The Industrial Revolution and Scientific Civilization

2 November 2015

Monday


A drawing of James Watt’s Steam Engine printed in the 3rd edition Britannica 1797

A drawing of James Watt’s Steam Engine printed in the 3rd edition Britannica 1797

Historians can always reach further back into the past in order to find ever-more-distant antecedents to the world of today. This is one of the persistent problems of periodization, and it often results in different historians employing different periodizations of the same temporal continuum. There are periodizations that involve greater and lesser consensus. There is a significant degree of consensus that the industrial revolution begins with James Watt’s steam engine developed from 1763 to 1775. Watt’s steam engine, of course, does not appear out of nowhere. It was preceded by the use of much less efficient Newcomen engines used to pump water from mine shafts. It was also preceded by hundreds of years of medieval industry that employed wind and water power to run machinery, so that it was “merely” a matter of installing one of Watt’s new steam engines in an existing mechanical infrastructure that made the industrial revolution possible. Of course, the reality of the historical process is much more detailed — and much more interesting — than that. The steam engine was a trigger, and large scale economic and social forces were already in play that made it possible for the industrial revolution to transform civilization.

Sir Richard Arkwright, oil on canvas, Mather Brown, 1790. New Britain Museum of American Art

Sir Richard Arkwright, oil on canvas, Mather Brown, 1790. New Britain Museum of American Art

The life of Sir Richard Arkwright reveals the search for historical antecedents in particular clarity — as well as revealing the complexity of of the historical process — as Arkwright spent the greater part of his life inventing textile machinery and building mills, some of which were horse powered and most of which were water powered. In 1790 Arkwright built the first textile factory powered by a Boulton and Watt steam engine in Nottingham, England. Arkwright was a man of many plans, who always had another new project into which he poured his apparently abundant energies. The industrial application of the steam engine was only one of many of Arkwright’s projects. Men like Arkwright prepared the ground for the Industrial revolution by a thousand events that occurred long before the industrial revolution. Everything had to be in place for the steam engine to be exploited in the way that it was — a capitalist economy as described by Adam Smith on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, legal institutions that respected private property, nascent industry powered by wind and water, literacy, science in its modern form, and so on.

Richard Arkwright's water-powered Masson Mill

Richard Arkwright’s water-powered Masson Mill

The steam engine might have come about merely by tinkering — its construction was not predicated upon the most advanced scientific knowledge of the time, or the application of this science — and it might have stayed within the realm of tinkering, confined to a social class that did not receive an education in science. Instead, something unprecedented happened. The development of the steam engine led to theorizing about the steam engine, which in turn led to the development of a fundamental science that is still with us today, long after steam engines have ceased to play a significant role in our civilization. Other technologies replaced the steam engine, and the technologies that replaced the steam engine were replaced with later technologies, and so on through several generations of technologies. But the science that grew out of the study of steam engines is with us still in the form of thermodynamics, and thermodynamics is central to contemporary science.

Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, 01 June 1796 to 24 August 1832, was a French military engineer and physicist; in his only publication, the 1824 monograph Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, Carnot gave the first successful theory of the maximum efficiency of heat engines. (Wikipedia)

Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, 01 June 1796 to 24 August 1832, was a French military engineer and physicist; in his only publication, the 1824 monograph Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, Carnot gave the first successful theory of the maximum efficiency of heat engines. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, we have passed from the study of ideal steam engines to the study of the universe entire in terms of thermodynamics, so that the scope of thermodynamics has relentlessly expanded since its introduction, even while the applications of steam engines have been been reduced in scope until they are a marginal technology. How is this unprecedented? No Greek philosopher ever wrote a theoretical treatise on Hero’s steam turbine, and if a Greek philosopher had done so, there simply was not enough of a background of scientific knowledge to do so coherently. Archimedes did write several treatises on practical matters, and there was enough mathematics in classical antiquity to give a mathematical treatment of certain problems that might be characterized as physics, but Archimedes remained an individual working mostly in isolation. His work did not become a scientific research program (in the Lakatosian sense); he was not a member of a community of researchers sharing results and working jointly on experiments.

