Blogs > Cliopatria > A Farewell to Alms: Gregory Clark Responds

Aug 20, 2007 3:40 pm

A Farewell to Alms: Gregory Clark Responds

Nicholas Wade's preview of Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms,"In Dusty Archives, A Theory of Affluence," NYT, 7 August, provoked widespread discussion (scroll down). Here, Professor Clark responds to his critics:
I am grateful for the positive and elegantly written reviews my book has received from Nicholas Wade in the New York Times Science Section, and Clive Crook in the Financial Times, as well as this week's review in The Economist. But these reviews, by their nature, create misapprehensions. Journalism is about drawing sharp images and bright lines. It is about condensing a 420 page book into a 900 word story, but a lively and interesting story.

My hope is that when people actually read the book (my publisher reassures me that copies are on their way at this very moment to restock Amazon's bare shelves) they will find a lot more evidence and thought than these reviews can describe in their brief compass. They will see, for example, that there is evidence of quite profound differences in the degree of impatience exhibited by people as we move across thousands of years of history from ancient Babylonia to England and the Netherlands in the eighteenth century. And that these differences are impossible to ascribe to anything other than basic changes, cultural or genetic, in how people behaved.

If after reading the book they can think of a better explanation, then they can reject mine. But I will wager that their attempts to explain this in other terms will be as weak as they think the argument of the book is. The one thing that of course gets people most riled up is the possibility raised that there may be genetic differences between societies like China or England which had long experience with stable, settled capital intensive agrarian life, and those such as the Australian Aboriginals who had no such experience.

Now, of course, when Jared Diamond made exactly this type of speculation at the beginning of Guns, Germs and Steel, based on nothing more than guesswork, it raised not a murmur as far as I know, because he was speculating that New Guinea tribesmen were likely smarter than Europeans as a result of this process. And if I had written a book confirming this, all would have been sweetness and light. People, it seems are not opposed to talking about possible genetic differences between groups. They just have very strong priors about what genetic differences they would like to see. The book gives, I think, a strong argument for the idea that the economic history of pre-industrial societies has a powerful role in shaping their culture. That economics produces not just goods in the preindustrial world, but also culture.

There is no evidence I know that would tell us how that culture is produced – by learning as opposed to by genes. But you cannot rule out the possibility of genetics. That may have implications to some people that are profoundly distasteful. But if we commit when we study human history to only admitting accounts full of hope and uplift regardless of the data, then why bother collecting more data? And whatever else this book has, it has a large body of data put together for the first time on how economies operated across a large range of years and places.

The book also has a lot of implications as a result of these arguments about culture that many people decrying it will find surprising and congenial. It argues that the free market philosophy underlying the politics of the USA and UK is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce economic growth: that history shows that societies which desire to redistribute a lot more income that we do from rich to poor will suffer little economic damage.

But to see those, you will actually have to read the book.

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More Comments:

Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/21/2007

Prof. Clark may not know that a bunch of cranky bloggers won't take that for an answer.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/21/2007

Well, yes, your final point is an important one. We really won't know until we've seen the book.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/21/2007

He's constructed a narrative, yes, but it's very blunt and it assumes all kinds of things not in evidence (like the idea that downwardly mobile aristocrats would have some genetic predisposition to thrift and industry, instead of vestigial tendencies to pillage and plunder violently) and I won't even begin to talk about how bad the Asian economic and social history is, at least as it's represented in the review.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/20/2007

In fairness to Professor Clark, I think, if you go back to the NYT preview of his book, you'll find that he has identified the mechanism, at least, of genetic causation.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/20/2007

You can't rule out the possibility that aliens constructed the pyramids, either, based on this argument.

Without a much more subtle understanding of culture and environment, and some kind of mechanism by which genetic factors could emerge in disparate populations at different times, this argument must remain tentative, at the very best, and tendentious.