Highlights on the Study of Progress, Part 1
Interesting New Ideas from the Roots of Progress Fellows
For the past two months, I’ve been working hard to keep up with the news because I’ve been especially busy with a special project.
My friends at Roots of Progress, the leading organization trying to accelerate the field of “progress studies,” hosted a series of training sessions for a group of “progress fellows,” talented young people interested in adding to our understanding of progress in a variety of different fields. See a list of the fellows here.
As part of the program, they brought me in to do some teaching on writing, and it was a great opportunity to get to know a really bright and interesting group of people. So I thought I would take a couple of editions to share with my readers a few highlights of what the fellows ended up publishing by the end of the program.
But first a quick announcement.
Thanksgiving Sale Begins
Last year, I started my usual end-of-year sale on subscriptions a little early, and that worked so well I decided to do it again—but just for a few days. Renew now through Tuesday to get 10% off.
If you have an upcoming renewal, if you have let yourself drop from the paid list and would like to get back on, or if you have been lurking on the free list and thinking about subscribing—this is a chance to do it at a significant discount.
We have a particularly interesting year coming up, above all because we will vote in an election that could determine the outcome of struggles for freedom and representative government both at home and across the world. You won’t want to miss my continuing coverage as we enter 2024.
Now to the progress fellows. I’ll take them three at a time and link you to their newsletters (mostly on Substack), so please give them a follow.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Maarten Boudry, a European academic with an interesting history, and one of his first pieces for this program got published recently at Quillette.
For the past few years, I have been the holder of a Chair at Ghent University dedicated in honour of Etienne Vermeersch, a Belgian philosopher renowned for many things but perhaps most notably for his early warnings about overpopulation and his advocacy for birth control. A few years before his untimely death in 2019, he expressed his “despair” at his failure to convince our political leaders to take overpopulation seriously.
Etienne was an intellectual hero of mine for whom I have huge respect, but this is the only thing about which he was dead wrong. Because there is no problem of overpopulation. In fact, before long, we will have to start worrying about underpopulation, caused by rapidly falling birth rates. It turns out that this is bad news not only for humanity but also for the planet, because more humans means more available resources and less destructive impact on nature.
I don’t think these two claims—that global population is at risk of falling rather than growing out of control, and that humans are creators of resources and wealth and not just consumers of them—will be new to my longtime readers, because I’ve been banging these drums for a long time. But this is still news to just about everyone else.
Maarten also offers a lot of interesting new details about the effect of a shrinking and especially an aging population on growth.
Older societies are less dynamic, more resistant to change, and less creative. Most scientists and inventors achieve their breakthroughs in their twenties and thirties, so fewer young people means fewer good ideas (and more older and infirm people to be supported by those fewer ideas). Until we design AI systems that can completely take over our scientific labours, the only genuine engine of progress on this planet is the kilogram of grey matter inside our skull. And with fewer and fewer fresh brains to produce and exchange ideas, the engine of human progress could soon be grinding to a halt (although the world still has huge reserves of underutilised brainpower in poor countries today). As Josh Smith and Jennifer Morales from the Center for Growth and Opportunity put it: “People are not just bellies to fill or a carbon footprint to minimize. People create solutions.” A 2022 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research compares US states and shows that ageing is already a persistent drag on economic growth and productivity; when the proportion of the population over 60 years old increases by 10 percent, economic growth (GDP per capita) decreases by 5.5 percent and productivity by almost 4 percent.
Maarten has some other very interesting pieces in the works, and I’ll link to them as they become available. In the meantime, follow him at.
The idea that humans are able to create new resources and use our brains to grow beyond Malthusian limits is an idea I was already very familiar with, but Max Tabarrok offers a highly original observation about how evolution itself—long before it produced the human brain—was already finding ways to escape the limits to growth.
The logistic model we developed above assumes that the carrying capacity of an environment is a function of the resources flowing in: one slice of peach a day supports 100 flies, and if you don’t change your ration then the long run maximum population of flies stays at 100.
