Are the British genetically capitalist?

by on February 13, 2007 at 7:14 am in History | Permalink

Greg Clark is one of my favorite economists, but I am not convinced by his latest paper.  Here is 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.

There is considerable evidence that commercially successful Englishmen had more kids than average, starting in medieval times.  There is much less comparative evidence about other societies; do see pp.31-2, 55-7, but his best example concerns one Amazon tribe, where the warlike reproduced with greater frequency.

Of course the commercial revolution and then the so-called industrial revolution came out of England, not Germany or Italy.  If it could be shown that the English family pattern stood out with regard to the rest of Europe, I would see greater heft in the idea.  The Yanamamo differ in too many other regards for this comparison to illuminate any possible role for genetics in the European economic take-off.  If family patterns can make the crucial difference, let’s keep as many other factors constant as possible.  Otherwise I’m back to thinking it is institutions (most of all for science) and peer effects, not genetics, at the relevant margin of take-off.  Did commercially active Germans and Italians, during the Renaissance, really fail to propagate their seed?

Addendum: See also the work of Oded Galor.

Bruce G Charlton February 13, 2007 at 7:47 am

I regard this idea of Clark’s as a brilliant hypotheses – which deserves considerable further investigation.

But I think he is arguing that the English *middle* class out-reproduced both the peasants (who dies of starvation and disease) and the aristocrats (who were killed in wars and the like).

It was middle class personalities that were inherited (peaceful, hard working, deferred satisfaction etc) and not the warrior or peasant ethos.

theCoach February 13, 2007 at 8:46 am

This gels with Britain not having been at war or used force for the last couple of centuries.

josh February 13, 2007 at 9:14 am

Sure its the institutions, but as institutions evolve they are going to effect the genetic equilibrium in a society. The English just happened upon a combination that let them break free of the Malthusian trap for the first time in human history. I think this makes sense as an explanation.

The problem with a comparison to other societies is that memetic evolution is pretty random. You could put a society on an island with any initial conditions you want; you will have no idea what the nature of that society will be in 500 years. Random cultural mutation, some of which are able to prepetuate themselves, this effects the genetic equilibrium which effects the cultural evolutions. You are already out on a branch of all of the possible worlds that will never converge with the other initially possible worlds.

ElamBend February 13, 2007 at 9:51 am

Could the nuclear family and its rise in Britain have anything to do with it?

John Thacker February 13, 2007 at 10:04 am

The Yanamoto

Umm, don’t you mean the Yanomamo? I think you’ve somehow combined the Yanomamo Indians and the Yamato people (the ancestors of the Japanese).

Jason Malloy February 13, 2007 at 11:15 am

At the same time, from 1150 to 1800 in England there are clear signs of changes in average economic preferences towards more “capitalist† attitudes.

Contributing factor? Intelligence correlates with capitalist attitudes, and over the same time span there are some clues that the British were getting more intelligent:

“Dr Peter Rock, lead author of the study. . . suggests that the increase in [British cranial vault] size may be due to an increase in mental capacity over the ages.”

younotsneaky February 13, 2007 at 12:39 pm

the idea that any part of western Europe was in a Malthusian trap at any time between the black death and the industrial revolution is at best controversial.

Not among economic historians it isn’t. Look at Figure 1 and tell me you don’t see a Malthusian trap.
Population fluctuations are to be expected as a response to various shocks to income (couple years of bad harvest), mortality (disease etc.) maybe fertility. Fact that they occur is no counter argument against Malthus. Add in a very slow but positive rate of technological progress and you have a slowly increasing population.

Slow/No Tech progress + Dimnishing Returns to Labor + Mortality falling with income = Malthusian Trap.
That’s it.

Lorenzo February 13, 2007 at 2:00 pm

Regarding the extinction of noble lines, Francis Galton advanced a good explanation of this back in 1865 (and then in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius). Nobles strongly tend to marry heiresses. Heiresses are signs of a family deficient in the production of sons. So they actively selected for the trait of poor fertility (at least in sons).

I believe it was Ferdinand Braudel who said of England that he could not find a time in which it was not essentially capitalist. Even if England did unusually select for economic success, it seems to still be a why were its institutions so different? question. A question which famously inspired MacFarlane’s Origins of English Individualism, a great read.

I find Clark’s work intriguing, but he seems to excessively underplay social complexity. Both in the sense that, even if one concedes the malthusian point about the bottom end, there is in all complex societies more going on elsewhere. And in the sense that the amount of land being cultivated was not a given. Thus, he claims that war (by killing people off) raises living standards temporarily. Not if production declines by as much or more it doesn’t.

And he repeats the apparently unkillable nonsense about stirrups being necessary for shock cavalry to be effective, but I had my rant about that elsewhere.

M.D. Fatwa February 13, 2007 at 2:26 pm

“Of course the commercial revolution and then the so-called industrial revolution came out of England, not Germany or Italy.”

Didn’t the Fabian Society and modern socialism also come out of England? (Granted, Marx and Engles were German, but so was the English monarchy.)

guest February 13, 2007 at 4:12 pm

Lorenzo:

I find Clark’s work intriguing, but he seems to excessively underplay social complexity. Both in the sense that, even if one concedes the malthusian point about the bottom end, there is in all complex societies more going on elsewhere. And in the sense that the amount of land being cultivated was not a given. Thus, he claims that war (by killing people off) raises living standards temporarily.

