A nation of a billion doesn’t necessarily produce more original thinkers than a society of 10 million.
All the people who ever lived in classical Greece would fit in a single dreary modern city or province.
More scientists are alive now than in all the rest of history combined and they are able to draw from the knowledge of all those who came before them.
Yet our society doesn’t necessarily produce thousands of Isaac Newtons.
The Europe of Isaac Newton’s time had a fraction of today’s population and a much smaller percentage of their number were scientists. These few scientists had far less wealth at their disposal and only a fledgling scientific tradition to draw upon.
In the modern USA, one can drive hundreds of miles and experience the same exact culture, same dialect, same architecture, same chain restaurants.
Though one travels a long distance geographically, one has not gone far in terms of culture.
Meanwhile in the English countryside, there are noticeable changes in people’s accent, physical appearance, and their local ales every 20 miles or so. There is more cultural variation in a 100 mile stretch of the geographically smaller UK or France than in 1000 miles of the United States.
When it comes to societal variation or creativity sheer numbers of people or money don’t seem to be the decisive element.
The ways that people are organized and categorized are far more important.
A ‘medium-sized’ town of 150,000 people in our own time produces little in way of ideas and culture.
Yet for several centuries Venice was a superpower with nearly the same population.
The classical Athenian city state only had about 300,000 inhabitants and most of its soldiers, statesmen, and thinkers came out a pool of 40,000 citizens.
Far later in history, London had a population less than 1 million until the 19th century.
Even the greatest megalopolises of ancient times numbered no more than 1-2 million people. In our own time, Tenochitlan, Rome, or Babylon might be big enough for a professional sports team or two but they’d otherwise be undistinguished from hundreds of other urban centers.
Now, it takes a city of 20 million to do what a city of 1 million people used to do.
A town of 150,000 once fit to be the capital of a superpower now does what a village of 7,500 people used to do.
As the number of people and amount of wealth grows, it becomes evident that additional size doesn’t change the proportions of the system itself.
In certain material ways, size does translate into increased proportions. A modern city of 20 million has far more, far larger buildings than its equivalent in the ancient world.
A city with 20 times the population might build 20 hanging gardens each 20 times the size of the original.
We might also consider that a wal-mart supercenter in a modern rural backwater would easily have been one of the great wonders of the ancient world.
Yet how does proportion work if we think in terms of culture and ideas?
If a cultural bloc is composed of 150,000 or 20 million people, how much does output of culture and ideas really change?
At the very least, we don’t see the exponential growth we’re used to seeing if we are looking at purely material criteria.
There is a key bottleneck here:
-Skyscrapers can be built ever larger and more numerously as a civilization expands.
-Yet the idea of building a skyscraper can only be come up with once no matter how many skyscrapers a civilization might build, no matter how large they are.
Furthermore, if material development outpaces everything else, might it actually hurt the growth of creativity and ideas by creating a social mono-culture in its wake?
After all, what invisible impact might there be on human creativity in aggregate when one can buy the same cup of coffee at the same exact coffee shop with the same floor plan across a swathe of thousands of miles?
If we make all the same basic assumptions about our world as our neighbor and share many of the exact same experiences in our daily lives, to what extent are we capable of producing anything different?
If the number of subcultures and cultural blocs remains constant with size—or even decreases, why would we expect any increase in cultural output?
Indeed, if 150,000 people were organized into 20 different subcultures, might we see more creativity than from a population of 20 million divided into only 10 subcultures?
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: how might we engineer a human civilization to maximize human cultural and creative output?
In recent weeks I’ve received questions about the concept of a revolutionary ‘steam engine of the mind.’
As part of my ongoing reply: Imagine a civilization that combined modern size with ancient proportions in the realm of culture and ideas.