I want to be saved by a po-tay-toe


Between 1700 and about 1950, world populations began to skyrocket. This growth was fastest in Northern Europe, and coincided with both an increase in city population share and Northern European world-dominance. There are clearly many reasons why this happened, but one powerful argument suggests that it was the simple potato that played the largest role.

Population increase can be due to both an increase in fertility and or a decrease in mortality. In Northern Europe, decreases in fertility after 1820 were more than offset by the larger decreases in mortality. Although hygienic advances played a major role, the main contributing factor was likely improved nutrition. Importantly, Fogel showed “an enormous increase in caloric intake after the middle of the eighteenth century, measured both directly, from agricultural output and diary surveys, and indirectly through changes in adult height.”

Although often not thought of as a daily part of your balanced breakfast, potatoes are incredibly nutritious. A medium potato contains 45% of your daily vitamin C, 18% of your potassium, 26% vitamin B6, and significant amounts of thiamin, phosphorous, iron, zinc, and an amount of fiber equivalent to that of other cereals such as wheat. In fact, a diet a of potatos and milk/butter is enough to live “healthily” on. Since potatoes have such a higher density of calories than comparable grains – an acre of land can support roughly 10,000 calories of wheat, barley, or oats versus 32,000 calories of potatoes – that families were able to sustain themselves on much smaller parcels of land. A family needed only an acre of potatoes and a single milk-cow to be self-sufficient.

Other factors drove the adoption of potatoes. They could be easily stored in winter, and concomitantly fed to livestock which implies increased availability of meat. Also, potatoes could be discreetly buried. Advancing armies usually demanded local stores of grains for food, causing mass starvation. Since they were hesitant to start digging everywhere up, burying of potatoes allowed increased survival for local peasants. This helps explain why the proportion of land dedicated to potatoes increased after every major war (up to, and including, World War II).

A recent study analyzed potato growth in order to determine the effects of the introduction of the potato across the Old World (all of the non-Americas). They found that the potato accounts for 12% of the increase in population, 22% of the increase in population growth, 47% of the increase of urbanization, and 50% of the increase in urbanization growth. It is astounding that something as small as the introduction of a potato can be such a large positive shock to the population.

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Roman days

It has always interested me that, even though our money has been spent the same way for the last denariicouple thousand years – we need food and shelter above all – the cost of things has changed dramatically.  Think about it – food is virtually limitless these days.  You want tropical fruit?  You can just go to a store down the street.  A hundred fifty years ago, though, you could only buy what was locally grown.

Here is an article with what prices were in Roman times.  Have you ever wondered how many desert grapes you could have boughten for a Pannonian beer?  I’m sure you have, and now you’ll know.  But even over the past fifty years things have changed greatly.  Our shifting lifestyles are, to put it mildly, dramatic.  I wonder about our glorious video game future?

New discoveries of old ideas

People have a habit of taking a “great men” view of history. Even those who regularly deride it place too much importance on the individual. Let’s start with a topic near to home – science. It’s Dawin’s birthday, so we should investigate: how important was Darwin to evolution? The economist has the answer:

It turns out, though, that even Darwin and Wallace were not the first to put the pieces together. In 1813 William Charles Wells, a Scottish doctor, had presented a paper on race to the Royal Society, in which he introduced the idea of natural selection to explain why people might vary in skin colour in different climates. And in 1831 Patrick Matthew, a Scottish landowner, provided a description of natural selection in an appendix to a book about growing the best trees to make warships.

What’s this? Darwin didn’t create the idea of natural selection out of whole cloth? I don’t think that will come as much of a surprise to most people, but think about it this for a second: what if Darwin never was? Would science be set back for lack of the concept of evolution? Surely not. Darwin made contributions, but the same idea would have cropped up in full form independently of him, and probably not much later.

This crops up all the time. Quick! Name the greatest scientist of the last hundred years! Okay, chances are you just thought of Einstein. After all, he came up with those crazy ‘relativity’ theories. Except, both Lorenz and Poincare arguably came up with most of the formulations first. This idea that space and time are really kind of the same thing? That was Minkowski, not Einstein. Partly, Einstein gets credit for it because Poincare was too much of a mathematician, and Einstein believed in it more; to the others, it was just a conjecture of how the world might work. To Einstein, it was how the world worked. A world without Einstein would have, in the end, been a pretty similar world. Einstein was important to its development, but the question of who invented relativity does not have a simple answer. I suggest reading the article if you are at all interested in history and/or science

So with all that, it should be unsurprising that I was pleased to read this intriguing book review of Europe Between the Oceans, which examines history through the lense of geography. The idea is that most of history can be examined through macro trends and geography, not individuals. Obviously all of history is not reducible to the orientation of land masses, but the broad outlines? They probably are. I guess in the grand scheme of things, we’re no different than any other creature.

Rousseau sayeth to Voltaire

An excellent bit of history:

After reading Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality in 1755, Voltaire wrote to him, “I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race…. It makes one desire to go down on all fours.” Five years later, Rousseau wrote to Voltaire. “Monsieur…I hate you.”