Saturday, August 30, 2014

Was an Industrial Revolution Inevitable? (Part Two)

Today's post is a direct continuation from yesterday's.  Gregory Clark's paper is The Sixteen Page Economic History of the World, recommended by Integralds at Reddit.

On page three of his paper, Gregory Clark writes:

Thus world economic history poses three interconnected problems:
  • Why did the Malthusian Trap persist for so long?
  • Why did the initial escape from that trap in the Industrial Revolution occur on one tiny island, England, in 1800?
  • Why was there the consequent Great Divergence?
This book proposes an­swers to all three of these puzzles — answers that point up the connections among them. The explanation for both the timing and the nature of the In­dustrial Revolution, and at least in part for the Great Divergence, lies in pro­cesses that began thousands of years ago, deep in the Malthusian era.

Clark asks: "Why did the initial escape from that trap in the Industrial Revolution occur on one tiny island, England, in 1800?"

Integralds asks: "Why Britain? Why not Japan, China, India, or Europe?"

Yeah. So, what does Gregory Clark have to say about it?

His is an odd analysis, and I have some trouble with it because of the way I was brought up. Clark's "processes that began thousands of years ago" is a euphemism for "ongoing human evolution". For openers, he writes:

In this model the economy of humans in the years before 1800 turns out to be just the natural economy of all animal species, with the same kinds of factors determining the living conditions of animals and humans.

In the years before 1800, Clark suggests, we were still like dogs and cats and goldfish. He writes:

The Darwinian struggle that shaped human nature did not end with the Neolithic Revolution but continued right up until the Industrial Revolution.

Note: the Darwinian struggle. For Gregory Clark this is not a metaphor. It is an explanation. Not only did we evolve from apes; later, we evolved from cave men. We evolved from hunter-gatherers into agricultural societies and then at least some of us evolved yet again, and it became possible to have an industrial revolution. And then I suppose we evolved further because we had an industrial revolution. Clark plays fast and loose with the concept of evolution.

For me, human nature is human nature. That's what makes us human. For me, human nature doesn't change. (I'm not offering evidence to support my view; I'm just telling you what I have always thought.) I read something one time about Hitler and his "master race" and how after World War Two in the U.S. we have de-emphasized the idea of genetic superiority as a causal factor. And I think that's probably true, and I think that's how I was raised, and I have to say that for me, the idea of human evolution as the cause of the Industrial Revolution is way off base.

Clark writes:

For England we will see compelling evidence of differential survival of types in the years 1250–1800. In particular, economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success. The richest men had twice as many surviving chil­dren at death as the poorest. The poorest individuals in Malthusian England had so few surviving children that their families were dying out.

The genes of poor people were filtered out of the gene pool, and the genes of rich people spread. I have trouble evaluating this idea because it's creepy. Plus I want to say it is wrong. People are not poor because of their genes. It's a there but for the grace of God thing. You know: "those whose courage and initiative have not been supplemented by exceptional skill or unusual good fortune."

And yet, Clark seems to be backing his argument with data. All I have is the word creepy.


The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism—patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education—were thus spread­ing biologically throughout the population.

Yeah, I still have "creepy". Clark softens his touch, saying "the economy of the preindustrial era was shaping people, at least culturally and perhaps also genetically." (Emphasis added.) Perhaps. But I cannot evaluate the merits of his idea.

What I can say is, it's not my kind of economics. Economists always seem to want to manipulate people, to change people's behavior in particular ways so as to create particular economic effects. I think that's bullshit. I think the economists who do that are the ones who don't have a clue about the economy. And that's just what Gregory Clark is doing with evolution.

One more quote from Clark. This must be the one Integralds had in mind:

Why an Industrial Revolution in England? Why not China, India, or Japan? The answer hazarded here is that England’s advantages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protestant Reformation, not the Enlightenment, but the accidents of institutional stability and demography: in particular the extraordinary stability of England back to at least 1200, the slow growth of English population between 1300 and 1760, and the extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful. The embedding of bourgeois values into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics, was for these reasons the most advanced in England.

