Getting Greg Clark Wrong.

Via both Sullivan and Lost Legacy, this review in the NY Times of Greg Clark\’s " A Farewell to Alms".

Second, Darwinian evolution is usually seen as a process that works over very long periods of time, with consequences for humans that we can observe only by looking far into the past.

Well, yes, but Clark is careful not to insist that it is Darwinian evolution which is the mechanism by which the change came about.

One frustrating aspect of Clark’s argument is that while he insists on the “biological basis” of the mechanism by which the survival of the richest fostered new human attributes and insists on the Darwinian nature of this process, he repeatedly shies away from saying whether the changes he has in mind are actually genetic. “Just as people were shaping economies,” he writes in a typical formulation, “the economy of the preindustrial era was shaping people, at least culturally and perhaps also genetically” (emphasis added). Nor does he introduce any evidence, of the kind that normally lies at the core of such debates, that traits like the capacity for hard work are heritable in the sense in which biologists use the term.

Quite, so he\’s not in fact talking about Darwinian evolution then, so why blame him for not proving that it was caused by Darwinian evolution?

The issue here is not merely a matter of too often writing “perhaps” or “maybe.” If the traits to which Clark assigns primary importance in bringing about the Industrial Revolution are acquired traits, rather than inherited ones, there are many non-Darwinian mechanisms by which a society can impart them, ranging from schools and churches to legal institutions and informal social practices.

Indeed, and we\’ll come to that.

But if the traits on which his story hinges are genetic, his account of differential childbearing and survival is necessarily central.

Ah, and there is the central error in Friedman\’s argument. For Darwinian evolution is not in fact the only sort of evolution that has been posited, nor is it the only form of evolution which we can argue actually works.

Now, let me back up slightly here. I\’m not about to get all kooky on you and insist that because your father learnt to play the guitar then so can you already play the guitar via your genes. But there has been another form of evolution posited, Lamarckian. As it turns out, with the genetic attributes of humans and other animals it turns out to be wrong. But in Deirdrie McCloskey\’s review of the same book, the issue is indeed nailed as being entirely central to the thesis (and no, she doesn\’t agree with it):

…unless they fit his notion of the material if social inheritance of acquired characteristics (“and perhaps even the genes,” says he).

The inheritance of acquired characteristics is, in evolutionary terms, referred to as Lamarckian: and as above, with reference to genes, it\’s wrong. However, with reference to culture it most certainly is not wrong.

No, I\’m not going to try and prove that culture is transmitted in a Lamarckian manner. Rather, I\’m going to prove that you and everyone else already believe it is.

For I think we all agree that the children of teenage mothers are more likely to themselves become teenage parents? That is the inheritance of an acquired characteristic. We note that children who grow up in a home without books do badly at school: and then go on to note that those who do badly at school tend to have few books at home to instruct their own children. We note that the middle classes tend to transmit their social success across the generations: it\’s most unfashionable these days to attribute that to genes, rather, to social networks, to the privilege that a secure upbringing and a decent education provide. We note that children whose parents have a university education are more likely to get a university education themselves. Anyone pondering the family networks that infest UK journalism, or the Law, will be observing exactly the same thing. No, we don\’t believe that the ability to write leader columns has been genetically transmitted from Lord Rees Mogg to Annunziata Rees Mogg (he at The Times, she at The Telegraph: and having once read one of hers where she refers to "sclerosis of the liver", if we did I\’d be expecting someone to be having a very serious and intimate chat with Lady Rees Mogg sometime soon) but we do indeed believe that a combination of education and the extended network of the family have contributed to the daughter following in the old man\’s footsteps.

Indeed, this is one of the arguments forcefully put forward againt the existence of private schools in the UK: that they permit the transmission of exactly this form of cultural inheritance and thus privileged positions.

So we believe this about our society now: that attitudes, mindsets, extended networks, are indeed transmitted across the generations, not via Darwinian evolution, but in a way that can best be described as Lamarckian. The inheritance by the next generation of characteristics acquired by the previous one.

So we all already actually agree that Clark\’s mechanism is indeed a possible one (I personally regard it, now that\’s he\’s written the book to explain it, as obvious, but as I didn\’t see it before I read the book perhaps not that obvious.): all he needs to really prove is that the people who were transmitting the petit- and not so petit- bourgeois cultural values were indeed outbreeding those who didn\’t and the basic argument seems secure. Those bourgeois cultural values were indeed spreading through society via an evolutionary mechanism, just that of Lamarck, not Darwin.

Now, whether that actually caused the Industrial Revolution is another matter, but the transmission mechanism is one that, as above, we all already think is true.

