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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Theory out the window

This theory on technological change sounds good on the surface, but I think he missed a key point.
The tendency of population to grow faster than the food supply, keeping most people at the edge of starvation, was described by Thomas Malthus in a 1798 book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” This Malthusian trap, Dr. Clark’s data show, governed the English economy from 1200 until the Industrial Revolution and has in his view probably constrained humankind throughout its existence. The only respite was during disasters like the Black Death, when population plummeted, and for several generations the survivors had more to eat.

Malthus’s book is well known because it gave Darwin the idea of natural selection. Reading of the struggle for existence that Malthus predicted, Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “It at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. ... Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work.”

Given that the English economy operated under Malthusian constraints, might it not have responded in some way to the forces of natural selection that Darwin had divined would flourish in such conditions? Dr. Clark started to wonder whether natural selection had indeed changed the nature of the population in some way and, if so, whether this might be the missing explanation for the Industrial Revolution.
To contrast what I emphasized in bold font, it just happened that the transition to dense versions of energy (coal and oil) and the use of this energy happened about this same time. So this rise in the middle class can arguably result from instead an improvement in productivity caused by the "strength of 20 mules" and not from a fantastically quick application of human natural selection.


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