The Cause of the Industrial Revolution: Not Genes

June 2, 2010

Why did the Industrial Revolution happen when it did, where it did?

Greg Clark says it was genes. The rich outbred the poor, at which point the characteristics of patience and cooperativeness and hard work diffused throughout society.

Deirdre McCloskey says Clark is way wrong, and I’m basically persuaded by McCloskey’s argument. As I understand her, she’s saying Clark’s Farewell to Alms has good economics and does a good job, in particular, of presenting the modern economic historian’s finding that quality of life basically didn’t improve for the average human being until 1800.

But the argument that the Industrial Revolution was caused by genetics doesn’t work, for two reasons:

1. The difference in birth rates between rich and poor wasn’t big enough, and rich people lived in cities where people were dying like crazy.

2. Plenty of societies have had success after 1800 without centuries of genetic selection, and America is full of people without those English genes that supposedly caused the Industrial Revolution.

So, I’m willing to believe that Clark was wrong, and it wasn’t genes after all.


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