Did the Black Death lead to the Renaissance?

What does that history teach us about what to expect in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic?

It’s complicated, says Professor Ada Palmer.

Palmer, a historian and science fiction writer and all-around genius, appears in a wide-ranging interview on the Singularity Podcast:

Prof. Ada Palmer on Pandemics, Progress, History, Teleology and the Singularity

The Renaissance was in many ways a terrible time to be alive; Europeans fought many fierce wars and lifespans were drastically shorter than the preceding Middle Ages. Other parts of the world, particularly China, were far more advanced than Europe, and Europeans knew it.

But the Renaissance also produced great art and scientific breakthroughs. Then as now, it was the best and worst of times.

Francis Bacon invented the idea of progress in 1620. There was plenty of progress before then, of course, but until Bacon, people viewed history as more or less the same. They were some places and times that were better to be alive than others. Empires rose and fell. But our ancestors lives were the same as ours and our children’s would be the same as well.

Bacon had the idea of using science to cumulatively improve all peoples lives today and in the future into the future. For that reason, he said science was the best form of Christian charity.

We didn’t see the first breakthrough from Bacon’s insight for 150 years, until Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod. But since then he’s been proven right. Refrigeration, the rule of law, medicine and other advances have improved life for everyone, and will continue to do so.

Accepted wisdom today for many people is that one of the advances of the Renaissance was the break with religion and move to secularism. But great scientists like Isaac Newton and Descartes were devout Christians. Newton was deeply immersed in beliefs that we would consider occult.

People today sometimes say that figures like Newton were actually closet atheists, and could not share their beliefs because of censorship and fear of the Inquisition. And it’s true that censorship makes it very hard for later historians to find out what was actually going on. But we can deduce people’s actual beliefs by looking at other things they did say that they believe. And Renaissance intellectuals espoused beliefs that were far more dangerous than atheism. The Inquisition was far more concerned with heresy than atheism. If people like Newton and Descartes were atheists, they would have said so.

Atheism developed as a by-product of publishers making hyped claims in trying to flog translations of the work of the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

People calling themselves “transhumanists” today look forward to the Singularity, when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. But we’ve already been through a kind of Singularity, in the 17th Century, when for the first time it became impossible for an educated person to familiarize himself with every book ever written. With the invention of the printing press, books were being published faster than they could be catalogued, let alone read and understood! Until then, an educated person was considered to be one familiar with the total of all human knowledge. After that, we get the idea of specialization.

Poverty is a tax on intelligence. If you’re spending a lot of time worrying about paying bills, you don’t have that intelligence to think about other things. Palmer estimates that if we lift a person out of poverty, we raise their intelligence 25%.

All knowledge is useful, if for no other reason than it’s satisfying to learn things. Even finding out whether giraffes can swim is satisfying.

Humanity is a very young species, and we will get our act together eventually. Until a few centuries ago, it was considered fine and ok for people with powerful patrons to go around murdering people and bragging about it. Now, we believe all people should be subject to the law. That’s a big deal!

Progress comes from everyday people doing small things, more than from geniuses and great men and women doing great things:

The small things that we are achieving that feel small are the way that the civilization-wide big things happen. The more I look at history and zoom in the less it is the geniuses and the people whose names we know that made the world shift and the more it is, in fact, the microscopic – from a historical standpoint – teamwork of everybody. So never feel that the stuff you’re doing isn’t important.

Mitch Wagner's Blog @MitchWagner