Hero's Steam Turbine remained a curiosity in classical antiquity; it did not spark an industrial revolution.

Hero’s Steam Turbine remained a curiosity in classical antiquity; it did not spark an industrial revolution.

There is a striking resemblance between the industrial revolution and the British agricultural revolution. In most feudal societies of the time — and almost every society at the time was feudal to some degree — the land-owning classes that controlled the agricultural economy that was the engine of society would not work with their hands. To work with one’s hands was to acknowledge that one was a laborer or a tradesman, and this would be a considerable reduction in social status for an aristocrat. What is distinctive about England is that a few aristocrats became passionately interested in the ordinary business of life, and they threw themselves into this engagement in a way that cast aside the traditional taboo against the upper classes working with their hands. A figure who somewhat resembles Arkwright is Sir Thomas Coke of Norfolk, an aristocrat who did not scruple to mix with his tenant farmers, and who actively participated in agricultural reforms. The selective breeding of stock became progressively more scientific over time, and influenced Darwin, who devoted the opening chapter of On the Origin of Species to “Variation under Domestication,” which is concerned with selective breeding.

Portrait of Thomas William Coke, Esq. (1752-1842) inspecting some of his South Down sheep with Mr Walton and the Holkham shepherds Thomas Weaver (1774-1843) / © Collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk

Portrait of Thomas William Coke, Esq. (1752-1842) inspecting some of his South Down sheep with Mr Walton and the Holkham shepherds Thomas Weaver (1774-1843) / © Collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk

The core of scientific civilization as we know it is the patient and methodical application of the scientific method to industrial processes (including the processes of industrial agriculture). All civilizations have had technologies; all civilizations have had industries. Only scientific civilizations apply science to technology and industry in a systematic way. The tightly-coupled STEM cycle of our industrial-technological civilization has led to more technological change in the past century than occurred in the previous ten thousand years. Thus technology has experienced exponential growth, but only because this growth was driven by the application of science.

The STEM cycle is a distinctive feature of industrial-technological civilization, but it did not achieve its tightly-coupled form until the nineteenth century.

The STEM cycle is a distinctive feature of industrial-technological civilization, but it did not achieve its tightly-coupled form until the nineteenth century.

The role of science in industrial-technological civilization may be less evident than the role of technology, and indeed some desire the technology but are suspicious of the science, and seek to decouple the two. While some technologies pose some moral dilemmas, these dilemmas can be met (if unsatisfactorily met) simply by limiting the application of the technology. The ideas of science are not so easily limited, and they pose an intellectual threat — an existential threat — to ideological complacency.

The scientific revolution led to the scientific study of society, which in turn led to ethnography, and from ethnography we derive a view of the world that has been interpreted as calling into question the basis of scientific civilization.

The scientific revolution led to the scientific study of society, which in turn led to ethnography, and from ethnography we derive a view of the world that has been interpreted as calling into question the basis of scientific civilization.

The scientific civilization that has been created in the wake of the industrial revolution is so productive that it enables non-survival behavior orders of magnitude beyond the non-survival behavior of earlier civilizations. Human intellectual capacity gives us a survival margin not possessed by other species, so that even in a non-civilized condition human societies can engage in non-survival behavior. Here is a passage from Sam Harris on non-survival behavior that suggests the meaning I am getting at:

“Many social scientists incorrectly believe that all long-standing human practices must be evolutionarily adaptive: for how else could they persist? Thus, even the most bizarre and unproductive behaviors — female genital excision, blood feuds, infanticide, the torture of animals, scarification, foot binding, cannibalism, ceremonial rape, human sacrifice, dangerous male initiations, restricting the diet of pregnant and lactating mothers, slavery, potlatch, the killing of the elderly, sati, irrational dietary and agricultural taboos attended by chronic hunger and malnourishment, the use of heavy metals to treat illness, etc. — have been rationalized, or even idealized, in the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer. But the mere endurance of a belief system or custom does not suggest that it is adaptive, much less wise. It merely suggests that it hasn’t led directly to a society’s collapse or killed its practitioners outright.”

