Here is a fascinating factoid. Did you know that in the 9th century, Chinese Taoist alchemists were searching for an eternal life potion, and discovered…gunpowder! Apart from the irony of their discovery helping to shorten many a life, it raises a profound question: What happened to that advanced civilization that caused it to lose its scientific pre-eminece?

If an alien came to our planet in the 9th century, he would have predicted that the Chinese and Islamic empires would rule the world forever after. Yet, the Industrial Revolution came to England in the 18th century, spread throughout Northern Europe, leaving China and the Islamic world in the dust.

Why didn’t the Industrial Revolution reverberate as far as China and the Middle East? Many theories tried to account for this historical turning point, none completely satisfactory. The major reason: Humans and their societies are complex, and no theory can rule out confounding factors.

Is it the concentration of power in a small elite, as in China? But in Europe of that time, emperors, kings, and the aristocracy reigned supreme? Is it the stifling hold of religion, as in the Arab world of then (and now)? Probably to some extent, but let’s not forget that Linnaeus, the great founder of botanical systematics, was a priest. And so was Mendel, the discoverer of what later turned out to be genetic inheritance.

At least part of the answer comes from a totally unexpected direction: From rice cultivation. I can almost hear it: “What???,” you utter a silent scream, “Give me a break!” But, read on.


Rice, psychology, and innovation

rice, wheat, and innovation
Thomas Talhelm, Ph.D candidate at University of Virginia

Thomas Talhelm, a Ph.D candidate at the department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, and colleagues in Beijing Normal University, South China Normal University in Guangzhu, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, took an unconventional approach to the question of innovation: The environmental effects on societies and their inventive and innovative psyche.

As Joseph Henrich, who was not associated with the study, stated in a comment on the article,

“Decades of experimental research show that, compared to most populations in the world, people from societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) are psychologically unusual, being both highly individualistic and analytically minded. High levels of individualism mean that people see themselves as independent from others and as characterized by a set of largely positive attributes. They willingly invest in new relationships even outside their kin, tribal, or religious groups. By contrast, in most other societies, people are enmeshed in dense, enduring networks of kith and kin on which they depend for cooperation, security, and personal identity. In such collectivistic societies, property is often corporately owned by kinship units such as clans; inherited relationships are enduring and people invest heavily in them, often at the expense of outsiders, strangers, or abstract principles.”

Anybody who visited rural China and Vietnam could not be but struck by the back-breaking, labor intensive toil, from daybreak to nightfall, of peasant families tending to their flood-irrigated rice paddies.

Talhelm said in an interview:

“To test these ideas, Talhelm et al. used standard psychological tools to measure analytical thinking and individualism among university students sampled from Chinese provinces that vary in wheat versus rice cultivation. As an example of a test for analytical thinking: participants were given a target object, such as a rabbit, and asked which of two other objects it goes with. Analytic thinkers tend to match on categories, so rabbits and dogs go together. Holistic thinkers tend to match on relationships, so rabbits eat carrots. Focusing on China removes many of the confounding variables such as religion, heritage, and government that would bedevil any direct comparison between Europe and East Asia. The prediction is straightforward: Han Chinese from provinces cultivating relatively more wheat should tend to be more individualistic and analytically oriented.”


What were the results?


Rice planting- a backbreaking activity.
Rice planting; a hard way of making a living.

Participants from provinces more dependent on paddy rice cultivation were less analytically minded. The effects were big: The average number of analytical matches increased by about 56% in going from all-rice to no-rice cultivation. The results hold both nationwide and for the counties in the central provinces along the rice-wheat (north-south) border, where other differences are minimized.

Participants from rice-growing provinces were also less individualistic and were also more likely to reward their friends and less likely to punish them, showing the in-group favoritism characteristic of collectivistic populations.

Now, bear in mind that the subjects in this study were university students. These individuals probably never came close to a rice paddy. Which shows that the psychological traits of societies adapting to their environment survive far beyond their immediate ecological causes. Other examples of such far-reaching influences of erstwhile environmental factors can be seen in Africa, where second and third generation city dwellers give their ancestral village, which they may have never seen, as their “real” address.


So why did the Industrial Revolution occur in northern Europe?

Modern science is successful because of three characteristics:

  1. The readiness of admitting ignorance, and the skepticism about even the most important theories.
  2. The acquisition of new knowledge through observation and quantitation.
  3. New knowledge is used to develop new technologies, which in turn leads to new knowledge.

Galen, the Roman physician, reigned supreme for 12 centuries until the anatomists of the Renaissance deigned to dissect a cadaver and expose the falsity of his assertions. The floodgates were opened and there was no going back.

In collectivist societies, the “truth” is transmitted from ruler to subjects, from one generation to the next. There is no room for skepticism. And there is no pressure from below to ask questions, to doubt. Which brings us to a full circle. Is it possible that the Renaissance and the industrial revolution were made possible, at least in part, because of wheat cultivation? Only time and science will tell.

Featured photo credit:

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. Great post. Two observations that support this hypothesis. First, since rice is intensively cultivated to exacting specifications, understanding of math is very important, and, well, Asian kids tend to be the best math students.

    Second, the reason the wellness industry is a failure is that they share none of these three characteristics of modern science. First, they never admit ignorance. Indeed, they take pride in it. Hence the name “the wellness ignorati.” Second, when new knowledge comes out, such as new screening guidelines or new theoriers about the causes of obesity, they pretend it doesn’t exist, rather than observing it. And third, they haven’t had a new idea since time immemorial. Their answer is always to poke people with more needles and punish them with higher penalties.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.