[ExI] Impressive book: Farewell to Alms

BillK pharos at gmail.com
Mon Feb 4 19:16:25 UTC 2008

On Feb 4, 2008 4:54 PM, hkhenson wrote:
> Clark was keenly aware of the potential for bias in his data and did
> his best to verify that it was representative.  He comments that
> wills became common fairly early, reached way down the social ladder
> and that many of the will makers were illiterate, signing their wills
> with an x.  His conclusion is robust because you can see in the will
> data a strong link between the number of *surviving* children and the
> economic class determined by the assets described in the
> wills.  There is also a link between literacy and assets in these wills.

There just aren't enough wills compared with the population numbers.
People who wrote wills are a small, self-selected subset of the
population. It is a great leap to conclude that the small subset of
wills is representative of the whole population. The vast majority of
the population had lives that never got into the records anywhere.

> To a very close approximation the population was constant.  If you
> show that the rich as a group were more than replacing themselves,
> and constrain the total population to a constant, then it's a
> mathematical certainty that the poor were not replacing themselves.
> If you can see a flaw in this reasoning, please point it out.

It is not the reasoning at fault. It is the mistaken assumptions and
inadequate data.

The UK population wasn't constant.
There were invasions, migrations, wars and civil wars, plagues, famines, etc.

From: 'The UK population: past, present and future'

Between 1086 and 1750, the population of England experienced some
periods of faster growth and some periods of stagnation and even
decline. It is believed that the population grew quickly in the 12th
and 13th centuries and reached between four and six million by the end
of the 13th century.

However, the 14th century was a period where disease and the struggle
to produce an adequate food supply
prevented further population growth. A sustained agricultural crisis
from 1315 to 1322 leading to famine was later dwarfed by the plague
epidemic of 1348 to 1350. Commonly known as the Black Death, the
latter probably caused the death of over one-third of the English
population and was followed by other major epidemics, which kept
population growth low.

In 1377 King Edward III levied a poll tax on all people aged 14 or
over in order to fund the Hundred Years War with France. The records
from this tax collection were sufficiently robust to provide an
estimate of the population of England in 1377. Depending on the
proportion of the population assumed to be aged under 14, the total
population is estimated to have been between 2.2 and 3.1 million,
considerably lower than it had been at the start of the 14th century.

Between 1377 and 1750 the English population grew slowly and
unsteadily, with faster growth in the 16th century than in the 15th or
17th centuries. Long periods of civil war during the 15th century (the
Wars of the Roses) and the mid-17th century (the Civil War) disrupted
food supplies. These periods of political instability were
characterised by relatively high mortality, late marriage and low
marriage rates keeping fertility relatively low and net out-migration
of English people.

In contrast, the 16th century was a period of political stability
under the Tudors, hence there were fewer socio-economic barriers to
population growth.

By 1750 the English population is estimated to have been 5.74 million,
probably similar to the
level prior to the mortality crises of the 14th century.
End quote.

Clark is not a scientist. He's an economics historian.
The scientific question to ask is 'What specific genes?' make a race
of people into businessmen
and then test for races with and without them.  There are no known
genes that have this subtle and complex effect.

Here is a good critique:

So what is wrong with this picture? The possibility of genetic change
in fairly recent times cannot be rejected out of hand, although it
should not be invoked without a full consideration of alternatives.
For that matter, Clark is primarily an economic ­historian of the
industrial era and knows next to ­nothing about who elites were in
earlier times, still less what the elite cultural patterns were in the
Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. He does not know what made
for wealth in that Olde England, a society primarily built upon
hereditary landed wealth rather than the work of craftsmen and
merchants. The urban ­professionals whose wills and families he
analyzes ­represented only a tiny fraction of the social elite. And
although those medieval middling classes could and did rise, usually
through law or commerce, only a small part of the elite owed its
fortune to "patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness,
education." And once the mercantile families had ascended to high
status, their children typically adopted the leisured ethos of their
landed neighbors, otium cum dignitate, rejecting the vulgar ways of
their fathers.

At every point, the mores and culture of those authentic traditional
elites contradict Clark's picture. Anyone who looks at those landed
upper classes as they actually operated in 1150, or even 1450, would
see not diligent proto-consumers but a society with mores not unlike
those of a Los Angeles street gang. What Tom Paine famously called the
roving Norman banditti had a well-developed belief in instant
gratification, in sinking wealth into ostentatious display, and in
defending personal honor through immediate and extreme acts of
violence. The English aristocracy had not advanced too far beyond the
credo of its recent Viking ancestors, and they earned their wealth the
old-­fashioned way: by stealing it. If the values of the medieval
upper classes (rather than just their genes) had spread through the
English population, then its members by 1800 would have been too busy
beheading each other to start building power looms or forming shopping

At every stage, the changes offered by Clark lend themselves to
startlingly obvious alternative explanations. Take for instance that
undoubted growth of literacy from the sixteenth century onward,
measured for instance by the numbers actually signing wills rather
than making marks. Any student of history would ask whether anything
happened in England during the Tudor and Stuart periods that might at
once have led to a greater desire for reading, as well as an urge to
supply the means by which ordinary people could satisfy that craving.
Some ­readers might dimly recollect something called the Protestant
Reformation, which is in fact quite well-documented and widely
studied. (Clark mentions the Reformation briefly in an aside that
confirms his ignorance of the context.) The Reformation had similar
effects on concepts of individualism, personal responsibility, and
literacy—not to mention charity. So much for the "farewell to alms."
<snip> lots more in this vein

Also, for a geneticist's criticism, see:


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