Archive for August 28th, 2007|Daily archive page

An Evolving Society

Most real scientists believe in the theory of evolution and, despite polls that show something different, I suspect that many people (especially if they aren’t Americans) would be more than willing to ascribe to an understanding more in line with a God guided process of “decent with modification” than a purely Creationist philosophy saying the world is only 6000 years old. (Even if the Chairman of the Texas Board of Education has different feelings about the issue.) The only difference between the “standard” theory of evolution and a theistic evolutionary argument is the extent to which God was involved, if at all, in tinkering with the tiny bits over time.

In recent weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to the implications of how evolution works and how evolution might work on human activities. This line of thinking was spurred by recent book review in the New York Times about A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark, a historical economist at the University of California, Davis. I will preface my comments by saying I haven’t read the book yet and am basing my comment on the description provided in the Nicolas Wade article and the preview chapter available. But then again my line of thinking only marginally touches on the thesis given by Clark.

Nevertheless, I’d like to start with a discussion of Clark’s ideas. The premise is as simple as it will be controversial.

In looking at the economic data for England for the years between 1200 and 1800, Clark argues that the English population was caught at the edge of the Malthusian limit. This is the highest population a society can sustain. In any area, the human population would grow up to the point where agricultural techniques provided just enough food for most people to survive. Any minor increase in population would soon die due to lack of food. The only exceptions to this rule were formed by increased agricultural land use and the occasional marginal improvement in technology.

From the online version of the first chapter

The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.1. Before 1800 income per person —the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.

Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.
[…]
So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.

The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed for ever the possibilities for material consumption. Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries. The richest mod ern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average. Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled. There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest.

Clark calculated that the average caloric input of the poor in pre-industrial England was a quarter less than what would have been consumed in a normal hunter-gatherer society (a point also made by Jarod Diamond in Germs, Guns and Steel). As a matter of fact, only the rich in the European societies would have been able to eat more than the 2300 calories consumed on average by hunter gatherers. I know from other reading that in the middle of the 18th century, not only the poor but even the rich regularly suffered in the late winter and early spring from symptoms of serious malnutrition. Rickets, caused by malnutrition, was still common into the early parts of the last century.

The only real exception to the continual marginal lifestyles led by the majority of people was caused by the mass deaths due to the black plague. These devastating catastrophes produced a temporary improvement in the lives of the survivors because the available aerible land was able to temporarily produce an excess until the Malthusian limit was again reached.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1800th century, a turning point was reached. Something dramatically changed in England and allowed mankind to finally escape the Malthusian Trap that had been holding it captive since the beginning of time. It was the key to this something Clark searched for.

Clark’s detective work led him into the archives looking at wills and other documents. By tracing who survived, he felt he had uncovered the reason for the Industrial Revolution. You see; as opposed to the Billy Joel song, it wasn’t the good dying young, it was the poor. There was a strong social current in English society but it ran downhill; it was the rich producing poor relatives, generation after generation, replacing the poor who had died from below. According to the New York Times review,

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.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes. Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy.

It is unclear, exactly, why Dr. Clark feels that literacy, thrift and a willingness to do hard work as opposed to a strong sword arm and good luck made what he calls the “economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” Especially in light of the fact that people like Charlemagne were illiterate, the cases of spendthrift kings, princes and Popes longer than the lists at any tournament and a willingness to do hard work simply ignores the amount of brutally hard work done by the poor in England.

But Clark’s merry romp through Social Darwinist philosophy unfortunately doesn’t appear to stop there. From his first chapter,

Why an Industrial Revolution in England? Why not China, India, or Japan?6 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.

Let me try to rephrase that idea. If you wanted to genetically “prepare” a society, whether through planning or luck, for the jump into the Industrial Revolution what you need are a group of people willing to starve the poorest of the poor to make room for the more industrious, “skillful” genetic racial representatives trickling down from above. And on the other side of the globe, the Japanese Tennos were apparently too infertile to produce a social change but fertile enough to produce a field ripe to adapt to the new ideas and methods coming from England a mere 100 years later. China took a century more to get on the right track. Um. Right.

Clark also ignores the agricultural civilizations in the Americas and in Bantu Africa; all arguably similarly captured in the Malthusian Trap; all arguably with similar cultural survival rates. The article simply comments that these cultures just aren’t “ready” for western advancement yet.

My response in a word: blech.

I can’t believe this drivel managed to make it into the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps it was published because the Times’ editors know full well that the eugenic ideas presented will generate a certain amount of controversy producing in turn both readership and advertising revenue.

Is Clark really trying to push for the idea of a genetically superior upper class? Hasn’t he even seen any of the Paris Hilton escapades? What about the Norwegain princess who believes in angels? Are these people mutants?! [Well… arguably, yes – but I won’t go there.]

I am however loath to completely eliminate the idea of evolution from the how societies improve. I however don’t think the solution can be found in the evolution of bodies but in the evolution of ideas.

Thus I’d like to spend some time looking at where a naïve understanding of evolutionary thinking might take us. I’d like to look at the idea of memes. But time is short. Thus todays discussion is –

To Be Continued…