[ExI] Impressive book: Farewell to Alms

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Tue Feb 5 07:11:14 UTC 2008

BillK writes

> 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.

Yes, there certainly are speculative elements to Clark's
analysis. But that's true of most social "science".

> Here is a good critique:
> <http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=6042>

This article does not start off well.  Get a load of the first

   Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic
   History of the World is not quite as bad as either its author
   or publisher try to make it.

Why would the author and publisher try to make a book bad?
You should worry reading a review that starts in such a
backhanded and peculiar fashion.  The next sentences aren't
much better:

   ...the book represents a startling breakthrough in our
   understanding of how humanity escaped the Malthusian trap
   —in which rising populations always outpaced their food
   production—that had captured all human generations before
   the Industrial Revolution. [A charitable concession.]
   The daring approach by which Clark tries to explain this
   change is self-evidently silly.

Wow.  "Self-evidently silly", eh?

Yet remarkably, this article does score a number of good,
legitimate hits against Clark's analysis. I think some have been
discussed in other posts. As BillK quoted

> At every stage, the changes offered by Clark lend themselves to
> startlingly obvious alternative explanations.

That is so.

> 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.

Well, I actually feel relieved at the *substance* of this reviewer's
discourse :-)

To be sure, one must consider the attendant cultural transformations
affecting any period in history. But this is true whether or not Clark
is right in suggesting a genetic component.

Suppose that there were cultural and historic developments that
lead to a "greater desire for reading" and a "craving" by people
for things to read. There could easily be a genetic-environment
cross effect.

> Some ­readers might dimly recollect something called the Protestant
> Reformation, which is in fact quite well-documented and widely
> studied.

This has to be sarcasm.

> (Clark mentions the Reformation briefly in an aside that confirms
> his ignorance of the context.)

This name-calling just reveals the eagerness of the reviewer, and
his complete insousiance, to parade his biases.

> The Reformation had similar effects on concepts of individualism,
> personal responsibility, and literacy—not to mention charity.
> So much for the "farewell to alms."

Earlier, the reviewer did contribute some arguments of substance:

    So what is wrong with this picture? The possibility of genetic
    change in fairly recent times cannot be rejected out of hand,

Thank you!

   although it should not be invoked without a full consideration
   of alternatives.

Now, why is that?  Perhaps I should claim that cultural or philosophic
explanations should not be invoked without a full consideration of
alternatives.  That would be obviously false.  Only if you subscribe
to certain philosophical or political orthodoxies are some types
of explanation automatically privileged over others.

    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,

I.e., we can discount his [Clark's] arguments from an inverse
application of argument from authority.  (Believe it or not, the
writer really does now finally make substantive criticism:  )

    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.

That's very likely true!  I wonder what Clark would say.

   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.

This has the ring of truth, also.

   One token of their new status was that the nouveaux riches sent
   their children to educational institutions where they would learn
   ­little of direct practical value or economic consequence. That’s
   a dreadful way to begin an economic breakthrough.

Ah, the substance of it was short, but sweet.


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