become developed their fertility rate drops. This drop-off has happened for every modernizing country, and this universal decrease in fertility rates is known as the “demographic transition.” The problem is the demographic transition has no bottom. In developed countries the fertility rate keeps dropping. And dropping. Look at Europe (above) or Japan. Their fertility rate is headed to zero. In fact most countries, even developing countries, see their fertility rates dropping. Nearly half of the countries in the world are already under replacement level.

In other words, as prosperity increases due to expanding population, fertility rates drop, which will shrink population. This might be a homeostasis feedback mechanism that reins in exponential rates of progress. Or it might be wrong.

The UN 2300 scenarios are scary but the problem with the UN 300-year forecasts is that their dire scenario is not dire enough. The experts assume that even in the “worst-case scenario” fertility rates cannot go lower than the low rates found in places like Europe or Japan. Why do they assume this? Because it has never happened before. But of course this level of prosperity has never occurred before either. So far all evidence suggests that increased prosperity keeps lowering the number of children the average women wants. What if global fertility rates keep dropping below the replacement rate of 2.1 offspring for every woman in developed countries and 2.3 in developing countries? The replacement rate is what is needed to simply not decline, simply to maintain zero growth. To average 2.1 offspring means a significant portion of women have to have three, or four, or five babies in order to counter the childless and those with only one or two babies. What counter cultural force is at work prompting billions of modern, educated, working women to have 3, 4 or 5 babies? How many of your friends have four children? Or three? Just-a-few won’t matter in the long run.

Keep in mind that an enduring global fertility rate only a little below replacement level, say 1.9, will eventually, inevitably bring the world population to zero, because each year there are less and less babies. But long before human population drops to zero, the Amish and Mormons would save humankind with their prolific breeding and large families. Zeroing out is not the worry. The question is, if rising prosperity hinges on rising population, what happens to progress if there are centuries of slow population decline?

There are five scenarios:

1. The decline in world population halts at some manageable level, at a point where cultural forces encourage a steady replacement level of fertility. For instance, after the peak, the world population declines to 2 billion people with a fertility rate somewhere around 2.1. Perhaps technology makes having babies much easier, or much cheaper, though it is hard to imagine any way in which technology makes rearing three children any easier. Or perhaps there is social pressure to maintain the species, or social status in having a lot of children. Maybe robotic nannies change everything and having more than 2 kids becomes fashionable. It is not impossible to speculate on ways to maintain a status quo. But even if population leveled off, we don’t have any experience that a stagnant population produces rising progress.

2. While the census of human minds may decrease, we can build artificial minds, maybe even in the billions. Perhaps these artificial minds are all that is needed to keep prosperity expanding. To do so they would need to not only keep producing ideas, but also consuming them as well, just as humans do. Since they aren’t human (if you want a human mind make a baby) the prosperity and progress would likely look different from it is today.

3. Rather than expanding the number of human minds, maybe progress can keep increasing if the average human mind gets better, more powerful. Perhaps with the aid of always-on technologies, or genetic engineering, or pills, the potential of individual human minds increases, and this increase propels progress. Perhaps we increase our attention span, sleep less, live longer, and consume more, produce more, create more. The cycle spins faster with few more powerful minds.

4. We might have it all wrong. Maybe prosperity has nothing to do with increasing numbers of minds. Maybe consumption has no part in progress. We simply figure out how to increase living quality, choices, and possibilities with fewer and fewer people (who live longer and longer). It’s a very green vision, but also very alien to our current system. If every year there are less people as my potential audience, or my potential customers, I have to create things for a different reason than growth in audience or customers. A non-growth economy is hard to imagine. But stranger things have happened.

5. We plunge to small remnants, which in desperation breed madly and prosper. World population oscillates, up and down.

If the origins of prosperity lie solely in growth of human population, then it will paradoxically temper itself in the coming century. If the origins of progress lie outside of population growth, we’ll need to identify its source so that on the other side of the population peak, we can proceed to prosper.

I suspect, but cannot prove, the seeds of progress lie not in increasing numbers of human minds, or artificial minds, or more powerful individual minds, but in the emergence of a more complex group mind, made of fewer humans, many more machines, and a new way of thinking.

