The Frontal Cortex

The Genetics of Capitalism

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]


  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 14, 2007

    Jonathan V. Post
    [from Post, Feb 1970]

    I hear the clink of coins,
    the rustling of the money.
    The bank is open now,
    and we’re together, honey.

    You are just a file clerk,
    I program the machines.
    But with compound interest
    our love approaches new extremes.

    Oh, Money is God,
    Economics is King,
    Gold rules the world,
    And the Bank is the center of everything…

    See the faceless people come,
    waiting all in lines.
    Entries in a ledger only,
    they have no hearts or minds.

    See the starving artist who
    withdrew his final dime;
    don’t those punch-card figures know
    that poverty’s a crime?

    Oh, Money is God,
    Economics is King,
    Gold rules the world,
    And the Bank is the center of everything…

    The numbers have to balance, dear,
    it’s the only way.
    Chaos is a dirty word,
    like freedom, too, today.

    The millionaire has everything,
    he must be worth his salt.
    All the money-hungry ones,
    it must be their own fault.

    (Chorus, with heavy irony)
    Oh, Money is God,
    Economics is King,
    Gold rules the world,
    And the Bank is the center of everything…

  2. #2 Daniel
    February 14, 2007

    It’s interesting that he’s considerably less assertive in the published article. A quick search reveals that the words “gene”, “genetic” and “heritability” are nowhere to be found.

    “Fundamental to the Malthusian model of pre-industrial society is the assumption that higher income increased reproductive success. Despite the seemingly inescapable logic of this model, its empirical support is weak.”

    “However, the reproductive advantage of the rich is not found in all pre-industrial societies. In a companion study to this one we have also looked at the reproductive success of French Canadians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here our sources limit us to married men, but the result is very clearly that reproductive success lay with the men of lower social status and lower levels of literacy.”

    Might it be that hidden agendas are a bit more unsightly in a peer-reviewed medium?

  3. #3 J Daley
    February 14, 2007

    So, are Patty Hearst, Che Guevara and Peter Kropotkin are all genetic anomalies or something? Or perhaps exhibit harmful mutations? What a load of BourgeoiSe…

  4. #4 J Daley
    February 14, 2007

    …on Clark’s part, of course. Not yours.

  5. #5 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 15, 2007

    Simply put, the rich capitalists had more offspring than the poor serfs

    Now that we have effective contraception, that is no longer the case. Same thing about sexual selection: how many supermodels have a dozen or more children these days?

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