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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

9 - Evolution of the Industrial Revolution


Previous chapters have focused primarily on ways that people have shaped the evolution of populations of other species. This chapter has a different purpose. It zeros in on one example to show how evolutionary history can revise our understanding of a well-studied episode in history. The Industrial Revolution provides an excellent case study. Historians agree it was important – second only to the agricultural revolution of about twelve thousand years ago in its impact on human history. A large, sophisticated literature has developed to explain its origins and consequences. Most of this literature attributes the revolution to human beings and their machines rather than to biology, nonhuman species, or evolution. Evolutionary history offers the chance to see the Industrial Revolution in a new light.

Most scholars agree that England underwent the world's first Industrial Revolution around 1760–1830. This episode transformed England's economy from one dominated by agriculture and trade to one fueled by factories and fossil fuels. A host of other changes – such as urbanization, expansion of markets, economic growth, and alterations in social relations – rode into the world along with industrialization. Many other countries have since followed Britain's lead, and modernizers around the world have seen industrialization as the key to economic and social progress.