Thanks to thundara for inspiring me to actually post this.
I've been thinking over the past couple days about specialization in the labor force, population growth, and the exponential nature of progress, and I had this idea-- my description might end up being pretty brief, but that's because I'm still very much thinking about this, and I haven't really come to a conclusion. I decided to post it now because I want your input, Hubski. Please, agree, pick it apart, tell me why I'm stupid or why it's a great idea, anything. Let's discuss. Anyway, here's the idea:
I think most people would agree that specialization of laborers tends to correlate with increased progress. I think most would further hold that this correlation is actually a causation, and that as fields progress, laborers tend to become more and more specialized by virtue of there being more overall to know. What I propose is that there is a causation underlying this relationship, but in the opposite direction: as people become more and more specialized, fields tend to progress. Focusing the same amount of time on a smaller section of information, knowledge, practical skills, etc. allows fields to progress even more.
So if progress doesn't lead to specialization, what does? Population growth. In a theoretical population with just one doctor, for example, society can't afford for said doctor to have any real specialization, simply because all of the doctor-y work in the population has to be done. But when you scale that up to, say, 400k doctors, each individual doctor can focus on one area of their practice with no issues (or at least fewer issues). The growth of the population (of doctors) allows greater specialization because specialists can take care of the same number of patients, just in different groups. (I'm not explaining this bit very well, but I think it's pretty intuitive. Let me know if you don't understand.)
One can extrapolate, therefore, that growth of a population at large, which leads to population growth in most professions relatively equally, allows for increased specialization, leading (going back to the 1st paragraph of my idea) to increased progress. So we're forced to conclude that continued population growth is necessary in order to maintain the incredible rates of progress that we've seen across the board in the past couple centuries.
I've got some ideas about what this would mean for the future of humanity, and when I get a chance I'm gonna try and examine some historical data to compare pop. growth with progress, but for now I just want to know what y'all think. Does this make sense? Do you think it's true? And if so, what do we do about it?