Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is not quite as bad as either its author or publisher try to make it. As reported in a major New York Times article heralding the publication of "the next blockbuster in economics," the book represents a startling breakthrough in our understanding of how humanity escaped the Malthusian trap--in which rising populations always outpaced their food production--that had captured all human generations before the Industrial Revolution.
The daring approach by which Clark tries to explain this change is self-evidently silly. Yet, putting aside his deeply flawed grand theory, A Farewell to Alms (Princeton University Press, 420 pages, $29.95) has some useful features. Clark's central theme is frankly biological. Noting the explosion of self-sustaining economic growth in England around 1800, he uses for an explanation the spread of novel social and cultural patterns that favored enterprise, thrift, and the peaceful resolution of conflict.
Those patterns emerged, he suggests, because over the previous thousand years richer people in England had tended to have far more children than the poor, so that increasingly their genes dominated the population. Modern British people--and their overseas descendants--are largely the offspring of the rich and powerful of the Middle Ages. As that elite stock proliferated, so did its characteristic ideologies and behaviors, the patterns that had made its members rich in the first place:
Pre-industrial England was thus a world of constant downward mobility. Given the static nature of the Malthusian economy, the superabundant children of the rich had to, on average, move down the social hierarchy in order to find work; Craftsmen s sons became laborers, merchants sons petty traders, large landowners' sons smallholders. The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism--patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education--were thus spreading biologically throughout the population. Just as people were shaping economies, me economy of the pre-industrial era was shaping people, at least culturally and perhaps also genetically. The effects were complex and revolutionary: "Interest rates fell, murder rates declined, work hours increased, the taste for violence declined, and numeracy and literacy spread even to the lower reaches of society." By the late-eighteenth century, the English population was primed, socially and genetically, to become the workers and consumers who could sustain the great leap forward, what Clark calls the "Great Divergence," of the event that we know loosely as the Industrial Revolution. The genetic priming was...