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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Social Darwinism: 21st century edition

This is a nice summary of economic historian Gregory Clark's views on recent human evolution. See related posts. I think one standard deviation of change in population averages is possible over 1000 years, given plausible values of heritability and correlation between reproductive success and quantitative trait values.

Clark makes a good case (please follow the link and read the paper!). Will modern research rehabilitate the old Social Darwinist ideas of the 19th century?

The Domestication of Man: The Social Implications of Darwin

... Until recently, however, the one creature in the modern farmyard that was believed to be unchanged from Paleolithic times was man himself. We are assumed to still remain in our original wild form. “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind”1. For humans the Darwinian era was presumed to have ended with the Neolithic Revolution. Based on ethnographies of modern forager societies, at the dawn of the settled agrarian era people were impulsive, violent, innumerate, and lazy. Abstract reasoning abilities were limited. If we are biologically identical with these populations then only the thin patina of civilization separates us from the underlying violence and impulsivity of human nature. Scratch away that restraint and we would revert to our natural passions.

In my recent book, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World I argue two things. First that all societies remained in a state I label the “Malthusian economy” up until the onset of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. In that state crucially the economic laws governing all human societies before 1800 were those that govern all animal societies. Second that was thus subject to natural selection throughout the Malthusian era, even after the arrival of settled agrarian societies with the Neolithic Revolution.

The Darwinian struggle that shaped human nature did not end with the Neolithic Revolution but continued right up until the Industrial Revolution. But the arrival of settled agriculture and stable property rights set natural selection on a very different course. It created an accelerated period of evolution, rewarding with reproductive success a new repertoire of human behaviors – patience, self-control, passivity, and hard work – which consequently spread widely.

And we see in England, from at least 1250, that the kind of people who succeeded in the economic system – who accumulated assets, got skills, got literacy – increased their representation in each generation. Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world. Modern people are thus in part a creation of the market economies that emerged with the Neolithic Revolution. Just as people shaped economies, the pre-industrial economy shaped people. This has left the people of long settled agrarian societies substantially different now from our hunter gatherer ancestors, in terms of culture, and likely also in terms of biology. We are also presumably equivalently different from groups like Australian Aboriginals that never experience the Neolithic Revolution before the arrival of the English settlers in 1788.

The argument here thus unites the doctrines of Malthus and Darwin in studying human history. This is intellectually satisfying since Charles Darwin himself proclaimed his inspiration for On the Origin of Species was Malthus’s On a Principle of Population. ...

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