The following is an interview conducted by Archbridge Vice President of Research Clay Routledge with Chelsea Follett, managing editor of HumanProgress.org and a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. We discuss her new book, Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World.
Clay Routledge: When people talk about progress, they often focus on specific ideas, discoveries, or innovations. Your book also focuses on these themes, but it puts the emphasis on the places where major advances occurred. Why do you think it is important to think about progress in this way?
Chelsea Follett: Examining the places where major advances happened is one way to learn about the conditions that foster progress and human achievement. The origin points of the ideas, discoveries, and innovations that built the modern world were far from evenly or randomly dispersed throughout the globe. Instead, they tended to emerge from cities, even in time periods when the vast majority of the human population lived in rural areas.
In fact, even before anything that could be called a city by modern standards existed, progress originated from the closest equivalents that did exist at the time. The book’s first chapter focuses on the Neolithic settlement where Jericho is today and the beginnings of permanent settlement and agriculture. While many scholars describe Jericho as perhaps the first city, its population during the era featured in the book would have been similar to that of a rural town today, probably just a couple thousand people. At the time, however, it would have felt like a bustling metropolis, with a population density that was then unprecedented.
Why is that? Whenever more people gather together, that increases their potential to engage in productive exchange, discussion, debate, collaboration, and competition with each other. As the great thinker Matt Ridley puts it in the foreword that he kindly provided for the book, “Progress is a team sport, not an individual pursuit. It is a collaborative, collective thing, done between brains more than inside them.” Certain places, at certain times in history, seem to provide ideal playing conditions for the team sport of progress. Why is that? Progress often emerges from cities, but not all cities. And even centers of progress tend to be at their creative peak only briefly. Studying the particular cities that have helped to create modern civilization during the moment when they did so, and examining what they share in common, may reveal the secret to cultivating innovation in the present and the future.
Clay: Your book does a great job showcasing how cities all over the world have contributed to human progress and that progress has a long history, dating back thousands of years. But your book also explores common factors that are associated with progress across place and time. What are the common factors that you think are most important for intellectual, artistic, scientific, and technological advances, and why do these factors matter so much?
Chelsea: Great achievements have emerged from across the globe, and so it is a geographically diverse book, exploring advances from the earliest seafaring vessels in Micronesia to the first novel in medieval Japan. But some common themes do stand out. As previously mentioned, centers of progress tend to have relatively high populations. But that alone is insufficient; all cities, by their nature, are populous, but not all cities become major innovation centers.
Centers of progress during their creative peak tend to be relatively free and open for their era. That makes sense because simply having a large population is not going to lead to progress if that population lacks the freedom to experiment, to debate new propositions, and to work together for their mutual benefit. The freedom to engage in exchange, whether the exchange of goods and services or of ideas, has been a central driver of progress. Market competition brought about innovative new companies and useful technologies in Tokyo and San Francisco. And although there is a popular belief that a true artist should create art only for its own sake and that the profit motive pollutes art in some way, in reality, many of history’s greatest artistic achievements—from the classical music of Vienna to the Renaissance paintings of Florence, and the invention of the novel in Kyoto—were the result of lavish funding. By making the creation of art lucrative, each of these cities attracted talent and gave the world innovative art that enriched humanity. Meanwhile, the liberty to discuss a diversity of ideas, whether in the marketplaces of ancient Athens or the reading societies of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, has helped humanity to further our understanding in countless areas, from political philosophy to economics.
Another common factor is relative peace. That also makes sense, because if a city is plagued by violence and discord then it is hard for the people there to focus on anything other than survival and battle. There are exceptions, of course. Mainz is a city featured in the book where violent turmoil actually became a catalyst for positive change, despite the odds. That was the city where Johannes Gutenberg, creator of the Gutenberg printing press, lived. A chaotic series of violent episodes culminating in a war resulted in a diaspora of printmaking apprentices fleeing the troubled city and spreading out across Europe in different directions, disseminating knowledge of printmaking wherever they went. The rapid dissemination of printing technology then forever changed the world and eventually weakened the power of the nobility and the guilds, the very warring factions that had torn Mainz apart. The lesson that I took away from Mainz is that even when conditions are far from ideal for progress, human ingenuity can sometimes still find a way. But when all of the right conditions for progress are present, incredible innovation is far more likely.
Clay: Are there major advances that you struggled to associate with one city because they occurred in multiple places around the same time, or because there is insufficient evidence as to where that progress first occurred?
Chelsea: Yes. Most of the chapters were in a way reverse-engineered, with me first creating a list of aspects of modern life that we often take for granted, such as a stable food supply, writing, sanitation, and transportation, and then attempting to trace each innovation to its point of origin.
Some of the things that I could not definitively or clearly trace to one single origin point include the harnessing of fire, animal husbandry, metallurgy, timekeeping, and electricity. These achievements were not associated with one particular city. When it came to liberal democracy, I was torn between Boston and Philadelphia, as both were quite important for the American Revolution, but ultimately I believe Philadelphia was more appropriate. There are many chapters on transportation advances such as seafaring, trains, and spaceflight, but I did not explore automobiles—although I considered featuring Detroit, as a major auto production center, to represent the rise of cars. There are exceptions to every rule, and a few innovations, like flight, which first took place in a rural North Carolina field, did not fit the book’s pattern. So I left flight out but did mention it in the book’s introduction as an example of an advancement made in a rural area.
Yet it is remarkable just how many otherwise diverse world-changing innovations and discoveries can be traced to a particular place and are urban in their origins. The book takes a broad view of progress, ranging from scientific discoveries and new inventions to groundbreaking artistic achievements and advances in human rights, such as the abolition of legal slavery. Again and again, in so many different areas, positive change has been driven by people in particular cities.
Clay: Do you have a favorite center of progress?