But there are exceptions to this rule. Organisms can sustainably increase their long run maximum population without accessing any new resource flows. A good example of this is a plant enzyme called Rubisco. Here’s how Charles C. Mann describes it:
Rubisco is the essential catalyst for photosynthesis. Like military recruiters who induct volunteers into the army and then return to their work, rubisco molecules take carbon dioxide from the air, insert it into the maelstrom of photosynthesis, then go back for more.
But Rubisco has a huge problem: it can’t tell CO2 from O2…. This problem gets worse with higher temperatures so plants around the equator have evolved a workaround, called C4 photosynthesis….
Once plants evolve C4 photosynthesis they can increase their biomass, population, and energy use sustainably and permanently without collecting any more resources than before, just because C4 makes more output for the same input.
The impact of C4 is evident to anyone who has looked at a recently mowed lawn. Within a few days of mowing, the crabgrass in the lawn springs up, towering over the rest of the lawn (typically bluegrass or fescue in cool areas). Fast-growing crabgrass is C4; lawn grass is ordinary photosynthesis. In addition to growing faster, C4 plants also need less water and fertilizer, because they don’t waste water on reactions that lead to excess oxygen, and because they don’t have to make as much rubisco.
This episode in evolutionary history shows that there is more to population dynamics than the usual story told by ecologists. They model carrying capacity as a function of the resource flows into an environment, but you can keep everything about your lawn the same: sunlight, water, fertilizer, soil, and the evolution of C4 photosynthesis will still increase the output. So the ecological output of an environment is not just a function of the resources flowing in, it also depends on how efficiently those resources are used.
There’s more detail, so read the whole thing. Elsewhere, he also described the evolution of lignin, the chemical that adds structure to plants and gives the woody stem of a plant its stiffness, as another such biological adaptation to access more resources and overcome the limits to growth.
Man and the power of his brain is, once again, proved to be the most natural thing in the world.
Also see Max’s case for geo-engineering as a cheap and simple solution to global warming—a few billions (less than the GDP of Bhutan) spent to spray sun-blocking chemicals in the upper atmosphere. Or as he puts it, Chemtrails, But in a Good Way. I am, as you know, skeptical about the threat of global warming, but if it is a problem, this is the way to deal with it.
[S]olar geoengineering on the scale required to completely offset anthropogenic warming is easily within the technical and economic feasibility of any developed nation and is often far cheaper than the current climate mitigation strategies employed by these nations.
It is astonishing when you think about it.
Follow Max at.
Tina Marsh Dalton
The work of the Roots of Progress fellows covers a very wide range, and I’ll be directing you only to a few of them at a time to make it easier for you to check them out and digest these ideas.
One of more delightful pieces is from Tina Marsh Dalton, who uses art as a window into the history of medical progress by contrasting two 19th Century paintings of eminent surgeons at work. I was particularly struck by this detail.
The lone female in Eakins’s second clinical painting presents a revolutionary counterpoint to the anguished mother in the first painting. Stoic and calm, dressed in sterile surgical garb, the assisting nurse is attentive and at the ready. Women contributed to professionalization of medicine via an explosion in the number of nursing schools, increasing from merely 15 in 1880 to 432 by 1900. The number of nurses grew 10-fold in the ten-year period from the 1880 census to the 1900 census.
The assisting nurse in the painting has been identified as Mary V. Clymer. Her placement in the painting as a competent and dispassionate professional showcases the rational focus of medicine as science, as well as the growing authority of women as nurses in medical practice. She left two volumes of dairies detailing her instruction and practices during this period, in which she wrote, “We must always be dignified & grave [when assisting a surgery] never forgetting that all we are trying to do is for the good of the patient.” Far from the helpless mother on the edge of the action, Clymer describes her actions as member to a professional medical class.
Among science and policy wonks, art tends to be underrated as a source of vital information about the past, so I am hoping Tina will make this part of a series. Follow her at.
I’ll be sharing more from the other fellows in the next few weeks, interspersed with some upcoming comments of my own about how Hamas has exposed the crucial failure of supposedly “woke” left-wing culture; the rise of the Bible-thumping atheists and “culture war Christians”; and the patron saint of techno-optimism.
In the meantime, please take advantage of our Thanksgiving Sale.