  • ron brinkmann

    The one factor that isn’t included in those population projections is the rate of increased longevity. We will continue to have active minds driving technological innovation for longer periods of time as people live longer and although theoretically a fertility rate of below 2.0 will still result in a net decrease in population, the rate of change will be radically slower.

  • Alvis Brigis

    1. Good to keep on the table.
    2. Strong AI, minus the singularity.
    3. Strong IA. – Check out Flynn’s “What is Intelligence?” He’s the cognitive historian who discovered the steady rise in IQ which he attributes to increased abstraction abilities. These, including science as you point out, seem to arise through the co-evolution of memes, tech, humans, environment & communication. This observation pulls intelligence out of the individual and ascribes it more to the system, placing equal weight on the different legs rather than more heavily on brains, AI, or even just the OM. Check this interview w/ Flynn for a brief overview of his thoughts:
    4. Flipside of #1. Good to consider.
    5. Interesting and possible in the event of a nuclear war or such. Perhaps the most probable? :P

  • Nick Porcino

    First, the explosion of population was a necessary precondition for the explosion of knowledge, for all the reasons you elegantly factor (such as the cost/benefit of sharing, and considerations of immediate need).

    Second, we can posit that prosperity is a function of knowledge, supporting the first argument, since prosperity is necessary precondition for the explosion of population, as you argue.

    Where I think the argument needs more work is that although total population is countered by death, total knowledge is not dependent on the size of the population. Presuming that we continue to improve storage, search, and analysis methods (rather than burning books and turning computers off), a meta system is being put in place where knowledge can continue to expand independent of the expansion or absolute size of the population.

    I suppose this is a Singularity-like phenomenon.

    At this point, I say that prosperity needs to be recast in terms of increasing capability instead of increasing capacity. Capacity is bound by a finite environment; capability is unbound.

    I say that this is the Singularity, and we’re staring it right down the barrel.

    Nick Porcino

  • Evan

    It seems to me that progress–technological progress at least–depends on on the number of minds, but the number of minds that exist in cultures with enough food and energy and education and spare wealth to provide the leisure to develop new technologies.

    We may have a population over six billion now, but half the world subsists on less than a dollar a day, and a big chunk of the remainder aren’t doing all that much better. Give me a world a few hundred years hence with only two billion people, but all of them affluent and well-educated and with free access to information networks, and I will have no fear for its ability to make progress.

  • Bill Burris

    What happens when schools forbid the teaching of science and the answer to all scientific questions becomes: “God did it”.

  • Barry Kelly

    Don’t forget human rights and morality.

    One big reason the Greeks had no reason to use many of their inventions – such as the steam engine, invented by Heron of Alexandria (see – is that they had slavery.

    Much of invention (tool-making) has been driven by the need to amplify the productivity of individual people . However, in the past, powerful people could easily amplify their total productivity by increasing the number of slaves they were driving.

    Creating tools that exceeded the productivity of mass slavery was too high a hurdle for seed technology to surmount.

  • diceymatters

    One significant factor in the recent phase(s) of “progress” is the phenomenon of “capitalism” which arose in its modern form during the middle ages, aided in its growth by the need to finance expensive expeditions during the Crusades. Modern banking techniques and corporate legal structures enabled the pooling of capital, the spreading of risk and the abstract concept of an economic entity that lives in perpetuity. This roughly coincided with a shift in legal rights related to the “commons” in what is famously called the “enclosure movement” which forced formerly self sufficient peasants to move into densely populated cities. Around this time the concept of “wage labor” “consumer” and “specialization” became extremely pervasive, and its manifestation served to fuel the “progress” of the industrial revolution. At this point, in order to survive one needed to have “money” whose primary characteristic is its nature as the abstract embodiment of accumulated effort and matter. A secondary characteristic of money is its nature as a quantitative entity. The acceleration of progress I think is related to the accelerating need for money.

