[ExI] Impressive book: Farewell to Alms

The Avantguardian avantguardian2020 at yahoo.com
Tue Feb 5 06:42:49 UTC 2008

--- hkhenson <hkhenson at rogers.com> wrote:

> [Stuart], did you read the book?  Clark spent a huge effort on
> at the wills of people from the 1200s on.  His evidence is very 
> robust on this particular point.

Admittedly I didn't read the book but I trust your acumen to be able to
give a concise interpretation of the book that is quite along the lines
of what the author intended. And from what you have said, it seems to
be a literary reincarnation of Herbert Spencer's arguments for social
darwinism. By reducing societal evolution to the level of the selfish
gene, he is playing off of Dawkins the same way Spencer played off of
Darwin and to the very same audience. Biologists like me get antsy when
economists ignore the big picture of biology yet nonetheless commandeer
small parts of it out of context to justify political idealogies. To
try to describe societal evolution at a genetic level is like trying to
describe Microsoft Windows at the level of machine language- it is
reductio ad absurdum.   

> They didn't have to.  In a Malthusian society (a more or less static 
> population) it was the failure of the poor to reproduce that opened 
> the "ecological space" for the offspring of the wealthy.  (By 
> "reproduce" I mean to have children who reached the age they could 
> reproduce.)  Assuming psychological characteristics are heritable, 
> which the twin studies have shown, then do the math on how many 
> generations it takes for 1% traits to become common given a two to 
> one reproductive advantage for those with the traits.

But there are heritable traits that are not genetic at all: memes,
wealth, occupation, culture, etc. Why posit a genetic basis for such a
complex phenomenon as the industrialization of a society?

Lets say there was a mutation within a certain gene that confered
"industriousness" upon the mutant. Where is the evidence that this
mutation arose within the upper class of Victorian England that
according to wikipedia comprised only 2% of the population?

Upper class=2%, lower class=85%, and by inference middle class=13%.

Even if Clark's somehow managed to dance around the bias inherent in
his will data, he is simply seeing an inverse correlation between
infant mortality and wealth. This is hardly a new observation so how
does does this imply a genetic basis for the industrial revolution?

Furthermore if there was a correlation between wealth and
"industriousness" then why did the proportion of wealthy individuals
not increase in proportion to the increase of the "industrious"
individuals? Indeed judged on the observation that the proportion of
the upper class has remained relatively constant over all these years,
whilst "industriousness" has come to dominate the gene pool, there
seems to be no correlation between wealth and industriousness. Indeed
it seems to be simply a "red queen" effect where both the wealthy and
poor are having to become "industrious" just to stay in their
respective places.

I think Clark's biggest mistake is that he is conflating environment
with genetics thus putting the cart before the horse. Genes adapt to
environments; environments don't adapt to genes.     

> Clark's work isn't so much about the period in which the takeoff 
> occurred, but the selection that went on for the centuries, changing 
> psychological characteristics of the population.  He even discusses 
> the low level of illegitimate children in the section on fertility.
> Clark also consulted the historical record and found that the 
> fighting aristocracy didn't do well in terms of reproduction until 
> the level of violence had fallen to near modern levels.
> At least read the first chapter.

Since my last post, I have read the summary paper by Clark that you
posted the other day. I think Bill's point is that the wills are biased
because unlike gallop polls, the sample is not being selected at
random. Treating the wills that he happened to have at hand is
convenience sampling, not random sampling. They are further biased
because they represent one small geographical region of England, namely

If he had wills from Liverpool and Edinburgh too, combined them and
chose some at random by flipping a coin or something, he would have had
something closer to a random sample. Suffolk is a pastoral county not a
metropolitan one. What makes you think it was representative of all of
England at the time, when most of the factories were concentrated in
the cities like London?   

All that aside, however, I am not so much against the idea that genetic
shifts occured attendant to the industrial revolution, but probably
more as a trailing rather than a leading influence. Correlation is not
evidence of causation.

I could just as easily posit that the Information Age started in
California because the wealthy inhabitants of Beverly Hills owned more
automobiles than their housekeepers did.

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