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Origins of Innovation: Bakewell & Breeding

A review of Russell 1986’s Like Engend’ring Like: Heredity and Animal Breeding in Early Modern England, describing development of selective breeding and discussing models of the psychology and sociology of innovation.

Like anything else, the idea of “breeding” had to be invented. That traits are genetically-influenced broadly equally by both parents subject to considerable randomness and can be selected for over many generations to create large average population-wide increases had to be discovered the hard way, with many wildly wrong theories discarded along the way. Animal breeding is a case in point, as reviewed by an intellectual history of animal breeding, Like Engend’ring Like, which covers mistaken theories of conception & inheritance from the ancient Greeks to perhaps the first truly successful modern animal breeder, Robert Bakewell (1725–1795).

Why did it take thousands of years to begin developing useful animal breeding techniques, a topic of interest to almost all farmers everywhere, a field which has no prerequisites such as advanced mathematics or special chemicals or mechanical tools, and seemingly requires only close observation and patience? This question can be asked of many innovations early in the Industrial Revolution, such as the flying shuttle.

Some veins in economics history and sociology suggest that at least one ingredient is an improving attitude: a detached outsider’s attitude which asks whether there is any way to optimize something, in defiance of ‘the wisdom of tradition’, and looks for improvements. A relevant English example is the English Royal Society of Arts, founded not too distant in time from Bakewell, specifically to spur competition and imitation and new inventions. Psychological barriers may be as important as anything like per capita wealth or peace in innovation.

Like Engend’ring Like: Heredity and Animal Breeding in Early Modern England, Russell1986, is an intellectual history of the British agricultural revolution, reviewing some of the early English breeding literature, focusing on thoroughbred horses and then sheep. There is not much original research as far as I can tell, it is primarily review of existing primary/secondary sources, but it gives a useful overall arc from the dark ages of English agriculture to Robert Bakewell and the British agricultural revolution to post-Bakewell.

What is most interesting is the intellectual history we can extract from it in terms of inventing heritability and as important, one of the inventions of progress in the gradual realization that selective breeding was even possible.

The Invention of Heritability

…noble inventions may be lying at our very feet, and yet mankind may step over without seeing them. For however the discovery of gunpowder, of silk, of the magnet, of sugar, of paper, or the like, may seem to depend on certain properties of things themselves and nature, there is at any rate nothing in the art of printing which is not plain and obvious…for want, I say, of observing these things, men went for so many ages without this most beautiful discovery, which is of so much service in the propagation of knowledge.

…But such is the infelicity and unhappy disposition of the human mind in this course of invention, that it first distrusts and then despises itself: first will not believe that any such thing can be found out; and when it is found out, cannot understand how the world should have missed it so long. And this very thing may be justly taken as an argument of hope; namely, that there is a great mass of inventions still remaining…

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum I CX (1620)

I was interested primarily in the section on Robert Bakewell, the Moneyball of sheep breeding, about whom information remains difficult to get, but also in the broader question highlighted by “Heredity Before Genetics: A History”, Cobb2006: given how blatant the general phenomenon (however difficult the actual mathematical analysis of modern quantitative genetics) appear to be—averages or additive effects everywhere, equal parental effects, normal distribution of traits, selection on measured traits produces gradual but cumulatively enormous gains and leading to creation of breeds or even speciation—why were Bakewell and other breeders such an intellectual revolution? Why could they influence Charles Darwin1 and Mendel so much and gradually revolutionize agriculture? Why indeed could British agricultural revolution figures like Thomas Coke, or inventors in general, make such improvements?

People, both ordinary and men of leisure, often intensely interested in agriculture, have been farming animals for millennia and presumably interfering in their reproduction, and had ample opportunity to informally observe many matings, long pedigrees, crosses between breeds, and comparisons with neighboring farmers, and they had great incentive to reach correct beliefs not just for the immediate & compounding returns but also from being able to sell their superior specimens for improving other herds. With particularly intense selection feasible in practice (like using a single sire in a herd), large improvements could’ve been seen well within a person’s working lifetime.

But surviving theoretical scientific discussions of heredity are baffling. Early discussions of breeding which initially seem to make sense, like Plato’s Republic, suddenly veer into nonsense when Plato emphasizes the importance of breeding only from those best individuals who are also “in their prime”—should you breed using your prize specimens who have gotten a little too old, well, then, your animals will inevitably “greatly degenerate”2, as the age of the father was far more important than mere ability, a principle the Spartans also followed in discouraging young or old men from reproducing. (Aristotle explained this as older animals devoting food consumption to creation of fat, rather than creation of blood, and since semen was produced from blood…) Xenophon insisted that dogs be nursed by their original mothers, and not foster mothers, as the milk of the latter would be useless. Roman authors, following Varro, emphasized further the importance of starving female cattle before mating; naturally, cattle were to be chosen solely on the basis of their coat color. Indeed, the circumstances of the mating were at least as important as any qualities of the father. (The belief that circumstance at conception could ‘impress’ themselves on offspring is an ancient one, examples of which can be found even in the Old Testament, where Jacob places striped branches near mating goats/sheep to make the offspring also striped3; one might also mention the contemporary popularity of epigenetics as a causal explanation of everything.4) Matters improved little in the Renaissance and later, as intellectuals lurched between ‘only fathers matter’ & ‘only mothers matter’, endlessly elaborating on wildly speculative (and wildly wrong) mechanistic explanations of how exactly sperm & eggs & embryos connected and formed, and in an example of “hard cases make bad law”5, the focus on ‘monsters’ and other extreme cases among humans or animals badly misguided their premature attempts to elucidate universal principles comparable to that of astronomy or physics—the examples did not ‘prove any rule’, but baffled everyone trying to come up with a rule to prove. Other societies held to theories of partible paternity. (Cobb remarks “Réaumur and Bonnet’s discovery of aphid parthenogenesis in the 1740s had not helped matters”, to say the least—and parthenogenesis, aside from existing in animals too, is far from the oddest reproductive system or genetics in insects or plants! Had our ancestors known more about reproduction, the consequences would have been disastrous.)

