Blame the Rich

They made us who we are, some researchers now say

(Cate Lineberry)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

On a beautiful summer day in 1899, the fabulously wealthy Alva Vanderbilt Belmont sponsored a "motor carriage" parade on the lawn of her "cottage" in Newport, Rhode Island. The festivities included an obstacle course of dummy policemen, nursemaids and babies in carriages, with a prize going to the driver who "killed" the fewest of these innocent bystanders. Alva's son Willie K. went on to sponsor the first major trophy in American auto racing. (And at an early Vanderbilt Cup race, an innocent bystander was killed for real.)

From This Story

So let's add auto racing to the long list of great ideas brought to you by what Canadian archaeologist Brian Hayden calls "triple-A" self-aggrandizers—people who are aggressive, acquisitive and ambitious about getting what they want. Hayden acknowledges that other words starting with "a" may also come to mind. Arrogant, say. Or even alarming.

But let's just call them rich.

In our hearts, we like to think that all the great ideas and inventions have come from salt-of-the-earth, self-made men and women. But students of "affluenza," the social condition of being rich and wanting to be richer, have lately come to credit rich people as the driving force behind almost every great advance in civilization, from the agricultural revolution to the indoor toilet.

This is of course a disconcerting idea, even for the researchers who have proposed it. And plenty of other researchers say they are wrong. But before we crank up our moral dudgeon, we should know that the rich in question are almost certainly family. Like it or not, we are probably descended from them, according to Michigan anthropologist Laura Betzig.

High status has almost always translated into reproductive success, not just in the animal world, but for humans, too. This phenomenon started back in our hunter-gatherer days, when the men who brought home the most meat won the most mates, and it has continued up through the likes of J. Paul Getty and Donald Trump. Betzig's research piled up historical examples, including extreme cases such as the Aztec strongman Montezuma, said to have kept 4,000 concubines, and a Chinese emperor whose harem numbered in the tens of thousands. On a lesser scale, the big houses of the British countryside before World War I often accommodated 10 to 20 servants, who were typically young, female and single. "Housemaid Heights," Betzig argues, functioned as a de facto harem for upper-class males. Thus an 1883 investigation in Scotland found that domestic servants accounted for almost half of out-of-wedlock births.

Other researchers have noted the baby-making propensities of alpha males among the Ache Indians of Paraguay and Venezuela's Yanomami. One found that the pinstriped chieftains on the 1982 Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans were out-reproducing their fellow citizens by as much as 38 percent.

But what difference does that make?

Not much, it seemed to Gregory Clark when he was first thinking about why the Industrial Revolution started in Britain, rather than in China, say, or India. Clark, an economist at the University of California at Davis, knew that in the past, British cities had an appalling mortality rate and prospered only by consuming a large annual crop of newcomers from the countryside. So he assumed that modern British people were, as he put it in a recent interview, "the remnants of rural idiocy"—that is, descended from less energetic, less educated types who stayed put on their farms. (The assumption was perhaps a byproduct of Clark's having grown up in an Irish Catholic family in Scotland, a pedigree unlikely to produce either Anglophilia or an admirer of the rich.) But his opinion changed when he undertook a detailed analysis of 3,500 British wills from 1250 to 1650, looking particularly at wealth and reproduction.

"To my surprise, there was a very powerful effect," says Clark. "The wealthy had many more children." He wasn't looking at the aristocracy, who tended to get killed in wars and power struggles (or to wane because of reproductive ennui). Instead, he looked at the enterprising gentry, people a notch or two down the social hierarchy, who devoted their lives to commerce and died in bed. "They had four surviving children in a society where the average was two," Clark says.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus