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Genes on the doorstep of history

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Maharbbal View Drop Down
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    Posted: 17-Mar-2007 at 14:59
Hi, I've been to a conference yesterday of pr Greg Clark.

He quite brilliantly destroyed the dominant theory explaining the development of human societies advanced by Doug North (Nobel Price) since the late 1960s.

North theory
In this view institutions drive human history by defining sets of incentives. E.g. the Glorious Revolution (1689) imposed constitutional checks to the England monarchy, for centuries England had been the black sheep of the international financial market: nobody wanted to lend money to the king as they knew this absolute rulers may decide singlehandedly not to pay you back. Suddenly, after 1689, Amsterdam (the big place for money at the time) open its door widely to the King of England. Conclusion the institutions (type of monarchy) affect the way individuals see the future (chances of being payed back) and eventually shapes history (the King suddenly has access to illimited founds).

Clark criticism
For the sake of the argument, Clark states that far from getting better the institutions are getting worse. He assumes that the incentives provided by England in 1300 were far better than in 2000 (less taxes, less insecurity for people and goods, ). Very convincingly he concludes that institutions by no mean explain the whole picture. Other forces are at stake, most clearly: technologies. But technologies do not appear ex nihilo, culture usualy regarded as the cause behind innovation. But where do culture come from?

Clark new theory
Greg Clark explained very quickly his view and I've extrapolated most of it but I'm pretty convinced not to betray too much his point. It starts by a few observations commonly admitted:
from the Neolithic revolution to the Industrial Revolution, the world's population grew very slowly and the Malthusian checks were very strong.
in most of the urban centres there was a negative demographic growth (i.e. more death than birth) the potential population expansion comming uniquely from the rural-urban migration.
the rich were the only population growing naturally. Noble and bourgeois families had commonly 6, 8 or even 10 offspring.

Pr Clarks sees that here there may have been a Darwinian type of selection. Moreover, by a sort of "Don Giovanni syndrom" (my words), non-elite took every chance possible to mate with the elite.

As a result, the elite imposed its gene poll and eventually stopped being an elite to become the norm. This elite was defined by some important features: entrepreneurship for example. Thus this top features spread through the population and became common. The people didn't become bourgeois but the bourgeois became the people. These top behaviour spreaded around allow the modern societies to catch the first chance to overcome the Malthusian barrier to their growth. The Industrial Revolution can thus be explained by the presence of the right genes at the right moment for a mere spark (the steam engine) to set the fire of modernity.


Greg Clark is a brilliant economist and a great historian so his theory diserves to be considered. It is quite courageous to have such an unPC position and to remark the oddity consisting in stopping evolution at the doorstep of history. It maybe a good PR move too. Actually I was feeling it coming with the evolutionary psychology becoming increaingly important in Academia, the bridge had to be created by someone.

On the other hand, of course, these type of theory always remind bad, very bad memories. It may unleach some eugenist craze. No longer than last a member of AE has almost been banned from the forum for something quite similar. Isn't it a unbearable double standard, when one talks of the Turks' superiority as soldiers we call him a racist idiot and when another dwells about the superioty of some in term of entrepreneurship, he his to be considered as a genius

Of course both case are not similar. Greg Clark is proposing a hypothesis requiring researches enabling to support it. These researches can be of two types:
biologists can try to isolate the gene of entrepeneurship it may not happen before long, if ever.
historians can try to isolate some "elite individuals" particularly successful and who would be the ascendent of the modern bourgeois. This would be of course very difficult if possible at all.

Of course some examples are striking: Genghis Khan had thousands of offsprings and nowadays his descendants are virtually found everywhere on earth. Similarily, the passenger of the Mayflowers' genes are to be found in millions of nowadays Americans. Can these success-stories be generalized? What is your opinion on the whole thing?

Here are the first chapters of his book, Farwell to Alms: a Brief Economic of the World, Princeton University Press, forthcoming.

Edited by Maharbbal - 17-Mar-2007 at 15:15
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