Fecundity and genetics and values. Oh, my!


Jazzbumpa said...

The natural history of natural eugenics in Great Britain since medieval times. How quaint.

And that stability since 1200 conveniently ignores the death of 38% of the population between 1348 and 1350. There were numerous outbreaks in the 1500's. In 1563 alone between a quarter and a third of the population of London died.

What about the 100 years war and the War of the Roses?

There may also have been some transient unpleasantness with the Scots and Irish, or even some colonists along the way.

But, for all of that, England was remarkably stable.

If that is the premise, how can the conclusions be anything other than nonsense.


The Arthurian said...

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my...

Jazz you are at the top of your game here. Your thoughts on this & the previous post are great!

Greg said...

"and I have to say that for me, the idea of human evolution as the cause of the Industrial Revolution is way off base."

I think I agree with you AND disagree with you. I think Mr Clark is trying to tell a story where our human evolution made the IR inevitable because eventually our genetic code was going to create humans (the 1%ers) who could do all this stuff. It was in our DNA all along and was inevitable and we should thank God for these people because THEY gave the rest of us schleps our bountiful world we have today.

I don't know much about Clark so I don't want to group him with folks inappropriately but this is like the the divinely inspired evolution crowd that sees our (humans) emergence as part of a plan of which natural selection is just the manner in which the plan is disclosed to us. Its the WE WERE INEVITABLE crowd who think that the universe just had to have these particular humans on this floating rock in this tiny corner of some solar system. I think these guys totally misunderstand Evolution, and I think Mr Clarks story is wrong.

I do think that evolution works on other levels though. Cultural being one of them. So I think its also wrong to say "human evolution is not the cause of the industrial revolution". It is but its not at the level of the genes per se.

If you think of evolution as just tinkering along at whatever level you want to examine it then I think you see a different story. Our European forefathers
were tinkering with different political systems, different religious doctrines, different economic organizing all along. At the same time people with some amount of free time were just tinkering with tools and inventions to make their life easier, or just amaze friends at the pub , and many of these inventions offered true advantages to the lives of those people.

So, at the time of the IR you had a confluence of political/social/economic ideas and real tools and inventions which combined to give a great boost to human productivity and wealth. But it was a fortunate accident and there is not all success stories as result of it.

I think the overarching theme of evolution at pretty much every level should be something like;

"Everything will be tried, some things will work, some things will work fabulously and when they work fabulously there were lots of things happening on many levels that make it so"

Greg said...

Oh and I should add to my last comment;

"And don't think just because something worked fabulously in one place it can be used somewhere else
with the same results" (Think "western values" in the middle east......for one)

The Arthurian said...

Hey Greg. Cultural evolution, sure. Human, biological, DNA-level evolution, I can't buy that. I'm sure it's still going on. But at its usual infinitesimal level, and it does not compare to the various reactions that just one individual might have over the course of a lifetime, or the course of a day no less. More so, the actions and reactions that a whole society of individuals may have. Human biological evolution simply cannot compare.

I think most of what happens in human history is not the result of DNA-level evolution, but rather of successful memes, right or wrong.


Speaking of DNA, if you get the chance, watch Orphan Black.

Greg said...

So it sounds like we agree.

One thing that I want to be clear on though is I think the nature vs nurture debate is wrong. They are BOTH operative at all times. Our nature has genetic roots. Everything about being a human is from our DNA. Just like everything about being a whale is from its DNA. Our DNA allowed us to develop a brain (and larynx)that eventually developed language. The use of language has gone on a whole trajectory of its own.

Yes evolution of our entire species at the DNA level is slow but it is happening and increments lead to landslides after a while. This is not an affirmation of Clarks thinking at all but I do think people tend to dismiss that our DNA blueprint contained the building blocks for every protein in our body. These proteins all combined to form a variety of organs/functions and one of those was brains/thinking. Thinking has taken us to many different places with many different results but without our DNA we wouldn't think like we do.