    What I want to point out is that “progress” implies increasing abstraction. As science improves, its improvement is essentially in the direction of enabling the human mind to form a more accurate conception of actuality. As progress happens, our abstractions have a higher resolution and create a more compelling illusion of authenticity. Progress in science implies a socio economic structure that allows not only leisure, but that encourages specialization. So this phenomenon of scientific progress seems to come with another form of “progress” on the cultural/economic/spiritual level, as the commodification of matter and time, and is a product of particular phase of history, namely the one that corresponds to a belief in the normative value of progressive economic growth.

    Perhaps the reason China didn’t achieve “progress” sooner is that they didn’t conform their cultural/economic structures in favor of increasing abstraction and specialization.

    Anyway thank you for your thought provoking post. I wish I had time right now to get my thoughts more clear… but I have to budget my time so I can maximize my income, and fuel progress!

  • Tom Buckner

    One of my maxims is this: “If you have a great idea, act on it right now; because somebody in China probably thought of it this morning.” Gone are the days when only one Leonardo lived in the world, only one Archimedes.

    I think you’re mainly right about the effect of population on innovation, with a caveat: more people equals more ideas as long as they are eating. Pure population increase, I strongly think, is not going to give you a good result; we appear to be at probably triple the sustainable population already. All environmental problems are at root population problems; more people clear more land and eat more fish, burn more oil and waste more water. To invent our way out of an environmental collapse brought on by sheer numbers strikes me as magical thinking.

    Thus, the ‘problem’ of declining populations is a problem we can envy. DNA evidence shows that the human race bottlenecked down to a few thousand individuals around 74k years ago, so we are a long way from a dangerously small population.

    And consider this: invention requires not only richness of connections (many people communicating many concepts) but also a rich environment. So many of our brilliant inventions are but reverse-engineered designs from nature. What happens if nature loses diversity? How many undiscovered medicines are there in the reefs and the Amazon? If an undiscovered species dies out, it is as if a book unique in all the world was burned before anyone could read it. How can we create something new by combining two things that no longer exist?

    This is a thought I have often had: did people who lived a thousand generations in a jungle, leaving behind only spearpoints and potsherds, possess a panoply of herbal tools that made their lives as agreeable as our own, of which we can know nothing? Remember, almost all their artifacts rotted to nothing. Scenario 4 has happened in a thousand villages, but nothing lasts forever…?

    There are three ideas floating around that may bear on these matters; nobody really knows what these three ideas mean to our situation. You may already know of them:

    1. The Fermi Paradox. Enrico Fermi heard some students discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations. Unending progress ought to permit a civilization to spread across the galaxy and leave traces anyone can see, yet the universe appears uninhabited. Fermi therefore asked: “Where are they?” Do civilizations fizzle, become quiescent, self-destruct, or hide? Nobody knows. Link:

    2. The Simulation Argument. Philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that if simulations exist which contain sentient minds, then we are probably already in one. Link:

    3. The Doomsday Argument. Link: The Doomsday Argument is a probabilistic assertion, based on the principle of mediocrity, that the number of future humans will most likely roughly equal the number who have already lived. There is much disagreement about how to interpret the probabilities; however, it’s estimated 60 billion people have been born, so one can calculate a 50% chance that only 60 billion more will be born, and a 95% chance that no more than 1.2 trillion more will ever be born. Rapid population increases give the result that extinction probability rises faster; however, this is a controversial probabilistic argument, and doesn’t imply 100% chance of extinction. (The first time I read about the Doomsday Argument, I lost sleep).

    A last comment: innovation is not just about toasters. Think about such intangible human inventions as meditation, music, and democracy: I’m talking about wetware software. We haven’t invented the last of that, either, have we? Here’s an example of what I mean: I believe political systems show the influence of the current science at their advent.

    Since the first cities, kings ruled everywhere according to the will of God, given legitimacy by anointment by whatever priests the society recognized. The system reflected the pre-scientific cultures across the world.

    The Greeks invented democracy in an intellectual fre-for-all among prosperous merchants and an unprecedented flowering of rationalism. This basic idea was revived and refined in America by Enlightenment merchant classes, again reflecting the most advanced ideas of that day.

    After the American and French revolutions, Marx took stock of the structural failings of modern societies and stirred in fresh observations from Darwin. But there were still flaws in Marxist ideas which are now obvious (centralized power attracts dictators, and centralized economic planning does not process information as efficiently as decentralized purchasing decisions by consumers).