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Introduction

As a result of the productive powers of scientific civilization, science can remain a marginal activity, largely walled off from the general public, while continuing to revolutionize the production processes of industry. This process of walling off science from the general public partly occurs due to the public’s discomfort with and distrust of science, but it also occurs partly due to the desire of scientists to continue their work without having to justify it to the general public, as the process of public justification inevitably becomes a social and political process in which the values unique to science easily become lost (This will be the topic of a future post, currently being drafted, on science communication to the public).

This social disconnect sets up an image of embattled scientists trying to carry on the work of scientific civilization in the face of what Ortega y Gasset called the revolt of the masses. A public indifferent to, or even hostile to, science decides, through its representatives, what sciences get funded and how much they get funded, and their social choices decide the social standing of the sciences and scientists. Can scientific civilization endure when those responsible for its continuation are increasingly marginal in social and political thought?

The house of industrial-technological civilization cannot long stand divided against itself. But taking the long view that was seen to be necessary to understanding the industrial revolution — that the steam engine was a trigger that occurred in the context of a civilization ripe for transformation — we must wonder what pervasive yet subtle changes are taking place today that may be triggered by the advent of some new invention that will transform civilization. While I think that scientific civilization has a long run ahead of it, scientific civilization can take many forms, of which industrial-technological civilization is but one early example. We live in the midst of industrial-technological civilization, so its institutions feel permanent and unchangeable to us, even as the most passing acquaintance with history will demonstrate that almost everything we take for granted today is historically unprecedented.

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2 Responses to “The Industrial Revolution and Scientific Civilization”

  1. Gregor Hartmann said

    A fascinating and provocative post (as always!).

    “The role of science in industrial-technological civilization may be less evident than the role of technology, and indeed some desire the technology but are suspicious of the science, and seek to decouple the two.” — Who are the “some” in that statement?

    The quote from Sam Harris regarding “non-survival behavior” is puzzling. Does he really believe that every ritual must be evolutionarily adaptive? A ritual is a social power/control mechanism. No one has foresight. The point of any given ritual — even something ghastly, like cutting off the clitoris or foreskin, or starving / chastising / torturing — is to enable the old farts in that society to control/program the youngsters.

    “The house of industrial-technological civilization cannot long stand divided against itself.” — Well, we’ll see how that plays out. I have long been flabbergasted by the fact that I live in a “high-tech society” (genetic engineering! probes to Mars!) where more people believe in guardian angels and spirit dogs than evolution. If the Republicans somehow win the 2016 presidential election I wouldn’t be surprised if they reinstated witch burning in order to ensure a good harvest and banish warts.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Hi Gregor,

      Who are the “some” who seek to decouple useful technology from threatening science? Well, I think that there are many different anti-science cohorts embedded within scientific civilization, who want to use all the fun and effective technology for their ends, but who do not want to have to acknowledge the epistemic role of science in furnishing the technological utilities we enjoy. For example, many of our political representatives are wedded to anti-scientific ideologies (as you imply in your remarks), but they do not on that account reject the technologies made possible by science. Almost anyone who makes use of scientific medicine but who is squeamish about evolution, genetics, and all the sciences making medical advances possible is implicitly trying to decouple science and technology. I even know some nutjobs who believe passionately in alien technology transfers, and when I have tried to explain the long scientific histories behind our technologies today I am met with a blank stare. Some people think that technologies appear in a puff of smoke with no antecedents, and of course this is a mysterious process that demands explanation.

      In the quote I took from Sam Harris, Harris is maintaining exactly the opposite of what you suggest. He is saying that others believe all social practices are ultimately adaptive, and he is denying this, i.e., he is denying that all social practices are ultimately adaptive. He concedes only that these social practices have not killed their practitioners outright. I suspect (though I cannot say definitively, as I certainly don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Harris’ position on the issue) that he would agree with you that many social practices are technologies of control with no survival benefit — immediate or ultimate — at all.

      Sorry I haven’t yet gotten to respond to your comment on my encephalization post. I have so many ideas on this that I feel a bit overwhelmed and it will take me time to organize my thoughts. Your comment (and those of others) proved to be a great source of intellectual stimulation.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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