This book proposes the unified growth theory that the author defines this way: “Unified growth theory captures the journey of humanity over the entire course of history, since the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa nearly 300,000 years ago. It identifies and traces the forces that governed the process of development during the Malthusian epoch, eventually triggering the phase transition in which the human species escaped from this poverty trap into an era of sustained economic growth. These insights are essential for understanding the growth process in its entirety, the hurdles faced by poorer economies today in their transition from stagnation to growth, the origins of the great divergence in the wealth of nations in the past centuries, and the fingerprints of the ancient past in the fate of nations.” The author also links it to the math theory describing processes in complex non-linear systems. The author describes it this way:” The conceptual framework I devised in the past few decades to address this conundrum was inspired by insights from the mathematical field of bifurcation theory, which demonstrate how, beyond a certain threshold, minor alterations in a single factor may generate a sudden and dramatic transformation in the behavior of complex dynamical systems (as is the case when heat crosses a threshold and transforms water from liquid to gas). In particular, this research has focused on identifying the cogs that were whirring invisibly beneath the surface, wheels of change that were turning relentlessly throughout the epoch of the Malthusian equilibrium but which ultimately broke its hold and led to the emergence of modern growth – much like the rising temperatures in the kettle.” Finally, the “wheels of change”, defined as population size and population composition. The population composition here means the difference between resource allocation to the quantity of people in the next generation or the quality of these people. The author’s explanation of humanity’s and its resources explosive growth during the last few centuries is the switch from quantity to quality in this composition. The book describes in detail how this change occurred in the past and continues in the present.
MY TAKE ON IT:
This review nicely presents the logic and history of human development. I agree that the transfer from quantity to quality in forming the next generation is the driver of the acquisition of new technology, which leads to increased productivity, eventually resulting in a massive increase in the quality and quantity of human lives. However, my own understanding of the overall development, past, present, and future of humanity is based on the notion of the duality of human nature. On the one hand, it is defined by the individual need to survive, while on the other hand, by the need to ensure the survival of the group this individual belongs to. Consequently, the struggle for resources, material and psychological, such as prestige, between individuals within a group and the battle between the groups drives all processes and the overall development of humanity.
I see it as the sequence of five stages of humanity’s development:
- The long process of biological evolution took a few million years and produced contemporary humans as creatures qualitatively different from all other animals. This difference comes from the human ability effectively obtain, accumulate, and transfer complex information not only between individuals but also between generations of individuals. This feature of humans allowed a cumulative increase of knowledge, skills, and processes, which put humans out of complete dependency on the environment. It also turned them into hunter-gatherers with languages, cultures, religions, and traditions.
- Starting some 200,000 years ago, humans began expanding throughout the planet. The process was driven by many small wars between groups for more productive land. The losing group would leave, searching for another place to settle. Since the process was slow, on average a fraction of a mile per year, there was enough time for a bit of biological evolutionary adjustments, such as skin color depending on the amount of sunlight and development of the multitude of different cultures and people. During this long process, there was no need for an increase in productivity, except for accommodation in a slightly different environment. This stage of development was mainly completed when human hunter-gatherers populated the whole planet.
- The next stage started about 10,000 years ago. I would define it as Militaristic agriculture. Anthropological and archeological research shows that the switch to agriculture significantly decreased the quality of human lives. Unlike remnants of hunter-gatherers’ healthy bodies, agriculturalists’ remnants show signs of massive wear and tear, hard work, and diseases. However, agriculture provided a much higher population density and a larger, better-armed military. It also created the condition of using forced labor either as slavery or some process of limiting choice for people to either work under the control of others or get physically punished or deprived of resources. Generally, any military confrontation between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists ended with the defeat and retreat of hunter-gatherers. This stage is still ongoing in some places where leaders and populations are stuck in an ideological and cultural dead end, incapable of understanding the meaningless of territorial acquisition and subjugation of other people when technology and trade made land and manual labor into commodities. During this stage, humanity also developed two main methods of interaction and cooperation between people: Hierarchy and Ownership. The Hierarchy is based on concentrating resources in one place and controlling from the top down, usually using violence and deception on a mass scale. Ownership means distributing resources between owners with exchange and cooperation mainly voluntarily, albeit with a good portion of fraud.
- The next stage – Industrialization started just a few hundred years ago. It led to the implementation of machines that significantly amplified human efforts in the process of generation and management of resources. Initially, this applied mainly to manual efforts and later to data management. This amplification produced a foundation for ideologies of freedom and democracy that supported a massive increase in owners’ productivity and created prosperity in societies where Ownership was, if not dominant, then at least significant. Due to the power of technology, societies with the dominance of Hierarchy mainly lost their ability to conduct profitable wars when victory could bring wealth, slaves, and moral satisfaction. WWI and WWII clearly demonstrated this. So contemporary Hierarchies are left with somewhat limited abilities to rob their own population via taxes and regulations. The current process features constant struggle in each country between Hierarchy and Owners. When the Owners win, the economy prospers, but because all humans are different, this prosperity is always unequal, causing unsatisfied individuals to explode the society with some kind of revolution. After that inevitably comes Hierarchy that concentrates resources, eliminates Owners, sometimes physically, which causes economic decline and general misery. Over time this misery causes the collapse of society with the restoration of some form of Ownership that once again produces prosperity and resentment from insufficiently prosperous people. Then cycle repeats in a somewhat different form.
- We are now at the beginning of a new stage of human development when machines and computers are increasingly capable of completely substituting human efforts in all areas, including the effort of highly qualified professionals. This new situation would inevitably lead to the complete restructuring of human society. As during the previous 10,000 years, it could be built either on the dominance of Hierarchy or dominance of Ownership. I believe that the latter outcome is much better than the former, and I wrote and published on Amazon a small essay describing how it could be done: https://www.amazon.com/OWNERSHIP-versus-HIERARCHY-Choice-Dominant-ebook/dp/B09KMBP6JG/ref=sr_1_5?crid=3NYE5ONTXE27G