    Now we find ourselves in need of a new political idea which takes modern information theory into account. A Constitution is like an operating system for a government; but there will always be flaws in a Constitution which attackers can exploit with ‘malware.’ We find ourselves voting on machines that can be hacked; we find ourselves voting on candidates who must raise money to pay to TV stations for the use of free public airwaves. And we have found, to our joy, that a few politicians understand how to overcome the malware and get the operating system to work the way we were told it should. But it is not enough to get it to work properly once: we must codify how to make it work all the time, by understanding it at a deep theoretical level, making deliberate use of Kurt Gödel’s neglected epiphany about the logical structure of the Constitution.

  • Nick Zeigler

    Mr. Kelly –

    While I agree for the most part with your comments, I think that you’ve neglected to consider the impact of another factor that spread throughout Europe immediately prior to the Enlightenment — that is, widening access to the written word.

    Exosomatic memory is what allowed Newton to “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and ultimately, what drives the memetic side of progress. Without the ability to draw on the ideas of others, science WOULD only be driven by the lone inventor.

  • andrew

    Lots of people helps prosperity
    Lots of people who understand each other helps more

    Cheap communications help. This includes information and goods.

    Cheap power helps.

    Low cost of failure helps.

    300 years ago a new idea could get you killed.
    200 years ago a new idea could get you imprisioned.
    100 years ago a new idea could get you bankrupt and homeless, and destroy your career.
    now, a new idea costs a few hundred (a vps) to a few tens of thousands (sample factory run)

    If the cost of communication, production and failure keeps dropping, fewer people will not hur too much.

  • Terry Heaton

    Love your work, Kevin. The only thing I can add here is that we’re in the midst of a second Gutenberg moment, in which knowledge (The Jewel of the Elites) is spreading throughout the globe like a giant mushroom cloud, and I would argue that this significantly will alter any future projections, just as the first Gutenberg moment did centuries ago. The task, it seems to me, is to help that knowledge growth be in the fields of science and rationality, for we can’t even speculate what the results will be.

    As to why science came from Europe rather than China, I think it’s fair to point again to that first Gutenberg moment, for the fundamentals of logic and science demand a degree of faith and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good that came from the source of knowledge of the time: the Bible.

    The only downside to science, IMO, is a tragic dismissal of that book and its place in history, for I believe it contains the source code for Western Civilization. When Wycliffe completed his common English language translation, he made this remarkable statement: “This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people and for the people.” That’s as true today as it was back then, for democracy requires an internal governor, which the faith of the people provided.

    Finally, man wants to be God, and it’s always been that way. This quest is what fuels all progress. We want immortality. We want to overcome time and distance. We want omniscience and power. Nothing wrong with any of that, but I would love to see science actually acknowledge it some day.

  • AndiChapple

    hi Kevin –

    while many commenters have chipped in with important factors to add to your analysis, I’d like to point out andrew and Evan’s mentions of power/energy. surely two of the main things that has got us to this point are our ability and willingness to burn so much coal and oil? coal and oil power the machines which mine and make stuff and allow us to communicate and oil makes the fertilisers to feed us all.

    • @ AndiChapple: True, tapping into cheap energy is a major breakthrough. But if it was the key thing, than China would be the center because they figured out coal could be burned at least 500 years before the west did. So if harnessing fossil fuels was the key, why did it not make much difference? I think it was because cheap energy was the huge bonus that science tapped into. Stockpiles of energy is not enough. We can safely say that without access to cheap energy, both modern populations and progress would not have happened. But science was the key to liberating that energy.

  • RobertJ

    The historical phase of progress which we are part of is in stark contrast to the rest of history. But that’s not to say that it is unique. There may be other similar phases in world history.

    Examples include the intellectual flourishing in greek colonies, (related in part to growth), wealth from new trade with expanding empires (e.g that of alexander the great) the roman road network, a shift in the nordic bronze-age culture due to cultural imports, an unsustainable hunting bonanza when New Zealand was populated e.t.c e.t.c

    But still we perceive world history as overall static within a lifetime. That is because these phases were limited in time or geography. But why shouldn’t our current progress be similar?

