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Evolution of the Industrial Revolution

The New York Times has an interesting article reviewing a new, though I think fanciful, idea concerning the origins of the Industrial Revolution. The reviewed book is A Farewell to Alms (Princeton University Press) by Dr. Gregory Clark and my comments are based on information contained in the book review.

"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." To whit, a change in the behavior and genetic makeup of peri-Industrial England.

Dr. Clark scoured the archives to reconstruct many features of the English economy from 1200 to 1800 and appears to have deciphered an already-documented fact: as productivity leaps forward, population rises to consume the increased productivity. Such was the case until the age of mechanization freed agricultural productivity from Malthusian manual (mouth-to-feed) labor and concomitant arithmetic growth limits. In essence, a greater food supply led to increased population and more laborers meant more agricultural productivity to be devoured by the greater numbers of people.

It is no surprise that Clark found that children born into wealthier families were more likely to survive than children born to poorer families. Those born to wealthier families enjoyed better hygiene and a higher caloric intake, so were more likely to survive beyond infancy. Based on this demographic reality, Dr. Clark concludes that society developed, “a repertoire of skills and dispositions that were very different from those of the pre-agrarian world. . . . Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving.”

Historians previously attributed economic events to changes in people’s behavior. However, historians have mostly adopted the economists’ view that all people are alike and will respond in the same way to the same incentives. As a result, modern historians have attributed events like the Industrial Revolution in terms of changes in institutions, not people. It appears that Dr. Clark wishes to swing the pendulum back to behavior with the added twist that enhanced survival of wealthier children manifested as evolutionary change. Clark writes,
“Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world.” And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”

Despite a full acceptance that biological evolution is a fact and that natural selection operates, I consider this to be rather a simplistic leap onto a popular bandwagon. To make such an assumption, Clark would need to be certain that only genetic factors were responsible for determining which individuals had been wealthier since the thirteenth century. Thus, the most obvious question raised by Clark's claims would concern how genetic endowment could relate to economic success during the six centuries between 1200 and 1800. Further, human reproduction ages allow for only 3 to 5 generations per century, so a mere 600 years would involve only 18 to 30 generations. This time span might allow for natural selection to enhance or decrease levels of intelligence, yet would be far too short to influence more complex functions such as temperament and behavioral propensities.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution in England, the wealthiest individuals were those eldest children who had inherited land. The aristocracy did not work at professions, though many became hobby scholars and scientists. The small middle class mostly comprised urban artisans and professionals. The vast majority of the population were agricultural laborers and small landholders. Much of the agricultural labor force had been driven from their small farms, in favor of sheep, by enclosure. These impoverished, dispossessed workers ultimately became the industrial labor force.

Although studies have documented a high correlation between genetic inheritance and IQ, there is no good reason to believe that attitudes and behavior are inherited genetically. However, natural selection could, and almost certainly does, operate on memes. Those attitudes and behaviors, acquired by learning, that confer greater economic success would be more likely to ensure that the children of economically successful parents would themselves be economically successful, and so on.

In another NYT article, former academic and current politician, Michael Ignatieff quotes philosopher Isaiah Berlin who said that, "the trouble with academics and commentators is that they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true." Presumably, the same bias toward the interesting, as opposed to the realistic or reasonable, influences the selection of books for review.

Although the ideas revealed in this book review are interesting, attribution of behavioral change to natural selection for genetic superiority seems excessive. Equally, it seems simplistic to infer that a complex event such as the Industrial Revolution could have resulted merely, or mostly, from natural selection for genetic predispositions.

Perhaps we ought to hope that Clark is incorrect. In Western Protestant nations, many intelligent, educated professionals are eschewing parenthood, while the largest families seem to be those of the lower working classes and the unemployed. I am not making an argument against social welfare, but it seems possible that this fecundity trend will drive the IQ downward.

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. . . launched (sans champagne, alas) 10/22/06