Comments on Gregory Clarks’ A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

Samuel Bowles offers some interesting remarks (in the October 19th issue of Science):

Clark’s thesis is that the industrial revolution occurred when and where it did (England, late 18th century) because from 1250 on wealthy Englishmen passed their distinctive values of diligence, patience, and prudence on to their children who were more numerous and became wealthier than the children of other families (who lacked these values), the result being a gradual spread of these values in the population, eventually accounting for England’s take off. The following data and reasoning amplify points made in the review and suggest some empirical shortcomings of the thesis…

5. If parent-child personality similarity is due entirely to parent child transmission – whether genetic or cultural – it will dissipate rapidly, accounting for a very modest correlation of traits over 4 or more generations. Clark’s argument concerns fathers and sons. We assume that mating assortment can be ignored, given the evidence Clark offers for “great social mobility and fluidity… in medieval England” (p. 161). Let the intergenerational correlation of a trait be r. Then if genes are not involved and the only direct influence of vertical cultural transmission on sons is by fathers (not grandfathers, etc.), the correlation across n generations is r^(n -1).