  • Adam Holland

    For an interesting perspective on population density compared to quality of diet and amount of leisure time, see Mark Nathan Cohen’s books

    “The Food Crisis in Prehistory” and “Health and the Rise of Civilization”.

    At first blush, I think they reinforce the pieces of your argument that hinge on numbers of people, rather than available leisure time or quality of life.

    In fact, you might be able to extend Cohen’s thesis to argue that science was in fact born of necessity, like he claims agriculture was.

    • My friend Joel Garreau, a reporter at the Washington Post and author of a couple seminal fast-forward books (like Edge City) tried to post the following comment but was unsuccessful so I am posting it for him.

      I *strongly* suggest you read “History of the Idea of Progress” by Robert Nisbet, or one of the other many books on the subject. the idea of progress predates the industrial revolution by two millennia, and was destroyed as a serious idea by the technologies of the 20th century, specifically the holocaust, the atomic bomb, and the destruction of the environment.

      the following is from “Edge City,” pages 365-366 (see also index for lots of additional material). it is a gloss on an area of inquiry deeply mined by others:

      Robert Nisbet, in History of the Idea of Progress, demonstrated that the basic notion was set up by the Greeks and Romans. The idea of progress originated in the belief that mankind has slowly, gradually, and continuously advanced from an original condition of cultural deprivation, ignorance, and insecurity to higher levels of civilization, and that such advancement will, with only occasional setbacks, continue. The Greeks saw the natural growth in knowledge over time as progress that would yield the natural advance of the human condition. The early Christians believed the spiritual perfection of mankind would culminate in a golden age of happiness on earth, a millennium ruled by the returned Christ. They got this idea in part from the Jews, who believed that history was divinely guided. As early as Augustine’s The City of God, Nisbet reported, all the essential terms of Utopia were in place: affluence, security, equity, freedom. tranquillity, and justice.

      When knowledge of the New World arrived in Europe, the possibilities seemed unlimited. By 1750, progress was not simply an important idea among many; it had become the overwhelming idea. From it were hung yearnings for equality, social justice, and popular democracy under law. These aspirations, attached to progress, were no longer deemed desirable; they were believed inevitable. Soon, freedom and liberty became thought of as necessary to progress. More important, they became seen as the very goal of progress–an ever-ascending realization of freedom, to the most remote future. That was why the opening shot of the American Revolution was the one heard round the world.

      By the 1800s, the idea of progress was no longer dependent on divine guidance. It was attached instead to faith in reason, science, and technology–the works of man himself. Then, as the twentieth century approached, progress was seen in the accumulation of power, especially by the state. For it was thought that the redemption and salvation–and especially the perfection–of man would be possible if his consciousness could just be shaped and elevated by sufficiently powerful means. Thus was the idea of progress ultimately perverted: Lincoln Steffens’ famously incorrect report upon his return from Russia in 1919 was: “I have been over into the future, and it works.” The Nazis’ Final Solution was so called in order that it be viewed as–progress.

      The belief in the inevitability of progress, Nisbet believed, took body blows when people representing every conceivable ideology stopped believing one or more of the five premises that were its underpinnings:

      * That the past had value. Those who stopped believing this argued that ignoring or eradicating the past was an acceptable, even a desirable, aspect of progress.
      * That life itself, in all its manifestations, had unerasable value. Those who turned away from this idea were willing to accept the notion that loss of life was an acceptable cost for progress.
      * That reason alone, and the scientific knowledge that can be gained from it, was inherently worthy of faith. Those who stopped believing this no longer accepted that the Cartesian method of logic, in isolation, could reveal all important truth.
      * That economic and technological flowering was unquestionably worthwhile. People who stopped believing this gave up the faith that if Cartesian logic produced it, and it was turned into a product–for example, mustard gas–it must be good.
      * That Western civilization was noble, even superior to its alternatives.

      The final, resounding disconnect between the advances of the Machine and the idea of progress came with the atomic bomb. That is the point, Siegfried Giedion noted, from which the technological imperative “If possible, then necessary,” rang hollow. That is the point at which it became ineluctably clear that what we could do was by no means the same thing as what we should do.

