greg clark capitalism genetic

Are the British genetically capitalist?

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.

Nicholas Wade’s *A Troublesome Inheritance*

Overall I was disappointed by my read of this book and I write that as someone who very much has liked Wade’s NYT pieces on similar topics.  I appreciated the honesty and courage of the work, but I felt Wade needed to have pushed deeper in book-length form.

For instance the discussion of intelligence and its evolution should have been drenched in the Flynn Effect.  It wasn’t.  The first few chapters didn’t cut to the chase quickly enough.

Wade makes a big mistake arguing that “race” is a coherent concept.  Surely that is a semantic issue which cannot move his case forward much, but can hurt it if he fails to establish his claims.

There is much I admire about Greg Clark’s (previous) book, but Wade doesn’t seem to realize Clark has hardly any evidence in support of his “genetic origins of capitalism” thesis.

The word “Denisovan” didn’t appear nearly enough.

We are told that Ashkenazim Jews may have sacrificed visual and spatial skills for other forms of (superior?) intelligence, but what about all the great Soviet Jewish chess players and mathematicians?  And did the shtetl really have so many more centuries of capitalistic training to offer than did say Istanbul?  I’m not suggesting anyone is required to answer these questions, but once you start playing the generalization game — especially on this particular topic — one ought to spend a lot of time picking up or at least recognizing all these loose ends and indeed there are many of them.

Had Kindle not tracked the percentage so accurately, I would have been surprised when the book ended.

Ross Douthat offers some remarks and links to a few other reviews.  VerBruggen had a good take on the book.  Arnold Kling is reading it too.  Here is Andrew Gelman’s review.

Overall reading this book didn’t budge my priors, which I suppose means…it did in fact budge my priors.