We now know that here are an indefinitely long list of ways that development can go wrong with thousands of environmental insults or developmental error or distinct genetic diseases (each with many possible contributing mutations), and that for the most part, each case is its own special case; sometimes ‘monsters’ can shed light on key aspects of biology like metabolic pathways, but that requires biology centuries more advanced than was available, and that the search for universal principles was futile. There are universal principles but they pertain mostly to populations, must be investigated in the aggregate, statistically, and individual counterexamples can only be shrugged at, as the universal principles can be and often are overridden by many of those special cases.

Why didn’t farmers & breeders correct the theoreticians? Any experience with selective breeding or cross-breeding should have strangled “preformationism” in its crib, and it would not have been hard to look over a good pedigree and note that, say, elite mothers had elite offspring about as often as elite fathers had elite offspring, and that it couldn’t be true that eggs were passive sustenance for an embryo (or alternatively, that the sperm was a mere spark igniting the egg).

Unfortunately, breeders & farmers were also deeply confused. Rather than carefully preserving & breeding prize animals, the best members of a herd would often be culled for eating or selling at the highest profit, and the worst left to reproduce6 (a “negative breeding strategy” ie. dysgenic), since, after all, heredity didn’t matter as much as environment. Rather than a keen focus on the end-goal, whatever that was, farmers would choose for “beauty” or “fancy points”, whatever was in fashion at the moment, and naturally there were fierce disagreements about what a “beautiful” sheep looked like7. Abhorrence of inbreeding (due to human norms or a great fear of inbreeding depression) prevented realizing that inbreeding could be used to create new inbred lines which fixed desirable traits & were man-made breeds, rather than breeds simply being pre-existing natural kinds from time immemorial. The lack of record-keeping or consistent control over reproduction, with catch-as-catch-can matings, culling, environmental shocks, ad hoc introductions from other breeds, and ultimately, tiny average populations controlled by each individual compared to modern farming—all introduced noise. (Bakewell’s own experiments required a large herd, and he either did or almost went bankrupt, sources conflict, despite the extremely high sums he was ultimately able to charge for his animals.8)

The long-term effect? Stasis, or even decay. Well-targeted selective breeding can yield absurdly large effects in one human lifetime (eg. Zuidhof et al 2014), but it’s difficult to see any improvement or change in animal breeds over millennia. Indeed, the belief that only fathers mattered led horse breeders astray: they failed to race mares, and then took the ludicrously expensive imported Arabian stallions and crossed them with random mares, and then took the sub-par performance of their offspring as evidence that race performance was critically dependent on the dry Arabian environment and they simply had to keep importing & crossing.9 Many breeders, going back to the Greeks like Xenophon & Plato or Roman writers thereafter, focused on the circumstances of conception, emphasizing the critical importance of breeding a male in his prime rather than an older one, no matter how much better the older one had performed in its prime, breeding females with large temporal gaps if highest quality is necessary, and particularly avoiding any obese animals, as obesity sapped vitality, impeding the production of blood, from which semen & eggs derived—Greeks supposedly would deliberately starve cows to ensure svelteness before impregnation. And Varro held that twinning in goats/sheep was due to the parents, but that the trait could be both inherited by a male but also was communicable ie. might be carried from a female by the impregnating male to successive females, and so a breeder should try to use twin-begetting goat/sheep as much as possible. (I’ve heard of paternal age effects and epigenetics before, but this is ridiculous!) Perhaps the closest to a modern conception of genetics is Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things Atomistic description of particulate inheritance happening at random10, but surprisingly, Russell doesn’t mention Lucretius at all (perhaps because Lucretius’s theory provides no practical guidance). Considering all of this, I am no longer surprised that selective breeding was invented so late nor that such low-hanging fruit went unplucked for millennia. Under this statistical blizzard of contradictory noise, how was anyone to discern the simple biometric patterns?

Cobb rousingly & convincingly concludes:

It took humanity a remarkably long time to discover that there are consistent relations between parent and offspring, and to develop ways of studying those relations. The raw phenomena of heredity were sufficiently complex to be impervious to ‘common-sense’ reasoning, to the brilliant but stifling schemas that were developed by the Greek philosophers, and even to the stunning forays of the early scientists. What was required was not a novel piece of apparatus, nor even a new theory; the key thing that was needed was statistically extraordinary data sets. On the one hand, these were composed of many reliable human pedigrees of unusual or pathological characters; on the other, they were the large-scale experimental studies that were carried out consciously by Mendel, or as a by-product of the commercial activity of eighteenth-century livestock breeders.

Like all great truths, heredity seems obvious once it is understood. But the fact that so many people took so long to realize what we take for granted does not mean that our predecessors were stupid. Instead, it indicates that, before the patterns within hereditary phenomena could be detected, society had to develop to a sufficient level for these kinds of data to be collected, examined, compared and interpreted. However, although science, written family records and large-scale agricultural production were the prerequisites for the discovery of heredity, the birth of our science was not simple, and required bold thinkers who were prepared to resolve an issue that had perplexed humanity for thousands of years. The result—the twin fields of genetics and evolution—represents one of the greatest insights in human history.

Early English Agriculture & Breeding

But then the rigorous logic of the matter is not plain! Well, what of that? Shall I refuse my dinner because I do not fully understand the process of digestion? No, not if I am satisfied with the result.

