Sunday, December 9, 2007

Another review of Farewell to Alms

In “A Farewell to Alms,” Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, suggests an intriguing, even startling answer: natural selection. Focusing on England, where the Industrial Revolution began, Clark argues that persistently different rates of childbearing and survival, across differently situated families, changed human nature in ways that finally allowed human beings to escape from the Malthusian trap in which they had been locked since the dawn of settled agriculture, 10,000 years before. Specifically, the families that propagated themselves were the rich, while those that died out were the poor. Over time, the “survival of the richest” propagated within the population the traits that had allowed these people to be more economically successful in the first place: rational thought, frugality, a capacity for hard work — in short the familiar list of Calvinist, bourgeois virtues. The greater prevalence of those traits in turn made possible the Industrial Revolution and all that it has brought. (A lacuna in the argument is that Clark never says just how prevalent this Darwinian process made the traits he has in mind. Would an increase from, say 0.05 percent of the population to 0.50 percent have mattered much?)

Clark’s book is delightfully written, offering a profusion of detail on such seeming arcana as technology in Polynesia and Tasmania before contact with the West,

Sharia-consistent banking practices in the Ottoman Empire and bathing habits (actually, the lack thereof) in 17th-century England. But Clark’s eye is fixed steadily on the idea he’s pushing; the details are fascinating, but they are there because they help make his central argument. Clark is also marvelously adept at drawing out the relevance of many facets of his historical inquiry for present-day concerns. For example: “We think of the Industrial Revolution as practically synonymous with mechanization, with the replacement of human labor by machine labor. Why in high-income economies is there still a robust demand for unskilled labor? Why do unskilled immigrants with little command of English still walk across the deserts of the U.S. Southwest to get to the major urban labor markets to reap enormous rewards for their labor, even as undocumented workers?”

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