      Nisbet, in fact, observed that among the “clerisy”–that marvelous word he used for the priesthood of our self-appointed intelligentsia–the idea of progress is now a dead letter. And there is no question that any serious expression of long-term optimism today is obliged to carry some awful asterisk. Such as: assuming there is no nuclear war, no planetary environmental meltdown, no economic debacle, no universal cataclysm.

  • tim habersack

    Long time fan of this site. Anyway, I have always been interested in population growth, and Japan’s recent serious slowdown in that area. Everywhere I see people pointing to how a declining population growth is a bad thing, but I don’t really understand why.

    The way I see it, there is always a number that is sort of the ideal population for a country, based on their technology level. I don’t see how if even population leveled off (two adults replace themselves), it would change the rate of innovation.

    If a country has 5000 innovations a year, and then their population growth ceases and the country maintains a steady number of citizens, the number of innovations per year won’t change. It will not grow, that is true, but is that such a bad thing, to have a set level of innovation that occurs?

    • Tim, what happens if there are few people each year — which is where fertility rates are now? (It takes a generation for the previous bulge to die off.)

  • Will

    Please, please, PLEASE:
    Use “less” for uncountable nouns, “fewer” for countable nouns. I loved your essay, and would have loved to have read “fewer babies”, “fewer people”, “fewer minds”.

    Sorry to be that guy, but keep up the good work!

  • iain

    Regarding the comment “Every chart of technological progress zooms upward”.

    Vaclav Smil (Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact) may disagree?

    For example, his thesis that the 1880s were a peak decade for technology development?

    • @Iain said: “Vaclav Smil (Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact) may disagree? For example, his thesis that the 1880s were a peak decade for technology development?”

      I don’t know Smil’s work. The 1880s were peak in what way? I find it hard to imagine any way in which they would top say today. What is he measuring?

      • Charles Murray in _Human Accomplishment_ ( also pinpoints the late 1800s as the era of greatest innovation per-capita, looking at namedropping in encyclopedias, textbooks, and biographical dictionaries.

        Seems plausible to me – even with many more billions of people (and probably disproportionately more scientists and other educated people), the late 1800s still seem like a rather remarkable period.

        • Tophness

          The 1880s were human accomplishments. Computers are what create the exponential curve. Maybe you can get away with starting at advance machinery, but you can’t stop sampling data at 1914.

  • Christiaan

    I’m surprised you don’t say anything about energy. Without it nothing we do would be possible, especially our population increase. We practically eat oil.

    It doesn’t matter what technology you have if you don’t have a source of energy.

  • AndiChapple

    @ Kevin Kelly –

    thanks for your answer to my post, Kevin. I think I understand your argument better now. is it something like: science allows us to use energy sources well, without it coal would just be a curiosity, and science is a product of increasing population – so if population starts to fall now, where will the good ideas come from that we haven’t had yet and will surely need? the more I understand your question, the more original (and hard to answer) it seems!



    • @ Andi: Yes. It is difficult to image a society progressing rapidly without a cheap source of fuel. Say we had been born on a planet without fossil fuels, what would have happened? Could we have progressed very far burning wood only? Maybe if it gave us enough to increase population enough to make solar, nukes, whatever. But a world of oil without science won’t go anywhere.

  • iain

    “The 1880s were peak in what way? I find it hard to imagine any way in which they would top say today. What is he measuring?”

    Summarising Smil risks injustice. But some quotes might allow for some discussion. These respond to both the peak what? and measure? queries.

    “fundamental scientific and technical advances of the 1880s and 1890s…electric lights…commercial generation and transmission of electricity…production and detection of Hertzian waves…wireless broadcasts”

    “that was the time when the modern world was created, when the greatest technical discontinuity in history took place. This conclusion defies the common perception of the 20th century as the period of unprecedented technical advance”

    “the verdict is clear: those commonly held perceptions of accelerating innovation are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by the zealots of electronic faith, by the true believers in artifical intelligence, e-life forms, and spiritual machines”

    “one of the best quantitative confirmations of this judgement” [Robert Gordon, 2000, Does the New Economy measure up to the great inventions of the past?, Journal of Economic Perspectives]

    Other advances during the general period that Smil discusses include: electric motors, transformers, rectifiers, the Hall-Heroult process, the Haber-Bosch synthesis, internal combustion, and flight.

