Uma visão darwiniana da Revolução Industrial:Industrial EvolutionA FAREWELL TO ALMS: A Brief Economic History of the World
By Gregory Clark.
Illustrated. 420 pp. Princeton University Press. $29.95
Review by Benjamin M. FriedmanThe New York Times Review of Books
, December 9, 2007
Every story has to begin somewhere. Do we think technological progress was responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the astonishing increase in living standards in some countries but not others since then? Fine, but what brought about the new technology? Maybe social and political institutions — democracy, tolerance, the rule of law — played a role in when and where living standards increased. But where did they come from?
After decades of banishment to the realm of sociology and other such disciplines, the idea that a society’s “culture” matters has recently reappeared in economics. David Landes, an economic historian and a living national treasure if there ever was one, began this movement nearly 10 years ago when he looked in part to culture to explain “why some are so rich and some so poor” (the subtitle of his classic overview of world history).
But why not go one step further: If culture is responsible, where does it come from? Why do some countries have an economically helpful culture while others don’t? And, since no society got very far in economic terms before the Industrial Revolution, what caused the culture of the recently successful ones to change?
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?”
The heart of Clark’s analysis consists of a detailed examination of births, deaths, income and wealth in England between 1250 and 1800, as evidenced primarily by wills. Although the records are scant, he finds that on average richer people were more likely to marry than poorer people, they married at earlier ages, they lived longer once they were married, they bore more children per year of marriage, and their children were more likely to survive and to bear children themselves. The result was centuries of downward mobility, in which the offspring of richer families continually moved into the lower rungs of society. Along the way, their behavioral traits and attitudes became ever more dominant.
Clark’s hypothesis is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it provides an internal mechanism to explain the Industrial Revolution. No deus ex machina, like James Watt’s improving the steam engine, or the Whigs’ overthrow of James II leading to England’s Glorious Revolution, is necessary. Given the conditions at work in England nearly a millennium ago, changes naturally occurred that made an industrial revolution probable, if not inevitable.
Second, Darwinian evolution is usually seen as a process that works over very long periods of time, with consequences for humans that we can observe only by looking far into the past. By contrast, Clark’s explanation for the Industrial Revolution is a change in “our very nature — our desires, our aspirations, our interactions” — that occurred within recorded history, indeed within the last half-dozen centuries. His idea also stands in contrast to the entire orientation of Enlightenment thinking, including Adam Smith’s, toward accepting human nature as it is and asking what social institutions would allow humankind with that nature to flourish (as Rousseau put it, “men as they are and laws as they should be”).
One frustrating aspect of Clark’s argument is that while he insists on the “biological basis” of the mechanism by which the survival of the richest fostered new human attributes and insists on the Darwinian nature of this process, he repeatedly shies away from saying whether the changes he has in mind are actually genetic. “Just as people were shaping economies,” he writes in a typical formulation, “the economy of the preindustrial era was shaping people, at least culturally and perhaps also genetically” (emphasis added). Nor does he introduce any evidence, of the kind that normally lies at the core of such debates, that traits like the capacity for hard work are heritable in the sense in which biologists use the term.
The issue here is not merely a matter of too often writing “perhaps” or “maybe.” If the traits to which Clark assigns primary importance in bringing about the Industrial Revolution are acquired traits, rather than inherited ones, there are many non-Darwinian mechanisms by which a society can impart them, ranging from schools and churches to legal institutions and informal social practices. But if the traits on which his story hinges are genetic, his account of differential childbearing and survival is necessarily central. (Experts on medieval demography may also raise questions about Clark’s reliance on wills, rather than parish records of births and deaths, but that is a different issue.)
Another troubling aspect of Clark’s book is the tension between his portrayal of the Industrial Revolution as a gradual development, as it would have to have been if it were the consequence of an evolutionary process — “the suddenness of the Industrial Revolution in England was more appearance than reality,” he claims — and his emphasis in early chapters on the iron grip of the Malthusian economy from which the Industrial Revolution finally allowed humanity to break free. Clark is thorough in explaining the perverse mechanics of the Malthusian world, in which food production and therefore population are strictly limited, together with the perverse implications that follow. (Catastrophes like the Black Death or failed harvests make people — those who survived, that is — better off by reducing the numbers competing for limited resources; improvements like sanitation or new medicines, or even charity, make everyone miserable.) And he repeatedly insists that this was the world in which humans, everywhere, lived for eons: “Living standards in 1800, even in England,” he writes, “were likely no higher than for our ancestors of the African savannah.” After this prelude, however, discovering that the Industrial Revolution is consistent with a Darwinian explanation because it occurred so gradually comes as something of a surprise.
