[ExI] Impressive book: Farewell to Alms

hkhenson hkhenson at rogers.com
Tue Feb 5 04:22:31 UTC 2008

At 12:16 PM 2/4/2008, BillK wrote:
>On Feb 4, 2008 4:54 PM, hkhenson wrote:


>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.

Elemental sampling theory treats numbers as large 
as the population as effectively infinite.  The 
statistical error you get out of samples is such 
that a sample of a few hundred gives decent 
expected error bounds on the whole 
population.  If it's a leap of faith the Gallop polls make the same leap.

Do you agree with Clark's numbers for the will 
data he had?  If you do, what reason do you have 
to expect the results *not* to apply to the population as a whole?

> > 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'


>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.

That's exactly what I meant by a very close approximation.

>Clark is not a scientist. He's an economics historian.

An economic historian is the only qualified 
person to investigate this area.  I would not denigrate him for doing so.

>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.

Do you doubt such genes exist?  There are breeds 
of dogs that can be reliably left in the kitchen 
with raw steak on the table and they won't touch 
it.  Other breeds are on the meat the second the 
owner's back is turned.  Can you ascribe this 
well known observation to anything other than genes?

There are no genes known for a substantial 
variety of personality characteristics.  And yet 
we know from twin studies that genes exert a 
large effect on personality traits.  The fact 
that genes are not *now* known only indicates we 
should consider looking for them.  I expect a 
dozen or more of genes would be involved.

"Interest rates fell from astonishingly high 
rates in the earliest societies to close to low 
modern levels by 1800. Literacy and numeracy 
increased from being a rarity to being the norm. 
Work hours rose between the hunter gatherer era 
to modern levels by 1800. Finally there was a 
decline in interpersonal violence."

"Economists have thought of time preference rates 
as being hard-wired into peoples’ psyches, and as 
having stemmed from some very early evolutionary process."

So genes for low time preference (an easy thing 
to test) should be on the list.  As spike 
mentioned in the farming/winter context, genes 
tending toward obsessive compulsive behavior 
might also have been favored.  To many genes in 
that direction and you get OCD.  Anyone know if 
OCD differs from one racial group to another?

>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.

Of course, now does the reviewer present them?  No.

>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.

Does anyone besides me characterize this as "ad 
hominem"?  Where did this review come 
from?  "First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life " huh?

Mission Statement

First Things is published by The Institute on 
Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, 
nonpartisan research and education institute 
whose purpose is to advance a religiously 
informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.

http://www.firstthings.com/bookstore.php  Worth 
looking at.  Lots of Catholic books.

>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.

What does Gallop do today?  Small samples.  He is 
providing no particular reason for the sample to be biased.

>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.

Clark makes the point that because of their 
higher effective reproductive rate, their 
children typically moved down the social 
ladder.  And it shows up in cases where wills of the children were also found.

>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

"Instant gratification" and "ostentatious 
display" strike me as a way to go down the social 
ladder.  A poverty stricken descendant of a 
historically rich American family once told me 
that his branch of the family got that way from fast women and slow horses.

As Clark pointed out, "extreme acts of violence" 
in this society was not a way for the genes to be 
disproportionately represented in the next 
generation.  However, "roving Norman banditti" 
strikes me a an odd thing for Tom Paine to have 
written.  Google finds a few references

"Tom Paine’s Norman banditti still had heirs all over America,
in Veblen’s view. The predatory instincts of the rich had declined,
so that in addition to degrading labor, these latter-day aristocrats
were also extremely competitive. When they entered industry, as
“captains,” they retarded it with archaic devices of exploit and
competition, when cooperation and workmanship were the real
economic demands of an advanced industrial order. “Archaism”
and “waste” were remnants of aristocratic virtue, and America
could ill afford them.79
It is not always easy to understand why Veblen was so angry."


(Both are interesting, but I am not sure "Norman 
Banditti" can be properly attributed to Tom Paine.)

"In addition to 
Theory of the Leisure Class and 
Theory of Business Enterprise, Veblen’s monograph 
"Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution," 
and his many essays, including “Why Is Economics 
Not an Evolutionary Science,” and “The Place of 
Science in Modern Society,” remain influential."

‘Pig-Sticking Princes’: Royal Hunting,
Moral Outrage, and the Republican
Opposition to Animal Abuse in Nineteenth-
and Early Twentieth-Century Britain

Can anyone locate an actual primary source for Tom Paine using this phrase?

>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.

Clark (page 183) put it this way:  "Protestantism 
may explain rising levels of literacy in Norther 
Europe after 1500.  But why after 1000 years of 
entrenched Catholic dogma was an obscure German 
Preacher able to effect such a profound change in 
the way ordinary people conceived religious belief?"

>So much for the "farewell to alms."
><snip> lots more in this vein

True.  It closes this way:

"It is an open question whether these virtues 
outweigh the book’s obvious flaws. Perhaps its 
most ­worrying feature is that A Farewell to Alms 
will be used to legitimize biological and genetic 
approaches to the study of modern history. It may 
well begin a fad that we can expect to see 
imitated in studies of other fields and eras, as 
scholars start explaining cultural changes in 
terms of recent evolution and genetic diffusion. Welcome back, eugenics."

Ah, another thought stopper.  Like your use of "racism."

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of 
History at Pennsylvania State University.  Hmm. 
Not exactly.  From his web page,

Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies and History "


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