Blame the Rich

They made us who we are, some researchers now say

(Cate Lineberry)
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Other researchers have argued that the Industrial Revolution got started, in Britain in the 18th century, on the strength of coal and colonies. But in his new book, A Farewell to Alms, Clark proposes that what really made the difference was this "survival of the richest." In the relatively stable British climate after 1200, with limited resources and little population growth, "the superabundant children of the rich" inevitably moved down the economic ladder, displacing poor families. And something of their privileged past went with them. "The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism—patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education—were thus spreading biologically throughout the population," Clark writes.

This change may well have been "completely cultural," Clark says. But he is clearly more interested in the possibility that Darwinian evolution—with disease, accidents and starvation driving less successful families onto the scrapheap of history—produced a genetic change in the British people, preparing them better than those of other nations for commercial success.

He readily acknowledges that the idea is fraught with difficulty. A faculty petition had just prompted his university to disinvite a scheduled speaker, economist and former Harvard president Larry Summers, because of Summers' profoundly controversial 2005 suggestion of a genetic difference in science aptitude between men and women. This all makes Clark uneasy, he says, because his book "suggests that there might be a genetic difference between Europeans and Australian aboriginals." Then he adds: "Not that Europeans are smarter, just that they may be better adapted to a capitalist society."

An adaptation that particularly interests Clark has to do with "time preference," which can take the form of patience and long-term planning in some people and an impulsive urge for immediate gratification in others. When forms of such a trait already exist in a population, Clark says, natural selection could rapidly make one form predominant, just as blue eyes or fair skin can come to predominate. Thus the surplus reproduction of the rich may have turned England into the birthplace of industrial manufacturing by replacing impulsive traits with the slow and steady. "It may just be the drudges that have been left," Clark says. (Maybe that's why the British became known as a "nation of shopkeepers.")

But why didn't the same kind of evolution take place in other countries? In China and Japan, the rich seem not to have been so fertile, Clark writes. (The historical data for India doesn't exist, as far as he knows.) Moreover, the population in China tripled in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and in Japan it quintupled. So natural selection may not have been killing off the poor quite so remorselessly as in Britain, where the size of the population remained the same.

Other scholars have praised the detailed research and ambitious scope of Clark's work. But they have also questioned whether genetic, or even cultural, transmission of behavioral traits from rich ancestors is enough to explain the Industrial Revolution. Economists still generally argue that good institutions are the primary factor in such big leaps forward, because they make people feel sufficiently secure to focus patiently on long-term gain. And recent evidence suggests that when institutions change, as they have in China, Japan and India, people there seem quite capable of adapting to capitalism.

There is, however, another way the rich may have helped make us who we are: by their knack for "extreme selfishness." Like many scholars, Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, believed that leaders generally served the common good. Then he interviewed people in traditional Mayan villages about how their leaders had helped out during droughts and famines.

"I was completely blown away by the results," he recalled recently. "Instead of helping the community, people in power took advantage to sell food at exorbitant prices, or they hoarded food and wouldn't share it, or they used food in trade to take over land." In the ethnographic literature on traditional societies around the world, Hayden found frequent accounts of despots and psychopaths—leaders who took what they wanted even when it meant disaster for their neighbors. He came to think that the rich and powerful—his triple-A types—played a dual role in society. On one hand, they bent laws, exploited neighbors, seized every little advantage. On the other, their gaudy pursuit of status also made them role models who produced, or served as patrons for, all kinds of shiny new inventions.

Hayden's research focused on how "big men" in early cultures used feasts to build political alliances, arrange marriages or simply make lavish displays of wealth. Some feasts obliged rival leaders to return the honor—and generally one-up it. Other archaeologists regard the proliferation of feasts 10,000 or 12,000 years ago as a byproduct of the first successful attempts at domesticating crops. But Hayden argues that feasts may actually have caused the agricultural revolution. As in high society today, a brutally competitive round of feasts forced desperate hosts to seek ever fancier new foods and drinks—not only staples, but also delicacies. So they may have domesticated wheat not for bread, but for beer. They domesticated status foods, such as the chili pepper and the avocado. (Think guacamole.) They cultivated chocolate for the Mesoamerican rich.

Melinda Zeder, a specialist in the origins of agriculture at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, dismisses this as the "food-fight theory." The idea that competitive feasting led to the domestication of plants and animals "doesn't work," she says. "It's wrong from beginning to end. It does not jibe with the archaeological record." Hayden counters that there is archaeological evidence for his ideas. Moreover, he says his emphasis on the importance of hierarchy makes perfect sense to people who have lived with triple-A types in traditional cultures. Only academics who believe in the egalitarian character of traditional societies "don't get it," he says. "They think it has to be for the common good."

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

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

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