Clark’s hypothesis also raises a troubling question about the future, albeit one he doesn’t mention. If the key to economic progress in the past was the survival of the richest, what is in store now that the richest no longer outbreed everyone else? As he notes in passing, in most high-
income countries today family income bears no systematic relation to the number of children produced. Further, the populations of some rich countries in Europe are shrinking, apart from immigration, and the United Nations Population Division projects that 97 to 98 percent of the entire increase in the world’s population between now and 2050 will be in the developing world.
Right or wrong, or perhaps somewhere in between, Clark’s is about as stimulating an account of world economic history as one is likely to find. Let’s hope that the human traits to which he attributes economic progress are acquired, not genetic, and that the countries that grow in population over the next 50 years turn out to be good at imparting them. Alternatively, we can simply hope he’s wrong.
Benjamin M. Friedman is an economics professor at Harvard. His most recent book is “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.”
Related: In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence
By NICHOLAS WADEThe New York Times Review of Books
, August 7, 2007
For thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty, first as hunters and gatherers, then as peasants or laborers. But with the Industrial Revolution, some societies traded this ancient poverty for amazing affluence.
Historians and economists have long struggled to understand how this transition occurred and why it took place only in some countries. A scholar who has spent the last 20 years scanning medieval English archives has now emerged with startling answers for both questions.
Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.
Because they grew more common in the centuries before 1800, whether by cultural transmission or evolutionary adaptation, the English population at last became productive enough to escape from poverty, followed quickly by other countries with the same long agrarian past.
Dr. Clark’s ideas have been circulating in articles and manuscripts for several years and are to be published as a book next month, “A Farewell to Alms” (Princeton University Press). Economic historians have high praise for his thesis, though many disagree with parts of it.
“This is a great book and deserves attention,” said Philip Hoffman, a historian at the California Institute of Technology. He described it as “delightfully provocative” and a “real challenge” to the prevailing school of thought that it is institutions that shape economic history.
Samuel Bowles, an economist who studies cultural evolution at the Santa Fe Institute, said Dr. Clark’s work was “great historical sociology and, unlike the sociology of the past, is informed by modern economic theory.”
The basis of Dr. Clark’s work is his recovery of data from which he can reconstruct many features of the English economy from 1200 to 1800. From this data, he shows, far more clearly than has been possible before, that the economy was locked in a Malthusian trap — each time new technology increased the efficiency of production a little, the population grew, the extra mouths ate up the surplus, and average income fell back to its former level.
This income was pitifully low in terms of the amount of wheat it could buy. By 1790, the average person’s consumption in England was still just 2,322 calories a day, with the poor eating a mere 1,508. Living hunter-gatherer societies enjoy diets of 2,300 calories or more.
“Primitive man ate well compared with one of the richest societies in the world in 1800,” Dr. Clark observes.
The tendency of population to grow faster than the food supply, keeping most people at the edge of starvation, was described by Thomas Malthus in a 1798 book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” This Malthusian trap, Dr. Clark’s data show, governed the English economy from 1200 until the Industrial Revolution and has in his view probably constrained humankind throughout its existence. The only respite was during disasters like the Black Death, when population plummeted, and for several generations the survivors had more to eat.
Malthus’s book is well known because it gave Darwin the idea of natural selection. Reading of the struggle for existence that Malthus predicted, Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “It at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. ... Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work.”
Given that the English economy operated under Malthusian constraints, might it not have responded in some way to the forces of natural selection that Darwin had divined would flourish in such conditions? Dr. Clark started to wonder whether natural selection had indeed changed the nature of the population in some way and, if so, whether this might be the missing explanation for the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution, the first escape from the Malthusian trap, occurred when the efficiency of production at last accelerated, growing fast enough to outpace population growth and allow average incomes to rise. Many explanations have been offered for this spurt in efficiency, some economic and some political, but none is fully satisfactory, historians say.
Dr. Clark’s first thought was that the population might have evolved greater resistance to disease. The idea came from Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which argues that Europeans were able to conquer other nations in part because of their greater immunity to disease.
In support of the disease-resistance idea, cities like London were so filthy and disease ridden that a third of their populations died off every generation, and the losses were restored by immigrants from the countryside. That suggested to Dr. Clark that the surviving population of England might be the descendants of peasants.
A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.
Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.
As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.
Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.
“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes.
Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy. It was this significant acceleration in the rate of productivity growth that at last made possible England’s escape from the Malthusian trap and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution.