Update. One further thought. I\’m really not sure where that idea that Darwinian evolution is only evident in humans over very long periods of time comes from. We need to divide evolution into two different things. The first is the accumulation of random mutations which lead to diversity in the population (which in itself can be divided into two. Those that kill the fetus or child, which are most of them, and those that don\’t). This does indeed take a long time and it happens at a reasonably well known rate. So much so that we actually use the existence of such diversity to count backwards and tell us when populations split in the past. Now most such mutations (those that don\’t kill) make very little or no difference at all to reproductive success. Others do make a difference. But there\’s a third set and those are those that make no difference now, but might at some point in the future. Yes, the accumulation of these mutations does indeed take a long time.

Well, you might ask, how can something not make a difference to reproductive success now but do so in the future? This brings us to our second "thing" about evolution. It\’s the changing environment which determines which traits lead to that increased reproductive success. Sure, things like melanin enhancement in skin to deal with sunnier climes take a long time to become evident. But environments can change rather rapidly.

For example, what if there were some random mutation that conferred immunity (or an increased chance of survival) to smallpox? Or bubonic plague? I\’ve no idea whether there is or has been (that there are such mutations for better immune systems is obvious, but they proffer immediate increased success, except where they don\’t) but I wouldn\’t be at all surprised if there had been. And then in Justinian\’s time (around 500 AD, for smallpox) or the 1350s, for bubonic plague, possession or not of those genes becomes very evident in a very short period of time. Those with them are still alive, those without are not.

Yes, OK, it\’s a quibble, but it\’s a boring Monday afternoon here.



16 thoughts on “Getting Greg Clark Wrong.”

  1. Cultural transmission, Tim. Or before the wonks got into it … learning.

    A million miles from Lamark. And Darwin didn’t have the mechanism for inheritance – he could simply wotk out its nature from an armchair and a very big brain.

    Cultural transmission isn’t ‘best decribed as Lamarkism’ in any way, shape or form because what you’re describing here is very exactly not what Lamark was claiming.

  2. Children tend, on average, to be like their parents. The reason could be “nature”, “nurture”, or some interaction of the two, in proportions that are still disputed. For the phenomenon under discussion, the proportions don’t matter as long as children are predominantly brought up by their parents or close relatives. Like DJ, I think the issue is well wide of Lamark.

  3. I disagree; transmission of acquired characteristics is precisely what Lamarckism describes, and is precisely what Tim is describing: traits passed from parent to offspring.

    An excellent piece, Tim.

  4. Lamarck was talking about physical characteristics, true. But when people say “Lamarckian” they can also mean social evolution, which (because it is based on memes), can be modeled this way.

  5. I think Hayek made a similar sort of point in The Constitution of Liberty. Good post, Tim. I want to read the book.

    I’d be interested to see how that compares to Macfarlane’s The Origins of English Individualism

  6. Ian, Lamark was describing the transmission of aquired characteristics to explain relatively permanent phenotypic expression over many generations, not cultural transmission to explain single-generational expression of cultural norms.


  7. I think your use of Lamarckian description is appropriate here–with the caveats you employ. FWIW, for some traits scientists have been able to see evolutionary change in as few as 8 generations. Pity none of the species were primates…

  8. Tom Fuller, it can be even a fewer number of generations if one is looking for a shift in something, for example a behaviour, rather than waiting for it to become the population norm.

    Tim, I also take issue with your use of Lamarckian inheritance here, though there are examples of this, e.g. the altered alignment of cilia (tiny hairs) on the tiny microbe Paramecium. However, the terms now used are cultural or memetic evolution, in part to distinguish it from that which Lamarck was commenting upon. Two reasons for this that I can see a) Lamarck was not talking about the sort of selection we are talking about and thus should not be attributed the credit for it, and b) Lamarckism is so discredited that the label carries controversy with it and so is unhelpful.

    I’ve not read the book but I would be similarly uncomfortable about someone talking about potentially genetic mechanisms and Darwinian selection without clarifying very early on whether they were or not and how it affected the predictions of their hypothesis.

    Tim adds: This Lamarck and Darwin is purely my own addition. Yes, I understand that it’s incorrect technically. It’s an allegory, no more, and certainly not the way that Clark himself explains it. It’s just that his critics (or at least this one, today) are insisting that as Darwinian evolution doesn’t work with this speed, or that they don’t want to think that being bourgeois is caused genetically, I’m trying to point out that cultural or memetic evolution does happen….and I’m using the term Lamarckian for that, the “inheritance of acquired characteristics”.

    Anything wrong with the analogy is purely my fault, not Clark’s.

  9. I don’t agree that Clark’s mechanism is a possible one. He digests a great deal of data, but the large hole in his thesis is he talks a lot about “England” while neglecting the huge fact that a great deal of the success of the Industrial Revolution was due to “British” contributions, i.e., the contributions of the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, the most influential of whom were not decendants of the upper classes. Further, his idea that the “English” upper class valued hard work, thrift and other proto-capitalist ideals, is a neo-Victorian myth that is toally unsupported by any reading of actual history.