Oliver Heaviside, [ Electromagnetic Theory I] 11

What of this progress do we see in Russell’s trace of history? In an example of The Fable of the Bees, the idle wastrel amusements of the aristocrats & aping by their lessers may have been key: because the development of Thoroughbred racehorses starts Russell’s story!

The aristocratic & government interest in racehorses & war horses gradually led to many specialized horses being kept and better record-keeping. The creation of the “stud book” and the classist superstition of “blood” in horses, where even distant ancestry from a famous thoroughbred elevated a horse above common horses, appears to have accidentally backed into success: by creating a reason to track ancestry carefully, and importantly, ensuring that a thoroughbred’s offspring with a horse not in ‘the book’ would be worth much less (regardless of their performance or true genetic potential), a closed breeding population under steady selection was created and ensured that what progress was made was not then immediately undone by careless haphazard matings. Arabian/Turkish stallions were permitted, and now that they were no longer being immediately diluted by outside 100%-non-thoroughbred horses, gradually “graded up” the closed thoroughbred gene pool towards more Arabian/Turkish genes. Further, the mania for racing was not satisfied by the stock of mature stallions so races began expanding to include younger horses (accelerating generational turnover and thus annual gains) and also mares (finally capturing critical performance data and allowing selection on the other half of the equation). Before too long, the import of full-blooded Arabian stallions was no longer particularly necessary as thoroughbred performance had thoroughly outraced them. Russell remarks that thoroughbreds, like cats or dogs, were then (and still are, based on the crudity of the racehorse genetics papers I’ve read) bred in an unsystematic and inefficient manner, but this seems to have been enough. Other English fashions, like the demand for carriage-horses due to increasing wealth, rapidly molded various breeds of horses larger & smaller as necessary. The sudden sustained progress in racehorses and changes demonstrating malleability probably did not go unnoticed.

Early cattle/sheep productivity was low. Dairy cow yield, for example, appears to have been probably below 300 gallons a year (pg129); for comparison, contemporary dairy cow yield is closer to 2,300 gallons a year & increasing (~1%/annually genetically). Dairy cattle breeding optimized for as few males as possible, since they did not produce milk and were needed essentially only to impregnate the cows, and so calving would happen as simultaneously as possible early in the spring. A village might collectively pay for a single “common bull” to ‘tup’ the villagers’ cows, but wealthier farmers might buy or simply hire individual bulls. If you only need one, and that one will be kept busy impregnating as many cows as possible, you want the best & lustiest one, and it naturally develops into a selective breeding program. (Although having only one male is far from optimal for maximizing the long-term response to selection.) After a few years, the bull slows down, one fattens it for the butcher, and buys a new one. Bakewell, in addition to his more famous sheep, was also involved in steer & horse breeding and would’ve been familiar with this. By the time Bakewell began in the 1740s, English sheep farmers had been struggling with changing market incentives: small sheep, while tastier, didn’t fetch a sufficient premium, and likewise, fine wool wasn’t premium enough to compensate for the small amount of fleece on such sheep; they had begun explicitly seeking out and buying large high-meat/wool-yielding sheep.

Robert Bakewell

This perhaps formed the jumping off point for Bakewell. Bakewell began carefully measuring his animals & paying attention to the offspring of any hired-out males to gauge the males’ genetic quality, optimizing for fast growth and fattiness as that maximized the final profit (making Bakewell arguably the inventor of index selection), even going so far as to preserve joints in jars from previous specimens to more accurately compare with current animals, and perhaps practicing more inbreeding than other contemporary breeders. Russell is critical of the extent to which Bakewell’s Dishley sheep was really an economic success or to what extent better measurements were responsible for improvements, calling some of the later prices Bakewell charged “more to do with theatre and the cunning exploitation of fashion than any relationship with the breeding value of stock” and noting that an unknown but possibly large amount of the Dishley sheep’s quality was due as much to Bakewell’s “superb standards of husbandry” and assiduous investment in environmental improvements like irrigating fields & feeding his animal high-quality pasturage & being extremely kind/gentle to his animals (some of the many visitors, domestic & international, to Dishley would note that the animals were remarkably happy, calm, and good-natured, and that Bakewell was also beloved by his employees). One improvement I particularly liked was Bakewell’s construction of a canal for carrying fodder around: a worker would toss some into the canal, which would then carry it to the main house into a pool, washing it along the way. Russell concludes (pg215), after reviewing some later small-scale data from the Annals, that:

It must be doubtful if food conversion or carcass ratio were significantly improved, or that the fundamental form of the carcass was changed either in the Bakewell strain of Longhorn cow or in Lincolnshire Wold sheep. However, the animals looked much better grazier’s animals, with their tendency to fat up and round out well. In a sense, all Bakewell had done was to create a new, if somewhat more rational fancy for sheep of a particular shape, rather than merely tinkering with colour or horn form. On the other hand, it would seem that the Lincoln breeders had genuinely succeeded in breeding animals with a greatly increased fleece yield, although the death of the longwool market made their achievement a pointless one. Sensibly they reverted back towards the form of the Wold sheep from which they had started, of which the best surviving examples were the Dishleys. The use of Dishley stock by the Lincoln breeders was, of course, made much of by the Leicestershire men, although it probably did not have the significance the latter ascribed to it. Certainly Bakewell must take considerably credit for publicising the idea of selecting stock for economic performance, but whether his actual achievements in this field were of any significance remains doubtful.