Great point. In fact, the so-called “malthusian trap” is mostly a consequence of institutional factors such as detrimental land tenure policies (witness Hong Kong & South Korea vs. China, etc.) War *does* raise living standards for most people, but this is the result of falling land rents, it has nothing to do with Malthusian effects.

Cyrus February 13, 2007 at 4:55 pm

If I understand it correctly, a malthusian trap does not imply a steady state population, but that increases in productive technology are offset by population growth and deminishing returns.

Granted. But it remains controversial over whether medieval Europe was in fact in such a situation. One of the more troublesome episodes to fit to a Malthusian model is the recovery from the black plague. Had the population been in a Malthusian trap, one would at least naively expect the plague to be followed by a rise in real incomes (only more-productive lands need to be cultivated to feed the smaller population, and less-productive lands can be abandoned), this rise in real incomes to be followed by rapid population growth until the pre-plague situation was restored.

But in fact, real wages continued to fall after the plague, and did not recover to pre-plague levels until the 1360s; moreover, the plague was merely the most dramatic event in a long-term period of demographic collapse that lasted until about 1400, and even thereafter, strong population growth did not resume until the 1500s.

Malthusian models are used by many within the economic-history-of-Europe debate. But many aspects of this history can be fit at least as well by monetarist models.

tc February 13, 2007 at 5:22 pm

But in fact, real wages continued to fall after the plague, and did not recover to pre-plague levels until the 1360s

Clark’s data (figure 7) seem to indicate otherwise. In his chart, English real wages shot up after the plague hit England in 1348 and kept on rising until 1450.

younotsneaky February 13, 2007 at 6:29 pm

anon, I’m slightly confused. Are you talking about modern Taiwan, SK, LA, and Africa or historical counterparts?

Your second comment also indicates you’re thinking about modern economies. Malthusian/historical economies – diminishing product of labor, not economies of scale (yes, I know the diff). Division of labor is somewhat constrained on a traditional farm after a certain point.

In primitive, landlordist economies, labor’s margin of production is far more relevant.

and uh, that depends on what exactly? (Hint, the answer has a numerator and a denominator)

anon February 13, 2007 at 6:56 pm

(Before anyone complains about the previous post being offtopic: In medieval England, land rent was the most important source of government finance – the famous Domesday book was a tax assessment roll. Land tax revenue was still substantial in Adam Smith’s time.)

Malthusian/historical economies

I said nothing about historical economies. Some ancient historical economies may have been “Malthusian” due to technology constraints, but this is not what’s meant by “Malthusian trap”. Presumably, a “trap” is something you can just escape from.

and uh, that depends on what exactly?

The total productivity of labor on freely available land, or (equivalently) the marginal productivity of labor on rent-yielding land.

(Hint, the answer has a numerator and a denominator)

Nope, it doesn’t. You’re confusing average with marginal values.

josh February 13, 2007 at 7:11 pm

Cyrus,

Could you please explain what you mean by “monetarist models”?

younotsneaky February 13, 2007 at 8:10 pm

Which is clearly not a reasonable assumption

For historical Malthusian economies it is.
For modern day developed countries wrt land, overall, wellllllll, ok, but how is that relevant to the topic?
For modern day less developed countries, maybe, maybe not.

It seems like you want to argue about something else. But war was brought up in a historical context.

And when you say above

in Africa and Latin America, the Malthusian trap is greatly reinforced by the fact that the most productive land is owned by a few monopolists

that’s just confused. I think what you mean that their poverty, wherever it comes from is reinforced by inefficient use of land etc. But in a economy stuck in a true Malthusian trap, inefficiencies (unless very very great) don’t matter for standards of living. Monopolies don’t matter for standards of living. Protectionism, distortionary taxes, etc. do not matter for standards of living. So if those African and LA countries really are in a Malthusian trap, monopolistic use of land doesn’t reinforce anything, it just means fewer people. On the other hand of course, it may be that today there’s no trully Malthusian countries in the world left.

younotsneaky February 13, 2007 at 9:50 pm

In the case of land, it makes little sense to refer to “constant returns to scale”, because the supply of land is *fixed*.

I think now you’re confusing “returns to scale” and “dimnishing returns”. The fact that land is fixed ain’t got nothing to do with it, at least as long capital doesn’t play a big role (not unreasonable for a pre-industrial economy – and even then standard of living will depend not quite on the land/labor ratio but something very close to it).

What matters is _diminishing returns to labor_ on the extensive and/or intensive margin – Thomas Malthus himself relied on such an assumption.

Yes, exactly, so what is this disagreement? How does this affect land monopolies etc.? Confusing.

Sergey Kurdakov February 14, 2007 at 6:19 am
Cyrus February 14, 2007 at 1:10 pm

Another datum that seems to question whether medieval western Europe was in a Malthusian state is that in most data sets, infant mortality does not correlate with income. A few studies even show higher infant mortaliy among the wealthy … perhaps because prior to industrialization, the bulk of the working poor were rural laborers, while the middle and gentle classes were more likely to live at least part of the year in (unsanitary) towns and cities.

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