Is Human Progress Inevitable?

19 January 2018

In this groundbreaking book, celebrated economic historian Joel Mokyr argues that a culture of growth specific to early modern Europe and the European Enlightenment laid the foundations for the scientific advances and pioneering inventions that would instigate explosive technological and economic development.

Is Human Progress Inevitable? Raj Persaud talks to Professor Joel Mokyr
about his new book, 'A Culture of Growth'.

Why Enlightenment culture sparked the Industrial Revolution

During the late eighteenth century, innovations in Europe triggered the Industrial Revolution and the sustained economic progress that spread across the globe.

While much has been made of the details of the Industrial Revolution, what remains a mystery is why it took place at all. Why did this revolution begin in the West and not elsewhere, and why did it continue, leading to today's unprecedented prosperity?

In this groundbreaking book, celebrated economic historian Joel Mokyr argues that a culture of growth specific to early modern Europe and the European Enlightenment laid the foundations for the scientific advances and pioneering inventions that would instigate explosive technological and economic development.

Bringing together economics, the history of science and technology, and models of cultural evolution, Mokyr demonstrates that culture—the beliefs, values, and preferences in society that are capable of changing behaviour—was a deciding factor in societal transformations.

Mokyr looks at the period 1500–1700 to show that a politically fragmented Europe fostered a competitive "market for ideas" and a willingness to investigate the secrets of nature.

At the same time, a transnational community of brilliant thinkers known as the “Republic of Letters” freely circulated and distributed ideas and writings.

This political fragmentation and the supportive intellectual environment explain how the Industrial Revolution happened in Europe but not China, despite similar levels of technology and intellectual activity.

In Europe, heterodox and creative thinkers could find sanctuary in other countries and spread their thinking across borders. In contrast, China’s version of the Enlightenment remained controlled by the ruling elite.

Combining ideas from economics and cultural evolution, A Culture of Growth provides startling reasons for why the foundations of our modern economy were laid in the mere two centuries between Columbus and Newton.

Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at Northwestern University and Sackler Professor at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics at the University of Tel Aviv.

His many books include The Enlightened Economy and The Gifts of Athena (Princeton). He is the recipient of the Heineken Prize for History and the International Balzan Prize for Economic History.

A Culture of Growth The Origins of the Modern Economy Joel Mokyr 

More about this book

 

  • Finalist for the 2017 Hayek Prize, The Manhattan Institute
  • One of MIT Technology Review’s Best Books of 2016
  • Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in European and World History, Association of American Publishers

Reviews

"A fine book…. One of our country's great economic historians has helped us better understand the greatest transformation in human welfare our planet has ever seen."--Richard Vedder, Wall Street Journal

Endorsements

"Many great minds have written many great books about why Europe spearheaded technological progress and economic growth in the past three centuries. Joel Mokyr has joined their ranks with admirable verve, erudition, and originality.

In his account, a change in the beliefs, values, and preferences of Europeans drove them to accumulate, share, and apply knowledge as it had never been done before. Agree or disagree with Mokyr's thesis, you definitely need to take it seriously."

Margaret Jacob, University of California, Los Angeles

 

"A Culture of Growth is an insightful quest into the economic history of the last five centuries. Mokyr's historical laboratory is early modern Europe, when a small mass of highly skilled artisans, entrepreneurs, financiers and merchants laid the roots of what was to become the Industrial Revolution."

Angus Deaton, 2015 Nobel Laureate in Economics


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