In the rest of Europe and East Asia, populations had also long been shaped by the Malthusian trap of their stable agrarian economies. Their workforces easily absorbed the new production technologies that appeared first in England.
It is puzzling that the Industrial Revolution did not occur first in the much larger populations of China or Japan. Dr. Clark has found data showing that their richer classes, the Samurai in Japan and the Qing dynasty in China, were surprisingly unfertile and so would have failed to generate the downward social mobility that spread production-oriented values in England.
After the Industrial Revolution, the gap in living standards between the richest and the poorest countries started to accelerate, from a wealth disparity of about 4 to 1 in 1800 to more than 50 to 1 today. Just as there is no agreed explanation for the Industrial Revolution, economists cannot account well for the divergence between rich and poor nations or they would have better remedies to offer.
Many commentators point to a failure of political and social institutions as the reason that poor countries remain poor. But the proposed medicine of institutional reform “has failed repeatedly to cure the patient,” Dr. Clark writes. He likens the “cult centers” of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to prescientific physicians who prescribed bloodletting for ailments they did not understand.
If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people’s behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies, his thesis implies.
Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. “Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”
What was being inherited, in his view, was not greater intelligence — being a hunter in a foraging society requires considerably greater skill than the repetitive actions of an agricultural laborer. Rather, it was “a repertoire of skills and dispositions that were very different from those of the pre-agrarian world.”
Reaction to Dr. Clark’s thesis from other economic historians seems largely favorable, although few agree with all of it, and many are skeptical of the most novel part, his suggestion that evolutionary change is a factor to be considered in history.
Historians used to accept changes in people’s behavior as an explanation for economic events, like Max Weber’s thesis linking the rise of capitalism with Protestantism. But most have now swung to the economists’ view that all people are alike and will respond in the same way to the same incentives. Hence they seek to explain events like the Industrial Revolution in terms of changes in institutions, not people.
Dr. Clark’s view is that institutions and incentives have been much the same all along and explain very little, which is why there is so little agreement on the causes of the Industrial Revolution. In saying the answer lies in people’s behavior, he is asking his fellow economic historians to revert to a type of explanation they had mostly abandoned and in addition is evoking an idea that historians seldom consider as an explanatory variable, that of evolution.
Most historians have assumed that evolutionary change is too gradual to have affected human populations in the historical period. But geneticists, with information from the human genome now at their disposal, have begun to detect ever more recent instances of human evolutionary change like the spread of lactose tolerance in cattle-raising people of northern Europe just 5,000 years ago. A study in the current American Journal of Human Genetics finds evidence of natural selection at work in the population of Puerto Rico since 1513. So historians are likely to be more enthusiastic about the medieval economic data and elaborate time series that Dr. Clark has reconstructed than about his suggestion that people adapted to the Malthusian constraints of an agrarian society.
“He deserves kudos for assembling all this data,” said Dr. Hoffman, the Caltech historian, “but I don’t agree with his underlying argument.”
The decline in English interest rates, for example, could have been caused by the state’s providing better domestic security and enforcing property rights, Dr. Hoffman said, not by a change in people’s willingness to save, as Dr. Clark asserts.
The natural-selection part of Dr. Clark’s argument “is significantly weaker, and maybe just not necessary, if you can trace the changes in the institutions,” said Kenneth L. Pomeranz, a historian at the University of California, Irvine. In a recent book, “The Great Divergence,” Dr. Pomeranz argues that tapping new sources of energy like coal and bringing new land into cultivation, as in the North American colonies, were the productivity advances that pushed the old agrarian economies out of their Malthusian constraints.
Robert P. Brenner, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, said although there was no satisfactory explanation at present for why economic growth took off in Europe around 1800, he believed that institutional explanations would provide the answer and that Dr. Clark’s idea of genes for capitalist behavior was “quite a speculative leap.”
Dr. Bowles, the Santa Fe economist, said he was “not averse to the idea” that genetic transmission of capitalist values is important, but that the evidence for it was not yet there. “It’s just that we don’t have any idea what it is, and everything we look at ends up being awfully small,” he said. Tests of most social behaviors show they are very weakly heritable.
He also took issue with Dr. Clark’s suggestion that the unwillingness to postpone consumption, called time preference by economists, had changed in people over the centuries. “If I were as poor as the people who take out payday loans, I might also have a high time preference,” he said.
Dr. Clark said he set out to write his book 12 years ago on discovering that his undergraduates knew nothing about the history of Europe. His colleagues have been surprised by its conclusions but also interested in them, he said.
