Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Evolution in action This article has been making wide rounds around the blogosphere:

In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence

For thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty, first as hunters and gatherers, then as peasants or laborers. But with the Industrial Revolution, some societies traded this ancient poverty for amazing affluence.

Historians and economists have long struggled to understand how this transition occurred and why it took place only in some countries. A scholar who has spent the last 20 years scanning medieval English archives has now emerged with startling answers for both questions.

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.

I'm still chewing on it, but I wanted to throw it out there. The guts of it are here:
Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

He's putting it right back into classical Darwinism by arguing that differential reproduction produced a population with certain . . .advantageous(?) traits. I'm sort of unclear on the reasoning at this point. The article seems to regard this as something of a prime mover: the people with these traits drove the industrial revolution. OTOH, later it suggests more that these traits were selected for in the developing indistrial economy. It's tough to pick out the causitive factor.

Reaction to Dr. Clark’s thesis from other economic historians seems largely favorable, although few agree with all of it, and many are skeptical of the most novel part, his suggestion that evolutionary change is a factor to be considered in history.

Historians used to accept changes in people’s behavior as an explanation for economic events, like Max Weber’s thesis linking the rise of capitalism with Protestantism. But most have now swung to the economists’ view that all people are alike and will respond in the same way to the same incentives. Hence they seek to explain events like the Industrial Revolution in terms of changes in institutions, not people.

There's kind of an undercurrent that makes a clear separation between "evolution" and . . . something else. "Evolution" is clearly referring only to the biological sort, though they do mention behavior and trait transmission within social groups. It seems a bit disconnected actually. It was because of differential reproduction of biological entities (upper-class vs. lower class people) but the actual traits are purely cultural. Does 'thrift' have a particular gene associated with it? These could be population-related (cultural transmission only within certain groups), but it isn't spelled out.

Anyway, I'm going to do some more reading on what others are saying about it, think on it some more, and probably post again, with some links.

(Via dtd at TPW)