    • @Iain: Sounds as if he is claiming the 1880s in the US had the peak rate of change. Going from an agricultural era to the industrial in a short time. That’s an interesting argument. I’d love to see how he would make it quantifiable. How would you compare the rate to now?

      Thanks for the pointer.

  • john (Jshot)

    The print technology that help created the Gutenberg Bible is a significant factor that help propel the West over the East.

    Even though the use of movable type in printing was invented in China around 1041 AD. In China, there were no texts similar to the Bible which could guarantee that a printer could get a good return on their significant investment to build a printing press.

    If it wasn’t for the pent up demand for the Bible in Europe, the explosion of books and scientific knowledge that occurred as a result might have occurred much later.

    • > In China, there were no texts similar to the Bible which could guarantee that a printer could get a good return on their significant investment to build a printing press.

      Balderdash. The lack of a Bible might slow down investment in printing, perhaps, but for *centuries*? Woodblock printing was invented there, and some of the first woodblock printed book were one of the most common & popular Buddhist scriptures – the Diamond Sutra ( Printers had little problem making money in Asia

  • foo

    Most recent comments first is an awfully awkward disposition.
    You have to keep jumping up and down to follow the thread of responses.

    Ha! Just met another crummy feature: when you misread or mistype the captcha you loose your comment text!
    Hi-tech indeed…

    • @ foo. Didn’t know that. We’ll try to find the problem and fix it.

  • Steven H

    Hi Kevin,

    A little late to this post but I think you have to consider human lifespan increasing dramatically after 2050 and approaching immortality by 2100. Each child born after 2100 will not die of natural causes. The imperative of such a civilization will be to colonize off-planet.

  • Bob Welch

    I say that for the next 10-20 years we MUST focus on very cheap, or FREE, energy…probably the “zero point” (quantum vacuum) energy sought by Tesla and others….Without an inexhaustible power source, all these interlinked artificial and/or enhanced-human minds fail to survive/run/function.

    Energy production is where we have a shitload of catching up (with our other technologies) to do.

    Bob Welch

  • alex

    well heck, nice to see that everything i was going to write has been said! even if only in part, imperfectly: the triumphant “progress” fairytale, a technological world built on rapacious enslavement of environmental and human forces, a host of other civilizations who achieved leisure and longevity without scientific method (or much killing). i like that comment about the hockey stick of population portending an immanent die-off: we need to reproduce like mad because there’s a threshin’ afoot!

    i want to pass on two leads though:

    1. on how the scientific method appeared, i’d drop the bigger-better-faster techno-awesome narrative and get started on an archetypal investigation: “Cosmos and Psyche”, Richard Tarnas. when the right subterranean forces come into alignment, spectacular vistas have throughout human history opened up for us. (Tarnas is a Carl Sagan man, naturally.)

    2. on the requirements for leisure, longevity, and natural abundance of diverse kinds, start with _permaculture_. Bill Mollison, David Holgren, Sepp Holzer, Fukuoka — our own Americans David Blume and Paul Stamets. we don’t need to rape and enslave our way to health and wealth… but we still are. my laptop still runs on Congo blood and West Virginia emphysema last i checked.
    (see especially Mollison’s 1983 lecture)

    and hey by the way, here in Pittsburgh we’ve been living for 30 years with less than half the population we used to have. world’s not falling down around our heads any more than in the rest of the country.


  • Arthur Smith

    I would say the essence of Science long predates the enlightenment – Greece and Rome had much of it, and much was preserved by the Muslim world during the European dark ages. If there’s one key to the explosive growth or “progress” of the recent past, I think communications generally (starting with Gutenberg), rather than science, is the key.

    Thanks for showing the UN 2300 curves – the high end could be higher, too, you know…

    • @ Arthur: I would call science a type of communication, or a method of collective communicatin.