The Invention of Heritability


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 may have been key: the development of Thoroughbred racehorses start 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. 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.

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, even preserving joints in jars from previous specimens the better to 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 really 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?

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

It is not a universal belief among humans that it is possible to progress; Whiggism must be learned. Isaac Newton, for example, regarded the recent progress as evidence that human history went in 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?

In a recent talk, economic historian Anton Howes4, 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?

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.) The founder of the RSA, William Shipley, 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.5

Other observations follow. Some major inventions are so simple as to defy belief they were not invented thousands of years ago - 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.

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?) 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. Startups regularly form around charismatic leaders with intense visions, who occasionally shove something forward by decades. (Case in point, Elon Musk6 & 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 a 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. 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)?7 Why do teachers dislike their most creative students so much? 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 a exciting but controversial new idea, is it normalizes & allocates prestige to new things.

The Great Man theory of history may not be truly believable 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 to invent them if they were not real.