“The actual data underlying this stuff is hard to dispute,” Dr. Clark said. “When people see the logic, they say ‘I don’t necessarily believe it, but it’s hard to dismiss.’ ”
What Makes a Nation Wealthy? Maybe It’s the Working Stiff
By TYLER COWENThe New York Times Review of Books
, November 2, 2006
Economists typically explain the wealth of a nation by pointing to good policies and the quality of a country’s institutions. But why do these differences exist in the first place?
In “A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World” (forthcoming, Princeton University Press, http://www.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/papers/FTA2006.pdf
), Gregory Clark, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis, identifies the quality of labor as the fundamental factor behind economic growth. Poor labor quality discourages capital from flowing into a country, which means that poverty persists. Good institutions never have a chance to develop.
Professor Clark’s pessimistic view is that most forms of policy advice or financial aid do not solve the problem of economic development. Unless the quality of labor rises, those would-be remedies are addressing symptoms, not causes.
Professor Clark’s analysis counters Jared M. Diamond, who in his “Guns, Germs and Steel” (W. W. Norton & Company, 1999) located the ultimate sources of European advantage in geography, like safety from tropical diseases, and a greater number of available animals that could be domesticated.
A simple example from Professor Clark shows the importance of labor in economic development. As early as the 19th century, textile factories in the West and in India had essentially the same machinery, and it was not hard to transport the final product. Yet the difference in cultures could be seen on the factory floor. Although Indian labor costs were many times lower, Indian labor was far less efficient at many basic tasks.
For instance, when it came to “doffing” (periodically removing spindles of yarn from machines), American workers were often six or more times as productive as their Indian counterparts, according to measures from the early to mid-20th century. Importing Western managers did not in general narrow these gaps. As a result, India failed to attract comparable capital investment.
Professor Clark’s argument implies that the current outsourcing trend is a small blip in a larger historical pattern of diverging productivity and living standards across nations. Wealthy countries face the most serious competitive challenges from other wealthy regions, or from nations on the cusp of development, and not from places with the lowest wages. Shortages of quality labor, for instance, are already holding back India in international competition.
An independent estimate by two economics professors at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Rodolfo E. Manuelli and Ananth Seshadri, (“Human Capital and the Wealth of Nations,” (http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~manuelli/research/humcapwealthnation5_05.pdf) suggests that if variations in the quality of labor across nations are taken into account, other productivity factors need differ by only 27 percent to explain differences in per capita income.
Professor Clark argues that as late as the 18th century, most Europeans had not exceeded the standard of living in hunter-gatherer societies. Until recent times, the early advantages of Europe did not allow it to escape what economists call the Malthusian trap, in which rising populations periodically offset temporary gains in living standards.
The turning point came when England, and some other parts of Europe, managed a small but persistently positive rate of growth, starting around the 17th century. Pro-business values spread through English society. The Industrial Revolution was not so much a revolution as a continual building of small improvements, and indeed its history shows the difficulty of achieving regular growth. The explosion of technology came only in the late 19th century, well after many incremental gains.
The world’s poorest countries, which now have about one-fiftieth the per capita incomes of the wealthiest countries, have not kept pace. According to Professor Clark, the relative advantage of a highly disciplined and properly acculturated work force is greater for the more complex production processes of the modern world. Low morale and lax discipline will curtail simple factory production but the problem is far worse as production and management become more complex. The poorer countries remain stuck at the bottom as growing populations mean fewer resources for everyone else. Paradoxically, advances in sanitation and medical care, by saving lives, have driven down well-being for the average person. The population is rising in most of sub-Saharan Africa, but living standards have fallen below hunter-gatherer times and 40 percent below the average British living standard just before the Industrial Revolution. The upshot is this: The problem with foreign aid is not so much corruption but rather that the aid brings some real benefits and enables higher populations.
Professor Clark questions whether the poorest parts of the world will ever develop. Japan has climbed out of poverty, and now China is improving rapidly, but Dr. Clark views these successes as built upon hundreds of years of earlier cultural foundations. Formal education is no panacea, since well-functioning institutions are needed for it to be effective.
A more optimistic take might cite the power of cultural globalization. It is hard to reshape workplace norms in poor countries, but in the modern world religious and cultural ideas spread with a hitherto unprecedented speed. Perhaps television and missionaries will prove more important for economic development than privatization plans or exchange rate adjustments.
Professor Clark’s idea-rich book may just prove to be the next blockbuster in economics. He offers us a daring story of the economic foundations of good institutions and the climb out of recurring poverty. We may not have cracked the mystery of human progress, but “A Farewell to Alms” brings us closer than before.
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and co-writes a blog at www.marginalrevolution.com
. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.