Inasmuch as there do not seem to be any surviving records from Bakewell (!) and Bakewell never wrote up his data or methods, only discussing it with visitors, it is difficult to say either way. Given how many subsequent gains have come from breeding and the low initial level and the fact that response to selection is expected to be greatest at the beginning, I incline towards thinking that Bakewell did cause large genetic gains by simply being thorough and exercising some care, and of course his environmental improvements may also have been critical to his genetic success by allowing each animal to reach its genetic potential, increasing heritability/reducing non-shared-environment effects. (If the Dishley breeds had been maintained to the present day, it might be possible to partition gains from environment and genetics by common-garden experiments or by using polygenic scores, but unfortunately, they appear to have all long since disappeared or merged into other breeds which have undergone intense selection since then, and are no more available for study than the Dishley records.)

In any case, Russell makes an interesting suggestion there. If Bakewell’s true contribution was “publicising the idea” (which can be further buttressed by noting that Bakewell was widely praised in the 1700s & 1800s, citing Charles Darwin invoking Bakewell in the context of natural selection as demonstrating what explicit selection can do even to the point of making a new breed, the goal of German sheep breeders to emulate Bakewell’s supposed success, etc) what can we draw out of this?

Bakewell and the Invention of Progress

One way would be to say that Bakewell played a part in the invention of Progress or the “improving attitude”.

It is not an universal belief among humans that it is possible to ‘progress’; Whiggism must be learned. Isaac Newton, for example, disbelieved that he lived in any kind of ‘revolution’ or unique event in human history, and regarded contemporary progress as evidence that human history actually consisted cycles of creation & destruction, and believed that his research on gravity or the Philosopher’s Stone was merely recovering what the Ancients knew & had been lost. Breeders likewise regarded selection as merely frustrating the inevitable decay of herds under inbreeding & local environments. One imported a Turkish or Spanish or Arabian stallion to try to temporarily elevate one’s horses, but that was to try to borrow some of the ancestral power of a born & raised foreign racehorse—no permanent gain was looked for nor, apparently, seen, and one simply kept importing. The idea that it is possible to almost arbitrarily improve a breed’s traits, or steer a breed in a direction to the point that it would have to be considered a new and clearly distinct breed for all intents & purposes, appears to have not been in circulation. It would have been deemed absurd, worthy of parody in the Laputa of Gulliver’s Travels, to imagine that dairy cows could one day yield >8x more milk. Most merchants & aristocrats dreamed of nothing more than to own a large landed estate with an annual income of several hundred or thousand pounds sterling, and their descendants living off the land-rents for eternity (and land prices reflected this, with prestigious full ownership costing far more than 99-year leases).

The market is a weighing machine, but where do the things weighed come from? What differentiates a complacent society from an innovative society? If chance favors the prepared mind, what is the nature of this mental preparation?

The Improving Attitude

In a recent talk, economic historian Anton Howes12, who studies a similar period of English history, specializing in the Royal Society of Arts (est. 1754), brought up many interesting points about innovation and progress, putting together a circumstantial case for the role of social imitation & elite competition in driving innovation, what you might call the Velvet Underground model of innovation. Rather than innovation & progress just sort of happening on its own or being driven by accumulating assets, progress appears to be caused at least partially simply by an attitude of progress, of people competing to be innovative, and of simply looking at age-old things and going “why do we do it that way? Why not do it this other more sensible way?” This attitude appears to be rare outside of pre-Revolution England/Europe13, and was mocked by many (eg. Swift’s Gulliver’s Laputa, v6c414)

The Royal Society of Arts is a case in point: the RSA was founded to encourage technological and practical innovations by contests, funded by ‘subscriptions’ from aristocrats & well-to-do bourgeoisie, But it did not have the money to directly fund people to do R&D or pay for getting a patent or buy out existing patents, and instead, based on votes, primarily awarded medals and occasionally substantial but still relatively nominal monetary prizes. (They were not awarded to patented things. This was not as much of a restriction as it might seem because patents, being so expensive in real terms, rarely obtained, often not useful when obtained, and nearly abolished in the early 1800s, seem like a minor player at best. Corporations, likewise—just about anything you might do with a limited-liability corporation could be done with a trust instead.) And this… apparently worked really well? For example, the RSA takes credit for 60 million trees planted by the landed gentry starting in 1758, simply by awarding a gold medal to the Duke of Beaufort followed by “various other dukes, duchesses, earls, viscounts, marquesses, bishops, and members of parliament, not to mention many more untitled members of the minor gentry. Aristocrats and their neighbours engaged in a ‘very laudable emulation’, each vying to out-do one another in the extent and quality of their plantations.” The only payment it could make was prestige, reflected from the English aristocracy, and this was apparently adequate, indeed, perhaps even more motivating than mere wealth. (I’ve often been baffled by how medals were endlessly awarded before the 1900s, and now I wonder if I over-hastily dismissed the idea that medals could be real motivation for anyone, simply because I can’t imagine being motivated by yet another symbolic medal.) In creating his Society, William Shipley, sought to excite an empirics of envy, emulation, and excellence. He was, it is worth noting, was inspired by… horse racing: he had noticed the tremendous efforts invested in it, all out of disproportion to the awarded prizes, and the resulting progress, and sought to harness that energy for more socially-valuable purposes.15

Other observations follow. Some major inventions are so simple as to defy belief they were not invented thousands of years ago—the mould board plough or the flying shuttle, for example. Many inventors had little or no training or experience in the field they invented something in, and might be a lawyer or something else entirely (like a small boy irritated at being assigned to a steam engine), and otherwise sometimes seem incompetent; John Kay of the flying shuttle claimed to have spent only a month apprenticed before making the first of his textile inventions. Inventors who lived in a neighborhood with a high per capita patent rate are themselves more likely to file a patent. Future inventors might correspond with their heroes (shades of the ‘college of letters’) and, if they then meet them in person, they are more likely to go on to innovate, even if it was only a single short meeting and the hero was in an entirely different field and so it is difficult to see what key fact, skill, or wealth/object they could have transmitted which might make any difference. Innovation appears to be contagious: the society of clockmakers was often hired by scientists to make instruments for their needs, and the hired clockmakers started innovating more and this spread to the rest of the guild. Immigrants (not all Scots, France/Germany/America are common origins), and religious Dissenters, such as Scots Presbyterians moving south into English Anglican territory, are constantly overrepresented, as are mentions of The Great Exhibition. For comparison, France appears to have been much less practically innovative and slower to industrialize; why? Howes suggested it reflected different elite priorities: the French aristocracy was much stronger & wealthier than the English, and had an inclination towards purer, more abstract, more universal theorizing. Technology and economic growth and health simply weren’t rewarded with prestige from a French RSA. And you get what you incentivize.