Chelsea: Dubrovnik. It’s a city that I greatly enjoyed learning about while conducting research for the book. I hadn’t known much about it previously, and its story is fascinating. Dubrovnik is now a tourism-oriented city in what is today Croatia, but it was once a city-state called the Republic of Ragusa. It was a sea-trading supernova, a sort of medieval, Mediterranean Hong Kong. Ragusa was committed to commerce and also had a deep respect for human liberty that was unusual for the era. The city-state was among the first countries to ban the slave trade, its flag was just the Latin word Libertas, meaning freedom, and its motto was the Latin for, “Liberty is not sold for all the gold in the world.”
The city was able to get through the Black Death and even achieve significant mercantile expansion during that devastating pandemic, which is quite an achievement, thanks to innovations in public health such as the establishment of quarantine waiting periods that let the city’s people keep their ports open while protecting the city. Venice, another trade-dependent city-state, ended up, in contrast, completely banning anyone from entering its walls for a time, disrupting trade and normal life, because of devastating plague outbreaks. I think Dubrovnik’s history deserves to be more widely known.
Clay: While reading your book, I kept thinking about how cool it would have been to have taken a class on human progress as a high school or college student. Of course, students do learn about progress in courses that include a historical component. But I think a class or, even better, an academic minor or some other kind of concentrated program specifically focused on human progress could help students better understand progress and become future leaders of progress. Do you know of any such classes or progress education programs? What do you think schools and colleges could do to better educate students about human progress?
Chelsea: There is an exciting new field of “Progress Studies,” but intelligent debate about the drivers of human progress can easily be incorporated into courses in many different subject areas, including history, geography, social studies, and more. Many teachers across the country actually use materials from HumanProgress.org in their classrooms to do just that. A biology teacher has reached out to let us know that at his school in North Carolina, each morning they read aloud two facts from HumanProgress.org. One school in Washington state offers a seminar for 10th to 12th graders centering on one essential question–is humanity as a whole making progress? Using resources like HumanProgress.org, students learn where to find reliable data related to progress. A researcher from the University of Pennsylvania has developed a workshop for journalists where attendees are taught to overcome negative biases using, among other tools, HumanProgress.org. And the list goes on; HumanProgress.org is also being used as an academic resource in many universities, including UCLA and the University of Chicago.
Educators should know that there are free, detailed lesson plans available online, created by an AP U.S. history teacher as part of the Sphere Education Initiative, to accompany the chapters of Centers of Progress. Those lesson plans can be found on HumanProgress.org and on Sphere’s website. While the book’s chapters are also being assigned at the university level, they’re highly accessible and easily appropriate for high schoolers. So Centers of Progress makes a great gift for teachers, homeschooling parents, and professors alike.
Clay: Despite all of the progress we enjoy today, especially in the United States, there is a considerable amount of pessimism about the future of society and the world. As a psychologist, I think pessimism and related negative mental states such as anxiety, depression, and social distrust are major barriers to progress. In your research, did you come across anything that would suggest these kinds of psychological factors have influenced progress throughout history? And do you agree that these psychological factors are barriers to progress today?
Chelsea: I think there is something to that. In the chapter on Paris during the Enlightenment, the book notes that Europe’s widespread adoption of tea and coffee “substituted the continent’s constant consumption of alcohol, a depressant, with caffeine, a stimulant, and coffeehouses became hubs for the debate of politics and philosophy.” Those debates resulted in great creativity and the discussion of then-novel ideas that ultimately gave rise to new forms of government that changed the world. How much of that can be attributed to clearer thinking and a change in the prevalent mental state? It’s a fascinating question.
I agree that psychological factors can promote apathy or otherwise act as barriers to progress. Baseless anxiety and depression and so forth are already bad in and of themselves, but if they also impede progress, then combatting false declensionist narratives and related needlessly negative outlooks on the world becomes an even more urgent project.
In the book’s introduction, I discuss the all-too-widespread declensionist view of history, the idea that history is one long depressing tale of decay as everything becomes worse and worse. My book offers a counter to that. The book doesn’t shy away from the bad parts of history and indeed many of the chapters in earlier time periods note that a modern person would not want to live in them, but the book focuses on how we’ve overcome many once-common problems and celebrates each of those milestones. Peter Gattsuso wrote in his review of Centers of Progress for National Review, the “book is not just a tale of progress, but also one of optimism about human flourishing, as we look ahead in anticipation of our next center of progress, wherever that may be.” So give a copy to someone in your life who may be in need of a proper perspective and an uplifting, inspirational reminder of just how far humanity has come and that positive change is possible.
Clay: As the author of Centers of Progress and the managing editor of HumanProgress.org, do you have any upcoming projects or events that you would like Profectus readers to know about? Or any other resources you would like to share that can help people learn about human progress?
Chelsea: Several! First of all, for anyone not familiar with HumanProgress.org, I highly recommend visiting the website. If you like the content, consider signing up for our newsletter, Doomslayer, and checking out the Human Progress Podcast. If you’re a voracious reader, you will want to check out the two previous books put out by the HumanProgress.org team, my colleague Marian Tupy’s books Ten Global Trends and Superabundance.
If you want to read Centers of Progress, know it’s now available as an audiobook and ebook as well as in traditional book form, keep an eye out for the forthcoming Spanish translation, and get excited for the companion book Heroes of Progress coming out next spring, which discusses some of the individual innovators who changed the world for the better. It will have a matching cover and look great next to Centers of Progress on your bookshelf. And if you like thinking about the different cities that have contributed to progress throughout history, then you may enjoy participating in the Centers of Progress Tournament to decide which city has contributed the most to human progress, according to popular opinion. Each day, we post a poll pitting two cities against each other. The winner advances. I’m interested to see which city wins in the end.