    The great irony of all this is that Clark, and other scientists, understand how to massage data, but not how to apply it to history, while many historians are unnecessarily intimidated by science and anything that reeks of statistical analysis, and so fail to point out the obvious weaknesses in Clark’s thesis.

    Tim adds: Umm, no. You’re not understanding what “upper class” means in English, nor which class Clark was saying outbred the rest.

    “Upper Class” means the aristocracy. What Clark carefully proves (this is the soundest part of his research) is that the bourgeois (the middle class) outbred the aristocracy. No one has ever believed that the British (or English) aristocracy valued “hard work, thrift and other proto-capitalist ideals” as anyone who has ever read Austen knows, that would be “trade”. You’ve either not read the book or you’ve grossly misunderstood the points being made. Try again, eh?

  10. I’m glad that the update was added, because there is no reason to assume that evolutionary effects couldn’t take place over a short period of time. In fact there is a paper that has been published today on just that subject.

  11. Clark’s case that “evolutionary effects” have taken place is indirect, but is fatally flawed because his underlying data is meaningless. For example, he assumes that the parentage declared in the geneaological record of the “English” upper class is accurate, but he cannot demonstrate that this is in fact the case. He has to take people at their word that the fathers of children were in fact their children, which might be acceptable for a gentleman scholar writing about the aristocracy, but is not as acceptable for someone making claims about genes and evolution.

    Clark also incorporates an interesting bias in discounting the offspring of upper class women, born either out-of-wedlock, or to lovers of various classes, who were set aside and not raised by their aristocratic parents. The fates of these children were often lost to history, but they might still have some genetic impact on English society.

    In addition, since the English upper classes were never genetically uniform, I do not how Clark could possibly make any claim about their evolutionary effect on English society. Native Britons were displaced by Anglo-Saxons, who were in turn displaced by Normans. Coming closer to the Industrial Revolution, a branch of the aristocracy that was more Scottish and German (after the accesion of George I) displaced any branch that could even remotely be described as “English.”

    In addition to all this, the decision that the English monarch must be Protestant pushed Catholic aristocrats downward on the social ladder, closer to the English middle and lower classes. None of this had anything to do with genes, but everything to do with the vagaries of historical circumstance. Clark simply cannot deal with this and tries to wish it all away in various tables and computations.

    One could easily make a counter-case that the Industrial Revolution came about in part because the English upper classes at crucial times married savvy middle and lower class people (such as Bess of Hardwick, who at one time was the richest woman in England, apart from Elizabeth I), or Katherine Swynford, a woman of modest background who, as the wife of John of Gaunt, was an ancestor of the Tudor line of English monarchs.

  12. This whole argument so far misses the point of evolution as to fail even to be wrong. Go ahead and talk it up, if it makes you feel even better about yourselves. I’ll be over here with science.

  13. So Much For Subtlety

    Just in passing, the Black Death did in fact leave its evolutionary stamp on the European population. Some genes mean you have a much better chance of surviving it. When you wipe out a third of the population, you leave behind a very different population. Haemochromatosis may have become far more common in Europe due to the plague for instance.

  14. Lets assume for sake of argument that there is a genetic basis for being musically inclined. ( Ability to differentiate tone or something along that line)
    As most people tend to seek partners who have interests similar to themselves would it not make sense that two musically inclined people produce a child with the genetic keys for being musical. Add to this situation the probable case that the family would very likely give rise to situations that trigger development of this genetically favoured ability and one is left with sexual selection that looks like passing on of an acquired trait.

  15. To Tim: Actually, I have read through Clark’s book once, but also previously read his Times article “England’s Success May Be In Our Genes,” (The Times, August 18, 2007), and his paper “Survival of the Richest(JEH, Vol 66, No 3). Also, the class written about by Austen is a narrow subset of the people that Clark is writing about. “Howards End” is perhaps a more thorough examination of the mercantile class, but the time period covered here is much later than the period that Clark writes about. However, to describe the variations of the gentry that Clark hitches his book upon as “bourgeois” or “middle class” is not quite right either, and evades the degree to which the English aristocracy and the landed gentry (as opposed to the mercantile and trade-oriented classes) appropriated huge amounts of wealth before and during the Industrial Revolution. Further, the social upheaval which dislodged members of the upper class, and which also permitted a rise of the lower classes argues for greater social mobility than Clark appears to want to recognize.

    And as Clark is from Scotland (and his grandfathers were both Irish), it is downright bizarre that he would so narrowly focus on England, as opposed to Britain as a whole. Perhaps he is saving his big guns for a future work, but the lack of a wider British perspective weakens his case.

    Apart from this, Clark never makes the genetic – or even social or cultural – connection between the idea of the survival of the richest and his core thesis, that “…the attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism—patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education—were … spreading biologically throughout the population,” despite the subtle misdirection of all of the data that he throws at the issue.

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