Taking Howes’s claims at face-value, we could expand on the model a little more. Passing over Girardian claims of mimesis as the most powerful force in society, it’s still intriguing to note parallels elsewhere.

Bakewell, it hardly needs to be said, follows the Howes model well: Bakewell had no special training or math or technology to offer, and his breeds have been much criticized for being useless in practice and disappeared, but what he did accomplish was endorse the idea of progress, providing a model to emulate, and a prestigious figure to cite as precedent. Bakewell may have been grossly overrated by acolytes, but from this point of view, that is a feature and not a bug—the more praised the better! His influence then spread and sparked Bakewellites elsewhere and abroad, better equipped to successfully do what (they thought) he did.

Social Contagion?

One of the things that comes up…is the existence of a certain kind of out-communities that were weirdly overrepresented among people who created new economic systems, opened up new trade routes, and so on. I’m talking about Huguenots, who were the Protestants in France who suffered a lot of oppression. I’m talking about the Puritans in England, who were not part of the established church and so also came in for a lot of oppression. Armenians, Jews, Parsis, various other minority communities that, precisely because of their outsider minority status, were forced to form long-range networks and go about things in an unconventional, innovative way… it’s the circumstances that made it possible for these weird outsider groups to find footholds in various niches and do new things.

Neal Stephenson, July 2019 interview

Of the 6 people who started PayPal, 4 had built bombs in high school. 5 were just 23 years old—or younger. 4 of us had been born outside the United States. 3 had escaped here from communist countries: Yu Pan from China, Luke Nosek from Poland, and Max Levchin from Soviet Ukraine. Building bombs was not what kids normally did in those countries at that time. The 6 of us could have been seen as eccentric. My first-ever conversation with Luke was about how he’d just signed up for cryonics, to be frozen upon death in hope of medical resurrection.

Peter Thiel, on the PayPal Mafia (Zero To One)

Former Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton volunteer to get coronavirus vaccine publicly to prove it’s safe

CNN headline (2020-12-02)

In my review of The Vaccinators, I noted I was particularly interested in the trick that cracked Japanese smallpox (cowpox) vaccination: it was, apparently, inadequate to offer Japanese people merely a nearly-free silver bullet for saving their children from a fatal crippling disease which killed >10% of all children and had for centuries—but what did work was to convince the great nobles to vaccinate their children, and then with that elite endorsement, the masses quickly imitated. Howes notes an earlier smallpox example of aristocratic endorsement: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu struggled to introduce Turkish variolation into England despite variolating her own son, until she won over Princess Caroline of Ansbach (who had lost her father & step-father to smallpox, and nearly died of it herself), and then, after a successful experiment on condemned prisoners, Caroline had her royal children variolated. (To quote the well-connected Stephen Hales, who helped co-found the RSA, “a king’s or Princess’s word runneth swiftly” indeed.)

Highly-effective small groups punching far above their weight turn up in the history of technology or science or politics with eerie frequency. Why is half of 20th century psychiatry or physics in one photo? Why do some labs excel in discoveries, and mentors in protege successes? (Selection effects & network effects, of course, but is that really all? Are there no micro-agglomeration effects?) Consider the English Fabian Society and the effort they put into attractive publications, salons & parties & debates, recruiting bourgeoisie or upper-class members; despite appearing ineffective, it turned out positively tentacular (or the Alzheimer lab or Bloomsbury Group or Florentine Camerata or PayPal Mafia…). Startups regularly form around charismatic leaders with intense visions, who occasionally shove something forward by decades. (Case in point, Elon Musk16 & electric cars: I recall pre-Musk electric car forecasts from before 2003. Often they did not involve electric cars at all but hydrogen or fuel-cell cars. When was the last time you heard about those? And electric car time-lines tended to look more like “perhaps by 2020 or 2030 there may be an usable expensive electric car”.) When I visited Stanford University in March 2018 to talk & have lunch with some students, I felt weird for a few hours afterwards; I finally put my finger on it when I realized that they took launching startups & other highly ambitious endeavours so for granted that I had begun to feel like a failure & to wonder what I could do to become awesome again. People who take investment from the Y Combinator venture capital firm (some who I know personally) aver that the money is almost beside the point, and it is the community they value and the inspiration from Paul Graham & principals & peers.

Are outsiders and “misfits” and trouble-makers and credential-less underemployed necessary for progress? Why don’t identical twins leverage their profound mutual trust & understanding to form dynamic duos regularly dominating society? Why do birth order effects turn up in the West for education, intelligence, & personality (and perhaps also mathematicians, physicists, & weirdos)?17 Why do teachers dislike their most creative students so much? What makes a sober penny-pinching man like John D. Rockefeller suddenly decide to bet his life savings on a dubious gamble like the Pennsylvanian oil fields not being a fad which would run out in a few years, and become the world’s richest man? Why do companies & conferences continue to prioritize in-person meetings rather than switching to remote working or online broadcasts/discussions, and why does it seem so important to meet someone briefly in the flesh when you would seem to hardly learn anything from it? Is it necessary to small groups to meet in person, to trust each other, perhaps to have interrogation-criticism sessions like Skull and Bones, to forestall sociopath & MOP invasions, or to create private status hierarchies separate from the world’s status hierarchies, to give oneself permission to be an outsider and dangerously stray outside the box?

