An Interesting Explanation for the Industrial Revolution: Capitalism is Genetically Inherited

Nicholas Wade reports in the NYTimes about a UCD professor, Gregory Clark, and his theory of the Industrial Revolution. His answer is that high fertility rates in the upper classes caused them to steadily supplant lower classes. They brought productive values with them such that when the population reached a critical mass of individuals with middle class breeding so to speak, the Industrial Revolution occurred:

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."

Read the whole thing because it is much more involved than this quote suggests.

I guess I don't dispute his data with respect to the higher fertility rates in the rich or that this would likely cause a slow demographic shift in a Malthusian population.

What I am skeptical about is this association with capitalist values and genetics. I am willing to believe that the habits of the middle class were downwardly transmitted from parents to children. But behavior is just not heritable enough to justify the claim that something as complicated as a tendency towards capitalism is the result of one's genes. If so, which genes? What is the mechanism for that?

At the minimum, I might be willing to accept that an individual's time horizon with respect to risk and reward -- long time horizons leading to more saving -- might be related to how anxious that person is or how driven. Personality traits are partially though not primarily heritable. (For more information of the inheritance of behavior, read this.)

What just makes me skeptical is that he seems to be ignoring the environmental factors.

Hat-tip: Slashdot

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I do not see the evidence for fertility being correlated with social class. What I do see is evidence for infant mortality being lower in the upper classes. That would hardly be surprising given the living conditions of the poor and the rich around the IR.

In my view there is no single reason to explain why the IR began in Britain. That Britain had coal, iron ore and limestone in close geographical proximity is one, that Britain already had a well developed system of lending capital is another.

By Matt Penfold (not verified) on 10 Aug 2007 #permalink

And let's not forget about what we learned in history class, the steam engine was invented in Britain so its benefits would have been seen there first.

Rich people's kids have better odds of survival? What a novel idea -- from about 10,000 years ago.

The problem with his theory is that the newly rich also have favored children, and that old money, when the money runs out, acts just like poverty.

By Rose Colored Glasses (not verified) on 10 Aug 2007 #permalink

How nice this research finding is for rich Westerners like me! Evidently, the rest of the world just doesn't have what it takes to succeed genetically. I'm really glad to see that our history of imperialism, cultural subjugation, and ruthlessly exploitative economic, military and political strategies has nothing to do with the reasons all those brown people keep starving. So sad! Poor fools, if only they had been born with our clever western values. Never mind, within a few hundred years their tainted blood, sorry, their inferior genes, will be cleansed from the face of the planet. Tea and genocide, anyone?

Actually the first recorded steam engine goes back to ancient greece, although to be fair the engine used was only a toy.

It is fair to say the first industrial use of the steam engine occurred in the UK, although not by James Watt.

Also the IR was underway before the steam engine became a usable invention. Look at canals!

By Matt Penfold (not verified) on 10 Aug 2007 #permalink

What really irks me the most though about this is actually not the complete lack of any coherent biological thought, but the flagrant way in which some people try to use biology to push an agenda. Wouldn't it just be lovely if capitalism was "nature's way?" This is right up there with the people claiming that homosexuality and AIDS is nature's own "population control".

"Wouldn't it just be lovely if capitalism was "nature's way?"
Exactly. Social Darwinism all over again. Capitalism as a biological imperative.

I'm working on a single-gene theory of the iPod....

I think it is important to point out that Clark is not arguing, really, for a genetic explanation here. Heredity is not always genetic. Cultural transmission of the behaviors is the more likely mechanism here, and it seems that Clark acknowledges that. He may speculate about the mechanism for transmitting these values, but he seems pretty clear, at least in his academic writings, that his work does not provide answers that would distinguish between cultural or genetic mechanisms for transmission.

By Neu Mejican (not verified) on 12 Aug 2007 #permalink

This sounds a lot like the idea -- popular not so long ago -- that the British Empire and American "Manifest Destiny" were foreordained by God because White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.

By Bob Castillo (not verified) on 13 Aug 2007 #permalink