What is the most powerful idea in the history of the world?
1: “Only twice in the last ten thousand years has something happened that truly transformed all of humanity,” writes William Rosen in his book The Most Powerful Idea in the World.
The first occurred around 10,000 BC: the agricultural revolution during which human beings discovered they could cultivate their food.
“Unarguably a game-changer. Once humanity was tethered to the ground where its food grew, societies developed,” writes William. “Settlements became towns, towns became kingdoms, kingdoms became empires.”
While they made a lot of children: worldwide population grew 100x from less than 5 million in 10,000 BC to more than 500 million by 1600 AD, “they didn’t make much of anything else,” William observes.
Economists measure human productivity using worldwide per capita GDP. This number fluctuated between $400 and $550 for seven thousand years.
Repeat: Seven thousand years. Little or no human progress.
Worldwide per capita GDP was $543 in 800 BC, virtually identical to the number in 1600. William observes: “The average person in Shakespeare’s time lived no better than his counterpart in Homer’s.”
During this entire period, a “man and wife would have perhaps 8-10 offspring, with a reasonable chance that three might survive to adulthood,” William writes. If they chose to travel, they “would do so on foot, or if exceptionally prosperous, by horse-drawn coach, traveling 3-7 miles per hour – again, the same as his ancestors – which meant the world was not much larger than the 5- or 6-miles surrounding where they were born.”
2: Then, for the second time in human history, life changed.
Around 1800, with the invention of Rocket, the world’s first steam engine, the Industrial Revolution began: “A deflection point where a line describing human productivity/welfare that had been flat for a hundred centuries made a turn like a hockey stick,” writes William.
Since 1800, when we analyze 20-year increments, “the chart will show every measure better at the end of the period than at the beginning for every way that human welfare can be expressed in numbers:
o Per capita GDP (which rose to $6000 by 2000)
o Mortality at birth or any age
o Calories consumed
o Prevalence of infectious disease
o Average height of adults
o Percentage of lifetime spent disabled
o Percentage of the population living in poverty
o Number of rooms by person
o Percentage of the population enrolled in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education
o Annual hours of leisure time
William observes: “A middle-class family living in the developed world of the 21st century enjoys a life filled with luxuries that a king could barely afford two centuries earlier.
3: The greatest innovation of the Industrial Revolution was innovation itself. “Not simply a huge increase in the number of new inventions, large and small, but also the process of invention itself,” writes William. “The inventors of the steam engine created… a perpetual innovation machine in which every invention sparked the creation of a newer one, ad – so far anyway – infinitum.”
Reflection: What surprises me about the nature of human progress as described above? Why am I surprised?
Action: Share this information with someone.