An excellent new book drawn from some 2011 lectures he gave in China. Macfarlane of course is a highly esteemed historian who has made critical breakthroughs in understanding the medieval roots of later English success, but he also has written extensively on Nepal, Japan, and China, including from anthropological perspectives. His status is high, and his works are generally quite readable, but somehow he has missed out on the recent interest in popular yet serious non-fiction books.
This work is not written as a book (thank goodness), it is more as if he is simply sitting down and telling you what you want to know. He runs through all of the different factors that helped motivate the Industrial Revolution and the British breakthrough. Here is one excerpt:
England was part of one of the most war-like civilizations in history. The constant warfare in Europe was different from the long periods of peace in Japan or China. The constant recurrent strife led to rapid technological and scientific evolution through a process of Darwinian selectionary pressures — the survival of the “fittest.” Guns, boats, navigation, knowledge of physics and chemistry, all rapidly improved. The ships which crushed the Chinese in the Opium Wars in the nineteenth century were enormously different from the primitive medieval boats which would have been no match for a Chinese armada in the fourteenth century. So England benefited from the positive effects — but others paid the cost. Thus, at the battle of Omdurman, the British had six Maxim guns. The result was 28 British dead, and eleven thousand of their enemies were slaughtered.
…So we need to understand that central imperial phase — the worst of all Empires, except perhaps the rest which were even worse. The cost in terms of lives destroyed in slavery, opium and conquest is unbearable. Yet it was also the context which allowed the most massive material and economic transformation in human history since the discovery of agriculture to occur, namely the Industrial Revolution.
His discussion of the importance of the legal system is also very good. You can buy the book here.