I tried not to read much of the news last week on my vacation, but this Science Times story knocked my socks off. I'm not sure whether the blogosphere has already discussed it, but the ideas behind the forthcoming book, "A Farewell to Alms," strike me as culture-shifting. The piece discussing the book is here. I have it on order and haven't read it yet, but hope to. The gist:
Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, 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, Dr. Clark argues.
Because they grew more common in the centuries before 1800, whether by cultural transmission or evolutionary adaptation, the English population at last became productive enough to escape from poverty, followed quickly by other countries with the same long agrarian past.
Here's the envelope-push:
Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. “Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”
What was being inherited, in his view, was not greater intelligence being a hunter in a foraging society requires considerably greater skill than the repetitive actions of an agricultural laborer. Rather, it was “a repertoire of skills and dispositions that were very different from those of the pre-agrarian world.”
I guess it's obvious what worms crawl out of that can.
Conservatism has long posited that human nature has no history. But what if it does? What if genetic adapation occurs more swiftly among humans than we once believed? This implies that human nature is actually more plastic than we have long thought - but generationally, not individually. It suggests that different populations may have not just different cultural but different genetic inclinations. It means that some populations may therefore have different skill-sets than others, and even different aptitudes with respect to complex systems like, er, liberal democracy, that require specific habits of mind and custom. It means that these facts about human societies across the globe may be somewhat stubborn things in the short term, if not in the long.
If these ideas undermine parts of conservatism (its belief in unchanging human nature in history), they also entrench others (that societies cannot be abstracted from their moment in time or culture). These ideas also suggest, of course, that a place like, say, Iraq, will not soon muster anything like the skills and practices for a Western European democracy. These are my wild-eyed inferences from a book I have not yet read.
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