The Rich Get Busy and the Poor Get Poorer

Gregory Clarke, an economic historian at UC Davis, offers an unusual take on the Industrial Revolution in his upcoming book, A Farewell to Alms. Most scholars argue that the changing institutions of industrialization–factories, corporations, cities–worked together to drag us humans into the modern world. Clarke turns that idea on its head.

As the New York Times put it in a recent review, Clarke “believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history.”

The most fascinating part of the argument is that, according to Clarke, these values spread in part because the upper classes were more successful at breeding and making sure their offspring survived to adulthood. By examining historical wills and property exchange, Clarke determined that “[t]he modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages.” Generations of illegitimate offspring, profligate parents and non-inheriting progeny sallied forth and married into the lower classes, bringing their capitalist ways with them.

If this theory holds up, it might shed some light on the rise of the English novel. The great Victorian novel-writers have traced uncannily similar processes of social intermingling and dispersion, and it’s a truism that almost every story pivots around an inheritance. We might visualize the process as hundreds of characters circling a few well-guarded piles of money. Most of them end up settling for less, and most of the drama and tension in the plot arcs stem from these compromises. And, of course, the novels trace the spread of just the bourgeois virtues Clarke is researching.

Clarke’s work raises a disturbing larger question: is this a form of Darwinian selection at work? Is capitalism having an evolutionary impact on human progress? Or is that a ridiculous proposition? To see for yourself, you can check out the first couple of chapters for free on Clarke’s website, here.

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