Perhaps there is some sort of psychological barrier, where the mind flinches at any suggestion bubbling up from the subconscious that conflicts with age-old tradition or with higher-status figures. Should any new ideas still manage to come up, they are suppressed; “don’t rock the boat”, don’t stand out (“the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions”). Should they not be suppressed, they are then discarded. One doesn’t have permission from oneself. What meeting a mentor does, then, or what a general attitude of progress, or what living on Stanford campus does, or what a trinket from a Royal Society does, or what joining a small startup or research group exploring an exciting but controversial new idea, is it normalizes & allocates prestige to new things.

The Great Man theory of history we have and believe may not be true, and Great Men not real but invented; but it may be true we need to believe the Great Man theory of history, and would have invented them if they were not real.

  1. Darwin cited Bakewell as the original example of selective breeding which was brought to such an extreme as all the pigeons which clutter On The Origin of Species, in his 1842 “Sketch on Natural Selection”:

    Remember how soon Bakewell on the same principle altered cattle and Western, sheep carefully avoiding a cross (pigeons) with any breed. We cannot suppose that one plant tends to vary in fruit and another in flower, and another in flower and foliage—some have been selected for both fruit and flower: that one animal varies in its covering and another not—another in its milk. Take any organism and ask what is it useful for and on that point it will be found to vary—cabbages in their leaf—corn in size and quality of grain, both in times of year—kidney beans for young pod and cotton for envelope of seeds, etc.: dogs in intellect, courage, fleetness and smell: pigeons in peculiarities approaching to monsters.

    and his 1844, “On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection”

    Now, can it be doubted, from the struggle each individual has to obtain subsistence, that any minute variation in structure, habits, or instincts, adapting that individual better to the new conditions, would tell upon its vigour and health? In the struggle it would have a better chance of surviving; and those of its offspring which inherited the variation, be it ever so slight, would also have a better chance. Yearly more are bred than can survive; the smallest grain in the balance, in the long run, must tell on which death shall fall, and which shall survive. Let this work of selection on the one hand, and death on the other, go on for a thousand generations, who will pretend to affirm that it would produce no effect, when we remember what, in a few years, Bakewell effected in cattle, and Western in sheep, by this identical principle of selection?

  2. Book 5:

    …“They are, indeed,” I said; “but next, Glaucon, disorder and promiscuity in these unions or [458e] in anything else they do would be an unhallowed thing in a happy state and the rulers will not suffer it.” “It would not be right,” he said. “Obviously, then, we must arrange marriages, sacramental so far as may be. And the most sacred marriages would be those that were most beneficial.” [459a] “By all means.” “How, then, would the greatest benefit result? Tell me this, Glaucon. I see that you have in your house hunting-dogs and a number of pedigree cocks.88 Have you ever considered something about their unions and procreations?” “What?”89 he said. “In the first place,” I said, “among these themselves, although they are a select breed, do not some prove better than the rest?” “They do.” “Do you then breed from all indiscriminately, or are you careful to breed from the best90?” [459b] “From the best.” “And, again, do you breed from the youngest or the oldest, or, so far as may be, from those in their prime?” “From those in their prime.” “And if they are not thus bred, you expect, do you not, that your birds and hounds will greatly degenerate?” “I do,” he said. “And what of horses and other animals?” I said; “is it otherwise with them?” “It would be strange if it were,” said he.

  3. Genesis 30:31

    “Don’t give me anything,” Jacob replied [to Laban]. “But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them:32 Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages”…Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches.38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink,39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted.

  4. Epigenetics are important as a mechanism, but not an independent inheritable cause. One might say that ‘genetics is the cookbook, and epigenetics the dirty kitchen’—the kitchen is how the recipe turns into food, and so important, but if the recipe was bad, cleaning up the kitchen afterwards won’t make the dish any tastier.↩︎

  5. Perhaps this is why astronomy is one of the oldest & most historically important sciences? Perhaps astronomy is the training wheels of science—stoking curiosity in pre-modern society like nothing else (Litina & Fernández2023).

    In no other case does the universe regularly provide problems which can be falsifiably predicted to extreme quantitative accuracy using simple mathematics, years in advance, with results that are unambiguous & unmanipulable, but where occasional anomalies can force revision to fundamentally different theories and where the best theories imply highly unobvious facts about the world (eg. the discovery that the moon reflects the sun, or that the earth is a sphere because that explains why its shadow during eclipses is always circular). A good astronomical theory can make a precise prediction like the hour of an eclipse decades from now, where nothing any human does or say will change the widely-observable fact of the eclipse happening or not.

    These provide powerful falsifications of poorer theories. For example, the Jesuits in Imperial China could prove their scientific superiority over the stagnant indigenous astronomy by engaging in astronomical competitions (overseen by the emperor himself), predicting the times of eclipses or the lengths of shadows with far greater accuracy than the Islamic & Confusion incumbents. Without these regular feats, they would have been utterly defeated by xenophobia, bias, and politics, and the Chinese continued believing in things like a flat square earth—after Schall won a contest, the Jesuits were sentenced to death anyway. They were rescued by a fluke earthquake; 5 of their Chinese astronomers were not. (See Udias1994, Aslaksen2010, Cullen & Jami2022, Hannam2022, Hu2002.)

