[ExI] Impressive book: Farewell to Alms

hkhenson hkhenson at rogers.com
Sat Feb 2 16:33:52 UTC 2008

At 03:38 AM 2/2/2008, BillK wrote:
>On Feb 2, 2008 5:02 AM, hkhenson wrote:
> >
> > A Brief Economic History of the World
> > By Dr. Gregory Clark
> > University of California, Davis
> >
> > This is one of those books that changed my world view, in the same
> > class as Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene, Eric Drexler's Engines of
> > Creation, William Calvin's The Cerebral Code, Robert Wright's Moral
> > Animal, Robert Axelrod's Evolution of Cooperation and a hand full of
> > other books mostly on evolutionary psychology.  It's not that it
> > replaces any of these, just fills in a big knowledge gap and is
> > highly complimentary to my work on the origin of war.
> >
> > Economics, particularly historical economics, never made much sense
> > to me.  Dr. Clark's work does and it might be 
> called "evolutionary economics."
> >
> > It makes a case for intense genetic selection leading up to the great
> > leap of the industrial revolution that allowed England and a small
> > number of other countries to escape the "Malthusian Trap." and it
> > makes a case for why this didn't come about in other parts of the
> > world and isn't likely to.
> >
>I find myself uneasy with the sweeping conclusions in this book.
>I don't think genetics changes the population quickly enough to be the
>*sole* cause of the Industrial Revolution in the UK.

I don't think you can discount the effects of 
strong selection on a population average in 24 
generations.  Lactose tolerance genes spread very 
rapidly in cultures that raised dairy 
animals.  And consider how few generations it 
took and how simple it was to breed tame foxes.

"Cause" in Dr. Clark's view is selection in favor 
of "accumulators" (the rich) in Malthusian, 
settled, stable agrarian societies.  He makes his 
case from records starting in the 1200s but makes 
it clear that the selection started earlier and 
was not confined to north western Europe, but 
didn't happen everywhere either.  Literacy, 
numeracy, and willingness to work ridiculously 
long hours by hunter-gatherer standards were 
pulled along by this selection.  Culture and 
genes fed back on each other with the cultural 
environment leading to selection for genes that 
made further cultural advances possible or even inevitable.

I have made a case elsewhere that 5000 plus years 
of cold winters were a factor in selecting people 
who were never satisfied with how much firewood 
or hay they had.  Along comes an extra cold or 
extra long winter and guess whose offspring 
repopulated the farms of those who froze or starved?

>He is effectively
>claiming that the UK race is genetically bred to rule the world. Isn't
>that what they call 'racism'?

You make it sound like there was a breeding 
program.  There wasn't.  Just generation after 
generation of the strivers who managed to become 
well off having twice as many surviving children 
as the poor.  Defining this as racism and 
slapping the stench of "politically incorrect" on 
it doesn't help us understand the underlying 
reality.  We need to understand reality if the human race is going to survive.

>The UK population grew slowly up to about 1800 when the IR happened.
>This was due to disease and lack of food. About 1740 four-field crop
>rotation was introduced and more food became available. Hygiene and
>medicine improved and the population increased rapidly. With the help
>of cultural and economic institutions, the first countries to get guns
>and technology became world powers. ("Guns, Germs and Steel").

Those "first countries" are almost entirely gone 
from Sub Saharan Africa.  The people in those 
areas are still in the Malthusian trap, in fact, 
in much worse shape than they were pre 
contact.  Why?  (More than a hand waving argument please.)

And the big question is why the industrial 
revolution didn't start sooner or in a different place?

>I think people should read the critics of this book before jumping on
>board. There are holes in his argument and exceptions in other

I think discussing holes and exceptions would be 
of great utility.  We might even get Dr. Clark to 
join in if it got interesting enough.

But a warning.  This discussion is going to be 
politically incorrect.  I found this lately which 
bears directly on the problem.

The Evolutionary Psychology FAQ

Edward H. Hagen, Institute for Theoretical Biology, Berlin

Why couldn't humans have evolved during the last 10,000 years?

They could, but not much. Evolutionary 
psychologists downplay the possibility of 
significant cognitive evolution in the 10,000 or 
so years since the advent of agriculture (a 
period of time known as the Holocene) for reasons 
of both science and political correctness. 
Scientifically, 10,000 years (500 generations) is 
not much time for natural selection to act, and 
it certainly is not enough time to evolve new, 
complex adaptations—sophisticated mechanisms coded for by numerous genes.

It is possible, however, that humans could have 
evolved minor cognitive adaptations during the 
Holocene. Just as some populations whose 
subsistence relied on herds of domesticated 
animals evolved to digest lactose as adults, 
populations could have evolved simple cognitive 
adaptations that their hunter-gatherer ancestors 
did not possess. For this to occur, there would 
have had to have been environmental conditions 
that were (1) new, (2) constant over most of the 
Holocene, (3) relevant to reproduction, and (4) 
required novel cognitive abilities. Many of the 
changes experienced by humans over the Holocene, 
however, have been so rapid that natural 
selection just couldn't keep up. Further, we know 
that very little has changed physiologically in 
the last 10,000 years—Australian aborigines were 
more or less isolated from other populations for 
perhaps 40,000 years, yet are essentially 
identical physiologically to other human 
populations—so probably very little has changed psychologically.

Politically, EPs are understandably desperate to 
avoid any association with past racist attempts 
to essentialize population differences that are 
best explained by culture. If it were possible 
that human cognition had undergone significant 
evolution during the Holocene, then it would be 
theoretically possible to ascribe significant 
differences in behavior between different 
populations to genes, and that would be EP’s worst nightmare.


Let's look at his list.

(1) new,

Settled agriculture was new--very different from 
the previous hunter gatherer existence.

(2) constant over most of the Holocene,

8,000 years is 80% of the Holocene.

(3) relevant to reproduction,

A two to one advantage is certainly that.

and (4) required novel cognitive abilities.

Literacy, numeracy, low time preference and the 
other traits Clark discusses are certainly novel 
cognitive abilities compared to what are observed 
to be the traits, particularly violence, that 
gain reproductive advantage in hunter gatherer cultures.

It's not that hunter gatherer peoples don't have 
these traits to some degree, it's just that the 
distribution center of these traits has been 
seriously shifted in some populations by 
selection.  As an informed guess, researchers 
could sort out what genes are involved.

 From the introduction:

"In this paper I argue that there is evidence that the long Malthusian
era in stable agrarian societies actually changed human
preferences, perhaps culturally but also perhaps genetically. To
show this I demonstrate first that for England the rich had a
reproductive advantage at least from 1250 onwards. I also show
that this advantage was likely inherited by their children. Finally I
show that in the same interval there are signs that preferences
were changing in the pre-industrial economy. In a time when the
rich were taking over genetically people were becoming more
middle class in their orientation: time preference rates were lower,
hours of work longer, and numeracy and literacy increasing. Thus
the long delay between the Neolithic Revolution of 6,000 BC
which established settled agriculture and the eventual Industrial
Revolution may in part be explained by the time necessary for the
formation of preference consistent with modern capitalism."

I think Dr Clark's word choices of "middle class" 
and "capitalism" in this paragraph might be less 
than ideal because of the excess baggage they 
carry but since he is an economics professor I 
can see how those terms would seem 
appropriate.  (And I am not sure what terms would be better.)

Keith Henson 

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