I have a little prank that I occasionally play on my 5-year-old nephew. I imagine an outlandish story and tell it to him in a perfect deadpan tone. Then I watch as his face goes from expressing trust to suspicion and incredulity, until finally breaking out in laughter at the absurdity of my tall tale. Recently I told him a story about how his little brother, whom he remembers coming home from the hospital two years ago, actually hatched out of an enormous egg his parents kept in their living room. “Remember how your mommy and daddy each took turns sitting on it?” I asked him as I struggled to keep a straight face. Before long, the idea of his baby brother pecking his way into the world had him in stitches.
After reading A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, I finally understand what listening to these stories must be like for my nephew. Gregory Clark lays out in a deadpan tone, complete with charts and graphs, a theory as farfetched as my wildest avuncular yarns. Clark writes with the sober authority of an economics professor (he chairs the department at the University of California, Davis), but the more one reads of his theory of the Industrial Revolution, the less possible it becomes to see it as anything other than preposterous. Clark tries to explain why England, of all the world’s nations, industrialized first. And his answer is this: certain reproduction patterns among medieval Britons allowed England to breed a hardworking population with bourgeois values. The issue of whether or not they hatched from enormous eggs is left unaddressed. But if it had been, one can be sure Clark would have included a graph showing that shell strength is directly related to offspring survival rates.
Clark’s argument hinges on extensive archival research on the wills of medieval Englishmen. Over the course of twenty years of research in dusty archives, Clark compiled data from more than 2,000 wills. He chose a time period (1585-1638) and regions (London, East Anglia, Bristol and Darlington) that provided the most comprehensive data possible. He then cross-referenced the information from the wills against parish registers compiled by the International Genealogical Index of the Mormon Church.
Clark concluded from his research that “economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success, with the richest individuals having more than twice the number of surviving children at death as the poorest.” As a result of this phenomenon, which Clark dubs “survival of the richest,” most of Britain’s population was descended from rich people after several generations. Not all the descendants of the rich were rich themselves: the medieval economy couldn’t provide all the talented sons of the rich with equivalent forms of employment; thus, there was constant downward social mobility. But after several generations, most of Britain’s population–rich and poor–was descended from the rich. And from these wealthy ancestors, Clark argues, nearly all Britons inherited the virtuous qualities that make people rich, like the ability to delay gratification (“low time preference rates,” in econ-speak). As he writes, “The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism–patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education–were thus spreading biologically throughout the population.”
For Clark, it is in the nature of settled agrarian societies to provide financial rewards to those with middle-class values. And being wealthy in a preindustrial society allows a man to support more children. The same phenomenon can be found in other settled agrarian societies, Clark writes, such as China and Japan; but in England, the most stable of all agrarian societies, the link between reproductive patterns and economic success was the most pronounced. While Clark is certain that the transmission of bourgeois virtues is “biological,” he hedges a bit about whether this inheritance is genetic or just cultural, usually putting a modifier like “perhaps” or “even” in front of his eugenic speculations.