    Contrast this with the historically extremely closely-linked & superficially similar-seeming—but complete & utter scientific failure, and deluder of billions of believers—that is astrology, which attempts to predict not the skies using the skies, but humans using the skies. Such problems turn out to be far too difficult for mere humans.↩︎

  6. Such a strategy sounds completely absurd and it’s hard to believe the ancients would do it even if Russell tells us they usually did up to the Industrial Revolution, but on the other hand, Richard Dawkins (The Ancestor’s Tale, pg46) notes that:

    …It was probably more difficult [for people] to work out that it might be a good idea to keep back the best seed for planting, rather than follow the obvious course of eating the best and planting the dross (my father, as a young man fresh out of college, taught agriculture to peasant farmers in central Africa in the 1940s, and he tells me that this was one of the hardest lessons to get across).

  7. The agricultural writer Arthur Young, a main source on Dishley & Bakewell due to his visits, discussed Bakewell’s detractors with withering scorn:

    No man that is a judge will deny, or question for a single moment, that this breed of sheep, whether intrinsically good or bad, has been improved more than any other in the kingdom. I have conversed with Norfolk, Sussex, Dorset, and Wilts flock masters, but I have never heard any of them pretend that any very great improvements have been made in the last ten years, one or two men in a country excepted; and not every where even one. If then there has been a greater improvement made in this breed than in others, it follows, in all fairness of reasoning, that those maxims, those principles, and that conduct, whatever they may be, which have had this effect, have been more successful and ought ceteris paribus to be acknowledged better and sounder than those principles and maxims which have been applied to other breeds of the kingdom….what has that mode consisted in? In one great leading point—in raising the value, and thereby animating the spirit of exertion.

    …It is remarkable, that in these counties, which are each in possession of distinct and much vaunted breeds, rams have not been let [rented]; they are sold, and at such low prices, that 20 guineas must every where be considered as the highest heard of. It surely deserves noting, that these breeds have been either very little, or not at all, improved at low prices, while that of Leicester has been prodigiously improved at very high ones.

    It is not that these breeds are incapable of improvement, they are all greatly capable of it, even on the ideas that respectively govern those counties. If a black face, and a black long leg, and a thick long horn, many times curled, are admitted excellencies in Norfolk, why not breed the faces till blacker, and the horns yet longer? If naked bellies, white faces, and horns falling back behind the ear are objects in Wiltshire, why not breed for those excellences, so as to command them to more perfection? If rough heads and horns, flicking out from the head, be the marks of merit in Dorsetshire, why not carry such points further than any one has done yet? And if a patch in a speckled face is a criterion in Sussex, surely a brighter speckle and a thicker patch might be bred?

    Now is it not a marvelous system, that amidst all this attention to these points, so utterly non-essential, or rather so ridiculous, these whites, blacks, speckles, horns, and patches—that the carcass should every where seem to be out of all contemplation, except in Leicestershire? It surely is fortunate that men should arise, who rejecting all these fooleries as nothing, have paid attention to the carcass alone!

    But supposing Leicester wrong, and all the rest right, then comes the question pointed and apposite; why have not you made as great improvements in your horns, your legs, and your faces, as Leicester has in the barrel? Leicester has not stood still a moment, but most of you have been stationary these 20 years. Why?—Because you have not been pushed forward by high prices. If men could have been found to buy horns at £10 an inch, or colour at £20 a shade, is it to be supposed they could not have been bred?

  8. It’s interesting to note that despite the social stigma of being a mere tenant & not a gentleman-farmer who of course owned the property, and occupying it for many decades, and investing enormous long-term efforts in improving it, Bakewell never bought his farm, Dishley, outright. Perhaps the necessary upfront money was always more productively spent improving his animals. It’s been noticed that 99-year leases for English property were extraordinarily cheap compared to outright purchase prices in the pre-modern era (“Pricing the Future in the Seventeenth Century: Calculating Technologies in Competition”, Deringer2017).↩︎

  9. For all that people assume that historical people were super-genetic-determinists about anything and everything, a remarkable amount of naive environmentalism was current: for example, the European assumption, criticized by Sir Thomas Browne (among other naturalist debunkings), that Africans were black only because of their sunny environment! Some first-hand experience with their offspring in Europe eventually refuted that, although Russell indicates that even this was not enough to convince environmentalists: “it was thus destined to be discussed interminably in the 18th and 19th centuries, with few able to accept that it was an entirely heritable phenomenon.” Also peculiar to the modern eye is the case of George Psalmanazar, a Frenchman who claimed to be born and bred on the hitherto unknown island of Taiwan, despite his “pale skin and honey-colored locks”, which made observers note “that the foreigner seems to ‘look like a young Dutch-man’”, appearing to reveal the hoax on sight.↩︎

  10. A. E. Stallings’s 2007 verse translation (Book IV “The Senses”, lines 1209–1232) (Stallings noting “This seems surprisingly close to a concept of genes.”)

    …And as the seeds mix, when the woman happens to prevail,
    Her force suddenly conquering the power of the male,
    The children resemble the mother, from maternal seed; in turn,
    When male seed dominates, it is the father you discern.
    And when you see both parents’ features mixed up with each other,
    The children come from flesh and blood of both father and mother
    When the seeds, goaded by Venus, were aroused throughout the frame,
    And met as the two panted together, both burning with one flame,
    Neither seed conquering or conquered, both counting the same.

    Sometimes children take after their grandparents instead,
    Or great-grandparents, bringing back the features of the dead.
    This is since parents carry elemental seeds inside—
    Many and various, mingled many ways—their bodies hide
    Seeds that are handed, parent to child, all down the family tree.
    Venus draws features from these out of her shifting lottery—
    Bringing back an ancestor’s look or voice or hair. Indeed
    These characteristics are just as much the result of certain seed
    As are our faces, limbs and bodies. Females can arise
    From the paternal seed, just as the male offspring, likewise,
    Can be created from the mother’s flesh. For to comprise
    A child requires a doubled seed—from father and from mother.
    And if the child resembles one more closely than the other,
    That parent gave the greater share—which you can plainly see
    Whichever gender—male or female—that the child may be.

