Greg Clark, an economist at UC Davis, has come out with a new paper arguing that natural selection accounts for the rise of “capitalist” attitudes. Simply put, the rich capitalists had more offspring than the poor serfs, so humans evolved a “set of preferences that were consistent with capitalism.” Here’s the abstract:
Before 1800 all societies, including England, were Malthusian. The average man or woman had 2 surviving children. Such societies were also Darwinian. Some reproductively successful groups produced more than 2 surviving children, increasing their share of the population, while other groups produced less, so that their share declined. But unusually in England, this selection for men was based on economic success from at least 1250, not success in violence as in some other pre-industrial societies. The richest male testators left twice as many children as the poorest. Consequently the modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the middle ages. At the same time, from 1150 to 1800 in England there are clear signs of changes in average economic preferences towards more “capitalist” attitudes. The highly capitalistic nature of English society by 1800 – individualism, low time preference rates, long work hours, high levels of human capital – may thus stem from the nature of the Darwinian struggle in a very stable agrarian society in the long run up to the Industrial Revolution. The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.
It’s a neat idea, but is the sort of biological theory that only an economist could invent. In other words, it’s a biological theory without any biology. Needless to say, nobody has demonstrated that “capitalist” attitudes are heritable, or that genetics has anything to do with our predisposition to the capitalist work ethic. While I’d never contemplated the selection pressures generated by the inequality of the middle ages – we are the offspring of the medieval elite – I think Clark overestimates the importance of genetics, and downplays the influence of culture and cultural institutions. I’d be more likely to believe that the Protestant Reformation led to the birth of capitalism than that a series of genetic adaptations made the modern economy possible. In general, cultural phenomenon – like capitalism – are best explained in terms of other cultural phenomenon, unless persuasive evidence (like an actual gene) suggests otherwise.
[Hat Tip: Marginal Revolution]