Nicholas Wade discusses a theory of affluence by Gregory Clark, author of 'A Farewell to Alms, A Brief Economic History of the World' in the New York Times (free access):
Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.
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.
I am uncomfortable with this theory. The idea that certain segments of the population are driving the human race forward while others hold it back naturally leads to policy proposals that are not new at all: the name is Eugenics.
Eugenics is a social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention. The goals of various groups advocating eugenics have been to create healthier, more intelligent people, to save society's resources, and lessen human suffering.Earlier proposed means of achieving these goals focused on selective breeding, while modern ones focus on prenatal testing and screening, genetic counseling, birth control, in vitro fertilization, and genetic engineering. Opponents argue that eugenics is immoral and is based on, or is itself, pseudoscience. Historically, eugenics has been used as a justification for coercive state-sponsored discrimination and human rights violations, such as forced sterilization of persons who are claimed to have genetic defects, the killing of the institutionalized population and, in some cases, outright genocide of races perceived as inferior or undesirable.
Breeding of human beings was suggested by Robert L. Lee. The modern field and term were first formulated by Sir Francis Galton in 1865, drawing on the recent work of his cousin Charles Darwin. From its inception eugenics was supported by prominent people, including Alexander Graham Bell, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and Margaret Sanger. Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities. Funding was provided by prestigious sources such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institute of Washington, and the Harriman family. Its scientific reputation started to tumble in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin began incorporating eugenic rhetoric into the racial policies of Nazi Germany.
Since the postwar period, both the public and the scientific communities have associated eugenics with Nazi abuses, such as enforced racial hygiene, human experimentation, and the extermination of undesired population groups.
Of course, many things make me feel uncomfortable without being untrue. But I still struggle to see how the dynamics of this would work, and how this theory can ever be the main explanation of the tipping point that was the 18th century. Richer individuals most probably had more surviving offspring throughout the ages, so a 'poor being evolved away' model would give rise to gentle increases in income throughout the ages. In the absence of other forces, there is no point at which a step change is achieved within this framework.
While the industrial revolution was not really a 'revolution' at all - following mainstream definitions, it lasted for more than a century - there is no denying it was a sudden change when compared to the inactivity of the world per capita income series throughout the ages. I'll have to read the book before I can say more; but for the time being I will stick with the favoured economists' explanation of evolving institutions, not people.
Postscript: Tyler Cowen's review of 'A Farewell to Alms', also in the New York Times, does not mention this 'survival of the richest' idea at all.