  11. An apocryphal version of this quote starting “Mathematics is of two kinds” is in circulation but is a mish-mash.↩︎

  12. Homepage; relevant writings:

    See also:

  13. Where else might the ‘improving attitude’ be found?

    Song China is often mentioned as a “proto Industrial Revolution” in discussions of the Great Divergence, but I don’t know much about innovation or intellectual climate there.

    Another candidate is Rome: I’m struck by the extent to which Greco-Roman philosophy believed in progress—as major figures as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates were in philosophy, Greco-Roman philosophy did not hold them as founders who said all that could be said about natural or moral philosophy, and believed that major intellectual advances had been made since them. The Academic Skeptics, for example, or even better, the Stoics and Epicureans, who investigated many things and believed they had made discoveries of importance: Lucretius covers Epicurean theories of everything from atomism to lightning to the rain cycle to the Nile’s source to the speed of light, which I am fairly sure Epicureans did not simply copy from a Platonic dialogue.

    The general impression of Rome seems to be negative, but how much of this reflects simply the drastic loss of records & bias towards narrow topics like religion? Estimates that 1% of Greco-Roman science survives seem if anything to understate the case. The contents of the famous Herculaneum library would surely astonish us… if the available fragments were not that of a minor poet and further excavation forbidden. What survives of Greco-Roman architectural feats is enough to indicate that they reached a remarkable level of technological & scientific development, and as time passes, we continue to discover more remarkable things which continue to stretch what we thought Romans had done or discovered. On the Nature of Things was rediscovered based on 1 copy (1417) with 3 earlier ones (800s?) eventually uncovered; the Archimedes Palimpsest (1909–2008) could fairly be said to survive in less than 1 copy; the Antikythera mechanism (1902) is unique & not mentioned in any surviving records; the Nemi ships (1929), >70m long pleasure ships using advanced technology like ball-bearings, bilge pumps, indoor plumbing, lead anchor stocks, and hulls indicative of standardized (industrial?) design & production, are briefly mentioned by one historian but their striking technology omitted; the water mills of Barbegal (1940), perhaps only 1 of many such complexes, are of truly industrial scale and served an advanced naval economy but their role must be inferred from some peeled-off lumps of mineral residue; and so on. All of this fed into striking economic growth. It’s enough to make one wonder, indeed. (In this context, I’m curious to eventually read Richard Carrier’s Science Education in the Early Roman Empire/The Scientist in the Roman Empire to see what he turns up.)↩︎

  14. Swift mocks the “projectors” (who project future trends and improvements), claiming the projects come to naught and merely ruin the people in one passage (before going on to satirize the Royal Society in the form of the Laputan Academy):

    The next morning after my arrival, he took me in his chariot to see the town, which is about half the bigness of London; but the houses very strangely built, and most of them out of repair. The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags. We passed through one of the town gates, and went about three miles into the country, where I saw many labourers working with several sorts of tools in the ground, but was not able to conjecture what they were about: neither did observe any expectation either of corn or grass, although the soil appeared to be excellent. I could not forbear admiring at these odd appearances, both in town and country; and I made bold to desire my conductor, that he would be pleased to explain to me, what could be meant by so many busy heads, hands, and faces, both in the streets and the fields, because I did not discover any good effects they produced; but, on the contrary, I never knew a soil so unhappily cultivated, houses so ill contrived and so ruinous, or a people whose countenances and habit expressed so much misery and want.

    …The sum of his discourse was to this effect: “That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair: that as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation: that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

  15. “William Shipley And The Royal Society Of Arts: The History of an Idea”, Luckhurst1949:

    The success of Shipley’s project, however, is due ultimately not so much to the force of his character as to the Tightness of the idea, simple, indeed naive, though it was, which he conceived and on which he based his Society. It is fortunate, therefore, that we possess, in a pamphlet dated 1763 and entitled “A Concise Account of the Rise, Progress and Present State of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce”, a detailed story of how the project gradually formed in his mind.

    It really grew from two ideas, the first of which came to him as he watched the horse fair which was held twice a year at Northampton, where he resided. When he saw all the buying and selling that went on at the fair, involving large sums of money, he began to enquire into the cause of its success. He was told that it was largely due to the institution of horse-racing meetings; and that many of these had recently been promoted by the King and others who had presented plates or prizes for the various races. From this it occurred to Shipley that the gift of a comparatively few prizes had thus stimulated a whole industry; and impressed by this discovery he began to ask himself whether this, same principle could not be applied to stimulate other industries. He decided that it could, and subsequent history proved that he was right, but in the meantime there remained a second question—where was the money for even a few modest prizes to come from?

    The 1763 pamphlet appears to be reprinted in William Shipley: Founder of the Royal Society of Arts; A Biography with Documents, Allan1968.↩︎

  16. Speaking of Musk, why did I have such a vivid impression in 2014 that Musk endorsing the idea of AI risk & Bostrom’s book Superintelligence was a huge turning point in public interest & intellectual respectability of the topic? After all—what does Musk know about AI risk, really?↩︎

  17. Would we find only-children overrepresented? Left-handers? Does this connect to why LGBT seem to be overrepresented in similar circles? Does childhood emotional abuse or bullying actually spur great achievement by a lingering resentment & unquenchable dissatisfaction? Is there some sort of “outsider” general factor, or increase in variance?↩︎

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