A Review of Gregory Clark’s “A Farewell to Alms”

I thought I would spark some controversy by reviewing Gregory Clark’s “A Farewell to Alms”. Clark offers a social Darwinist theory of why the industrial revolution occurred in England. Most social scientists will likely dismiss Clark’s arguments as absurd. I will say off the bat that I think Clark’s thesis is wrong. But it contains an uncomfortable grain of truth that we need to acknowledge.

Clark’s thesis is that the seeds of the industrial revolution were laid in medieval England. During this time, the rich consistently out-bred the poor. I’ve copied Clark’s figures that demonstrate this fact. Figure 4.3 shows how male fertility increased as a function of wealth. Figure 6.2 shows how the number of surviving children increased as a function of wealth at death.

birthrates

surviving_children

Because the rich out-bred the poor, Clark argues that the children of the rich would have slowly filtered into lower classes. This had to happen because the rich reproduced faster than their replacement fertility rate. As a result, children of the rich had to (on average) drop in class. Clark argues that this led to the genetic spread of bourgeois values such as literacy, non-violence, and a productive work ethic. This eventually led to the industrial revolution. I won’t go into the details, because I think they’re unimportant. Instead, I want to focus on differential reproduction by social class and what Clark gets right and wrong.

So let’s start with what Clark gets right. This requires a brief review of Darwinian theory. The central argument in Darwinian theory is that evolution is driven by differential reproduction. Organisms that have more offspring will have their genes spread throughout the gene pool. This is a tautology — it has to be true. The interesting (and far harder) task is to understand why some organisms have more offspring than others, and to understand what traits are being spread.

Clark is correct to assert that the differential reproduction of the rich has all the characteristics needed for Darwinian natural selection. The rich out-breed the poor, thus their genes will spread throughout the population. But this is all that Clark gets right.

Where does he go wrong? For starters, differential reproduction by social class is a feature of almost every human society, not just England. Laura Betzig has done fascinating research on this topic [1,2]. She finds that those with greater social status consistently have greater reproductive success. Betzig argues that the urge to seek power is in fact Darwinian. Power is a proximate goal. The ultimate (unconscious) goal is to use power to achieve greater reproductive success.

So the problem with Clark’s argument is that differential reproduction by the rich is not unique to medieval England. It is a feature of every hierarchical human society. So it cannot be used to explain why the industrial revolution happened in England.

Clark’s next mistake is to assume that differential reproduction of the rich led to the genetic spread of bourgeois values. The problem is that Clark makes no attempt to determine what genes are being spread. And even if we knew this, we would need to establish that these genes determined bourgeois behaviours (such as literacy, non-violence, work ethic). This seems far-fetched, but we cannot dismiss it completely.

Genes undoubtedly influence behaviour. We know this from animal breeding. The Russian zoologist Dmitry Belyayev famously bred foxes for tameness. Over a few dozen generations, he was able to transform a wild fox species into a breed as tame as dogs. The same principles must apply to humans. The problem is that the gene-behaviour relation is complex. Of all animals, human behaviour is the least genetically determined. If we are going to make a gene-behaviour argument, we need to be on a solid empirical footing. At present, there is simply not enough evidence to make much of an argument. Thus, Clark’s thesis remains dubious because he cannot establish what genes are spreading and how these genes affect behaviour.

There are many ways that the differential reproduction of the rich might affect human behaviour over time. There is no guarantee that this will select for “good” characteristics. Consider the example of Genghis Khan, one of the most fertile males in history. By some estimates, 1 in 200 living males are descendants of Khan. How did he achieve this differential reproductive success? By raping and pillaging. By violently conquering much of Asia. By being the quintessential despot. In other words, Khan was a terrible human being. But in Darwinian terms, he was the epitome of success. Did Khan’s descendents inherit this tendency for despotism?

A chilling possibility is that differential reproduction by hierarchical elites has slowly led to the spread of the “authoritarian personality”. The reasoning is that those who achieve differential reproductive success are those who have a genetic urge to seek power. In other words, they have authoritarianism in their genes. What is interesting is that authoritarian individuals not only like to give orders — they also like to follow them. The authoritarian personality believes wholeheartedly in obedience. In other words, they believe in the legitimacy of hierarchy.

We could argue that this is how humanity was transformed from egalitarian hunter gatherers to a hierarchical capitalist society. According to Christopher Boehm, hunter-gathers are remarkably intolerant of those who seek power [3,4]. Groups of individuals actively suppress power-seeking individuals, sometimes violently. Is this a genetic tendency that has been bred out of modern populations by the differential reproduction of hierarchical elites? This is an incendiary idea. It is highly speculative, but no more so than Clark’s thesis.

To conclude, Clark’s thesis contains a grain of truth that is unsettling. There are clearly Darwinian selective forces operating in human societies. Hierarchical status and wealth is a reliable way to achieve greater reproductive success. The evidence for this is overwhelming. The question is, what is this selective pressure doing over the long-term? At present, we have no idea.

The problem is that many social scientists will likely find this whole line of reasoning abhorrent. Thus they will dismiss it out of hand. But this is misguided. Humans are a product of evolution and natural selection and there is no reason to suspect that this selection has stopped. We should be skeptical of Clark’s conclusions because they require a leap of faith. The intermediate steps in his thesis currently have no empirical support. But this does not mean they are false.

A note to readers

This review was originally posted to the capitalaspower.com forum.

References

[1] Betzig, L. L. (2012). Means, variances, and ranges in reproductive success: comparative evidence. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(4), 309–317.

[2] Betzig, L. L. (1982). Despotism and differential reproduction: A cross-cultural correlation of conflict asymmetry, hierarchy, and degree of polygyny. Ethology and Sociobiology, 3(4), 209–221.

[3] Boehm, C. (2009). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[4] Boehm, C., Barclay, H. B., Dentan, R. K., Dupre, M.-C., Hill, J. D., Kent, S., … Rayner, S. (1993). Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierarchy [and comments and reply]. Current Anthropology, 34(3), 227–254.


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