A few days back Nilu sent me an NY Times article about Gregory Clark, an economic historian who is arguing that there may be a genetic explanation for the industrial revolution in the West. The article does mention that he is considering both genetic and cultural explanations, but leaning towards the genetic. He has brought out a book on the subject.
The theory is that the inhabitants of Europe today are the descendents of the rich of the middle ages. Because they are rich, they must have had the qualities that made them rich. These qualities correspond to the “middle class values” of today, such as thrift and prudence. When the poor of those times died out because of hunger or in wars, the surviving population ended up with the same qualities – transmitted through the genes or through culture- that are conducive to capitalist institutions that enable the current prosperity. This theory is put forward as an alternative to the idea that it is the lack of institutions that keep countries poor.
Stated in those simple terms the error seems so obvious that I wonder why the theory is being taken seriously. The qualities of thrift and prudence will make you rich only in an environment where property rights are respected. In a lawless society, your willingness to loot and rape enable your genes to survive. The article mentions declining interest rates as evidence that the propensity to save increased during the middle ages. But as far as I remember, one of the reasons for high interest rates in the middle ages is that princes borrowed from Jewish moneylenders and then defaulted. The moneylenders had to charge higher interest rates to cover the risk, giving Jews a reputation for usury. It is hard to believe that these princes had a gene for thrift.
Of course, every quality that we humans possess, thrift or shopaholism, anger or a sense of humour, must have enabled our ancestors to survive at some time in the past. To say that genes for a specific combination of qualities suddenly gained supremacy over a few generations is a far weaker explanation than any I have heard so far.