Genes and Economic Development

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.

16 thoughts on “Genes and Economic Development

  1. you make a it’s not white, so it’s black argument.
    the east had a lack of institutions perhaps, but it was hardly a lawless land where looting and raping was necessary to survive.

    If there’s a flaw in the historian’s argument, it is something similar to that in the independence day sermons by Indian newspapers and media.

    That it is (by strengthening) the “morals” and “virtues” of the middle class that a country could become prosperous.
    Unfortunately — as the name “middle” class connotes — they can do no such thing. The prosperity comes due to the entrepreneural efforts, and due to the innovative and creative efforts of a select few. Which could be explained by genetics.

  2. I think that article is not enough to ascertain whether his correlation results hold.

    Unless you have read his actual work, which I suspect you have not, I am tempted to agree with parts of comment 1 and say you have oversimplified.

  3. Alas, my skills at clear writing seem to have atrophied! Where, may I ask, did I mention, imply, hint or insinuate that looting and raping were the skills needed for success in the *East*? My argument was that such is the case in whereever there is a lack of strong institutions. Europe of the middle ages lacked institutions as much as Asia of the middle ages, ergo one cannot say that the skills needed for success in those ages would be the same as the skills needed for success in the later ages.

    Secondly, I have no quibble with the second part of your argument. I agree that genes are significant drivers of innovative and creative minds, and innovation and creativity do contribute to the *society’s* success. However, I question whether any non-capitalist society rewards people who contribute to society’s success with reproductive success, which is under question here.

    For example, I have read a serious paper which postulates that European Jews developed superior intelligence because of selection pressure. For centuries, the Jewish people were subject to repeated pogroms. Their lands and immovable properties were repeatedly taken from them and they were repeatedly forced to migrate. As a result, they were forced into occupations like moneylending and trading. Practitioners of these trades could carry their property with them when they migrated. More importantly, these trades required more intellectual skills than say farming.

    Now, this is a theory I can believe, because a) the traits under question are very specific ones, b) the same selection pressures applied over many centuries, and c) the subject population was relatively small and endogamous.

    I am, however, sceptical of applying genetic explanations in this case, because all three – a, b and c do not apply.

  4. I am saying that Genetics does not solve any problem just as Physics does not solve any Engineering problem, but just as we cannot wish away gravity, we cannot wish away genes.

  5. corresponding to the jews and their job specializations, we had the caste system — with its forced heredity-job social stratification.

    Genetics in our case must have played against us. We had a lot of inbreeding — marriage within sub-sects. So inspite of greater genetic diversity at the macro-level, marrying within subsects with similar genetic profiles implied that at the micro-level, there was little or no genetic diversity.

    Caucausians on the other hand freely intermarried within themselves leading to greater genetic diversities.

    Which is why the case with the jews is a puzzle inspite of what you said. They inbred as much or more than us. They were as specialized in jobs as our brahmins and vaishyas.
    Why then the difference?

    Could it be that our emphasis on ascetism and non-materialism is also responsible — did this get into our genes?

  6. That’s confused. I am not sure what genetic diversity actually means, but we shouldn’t use the same term for entirely opposite concepts.

    Endogamy keeps castes different from one another. This makes some castes more vulnerable to specific diseases, but at the same time, if there are any hereditary mental or physical traits, that is also likely to be preserved.

    The missing link is not just inbreeding – it is also selection pressures, i.e. non-smart jews supposedly got killed in pogroms or they died because they couldn’t survive the occupations that required smartness. I don’t know of any caste in India that faced such kind of pressure… That said, it is perfectly possible that we will find some castes having genes for specific traits. Want to do the research? Good luck.

    Finally, I am not entirely clear as to what difference you are talking of. The difference between India and the West? I am not the one proffering genetic explanations for that.

  7. Yes, he does. But that is besides the point.

    I am just of the opinion that you did not go through the math. For example, if his correlation coefficient between richness and thriftiness in the middle ages is really high, and his math is correct, what do you have to say? If the threshold values of the coefficient are all internally set, so that the error tends to even itself out assuming all other things remain a constant, does your oversimplification hold against his?

    I don’t know either way and I do suspect Clark has tended to oversimplify. But just asking if you aren’t guilty of that as well.

  8. My earlier comment was rushed. I’m as skeptical of “breeding for special traits” as you are, in part due to the many controlled conditions that seem to be required (points a,b,c in your earlier comment for instance), and in part because we do not understand this nearly enough — for breeding dogs and horses even.

    No, my point was that it is genetic diversity that could possibly explain the differences between the west and the east.

    genetic diversity is quite simply diversity in the pool of genes. Greater diversity in the present gene pool ensures a better gene-pool for the next generation.

    My point was that the Indian society as a whole has a great diversity in its gene-pool. But there were groups — castes — which bred within themselves, and from the point of view of each of these groups, the genetic diversity of the society as a whole was irrelevant. Ergo, they did not reap the benefits of genetic diversity.

  9. Nilu, in your specific example, the only way to measure thriftiness is by looking at their savings rate… and if you are rich, your savings rate will naturally be high. So it does not prove anything. But I am interested in knowing what other data he has.

    HT, the simpler hypothesis is that *selection pressures* were stronger in the West, the climate being hostile and all.

    Genetic diversity gives resistance to disease, but I am unable to make the causal connection between genetic diversity and the glory of a civilization. And, given that at different times in history different civilizations have dominated, I am extremely sceptical about such a correlation.

    I can accept selection pressure as an explanation for why Europeans are taller and stronger. But for mental traits, we know that for the ones that we have managed to measure, like intelligence, there is no evidence that Indians are less than anyone in the world.

  10. Selection pressures do not explain much, if at all the height and body-shape. Genetic diversity too does not explain — nor imply — different averages.
    It does however imply — by definition — higher variances even for non-selective traits.

    In the absence of very strict selection pressures, higher intelligence will not correlate with higher reproductive success. But “natural selection” by “selection pressures” is not essential for larger numbers of very high intelligences. By definition alone, if there is a higher variance in genetic profiles in a society, there will be more with higher intelligences!

    It is this miniscule few who set the wheels of change in motion anyway, so why look at trait-averages when we could look at trait-variances instead.

    Regarding your historical point: perhaps it is only very recently that higher variances in cognitive abilities could translate into measurable differences between societies?

  11. HT, you’ve once again unconsciously switched the definition of genetic diversity. It is simply incorrect to say that genetic diversity by your definition means higher variances for intelligence.

    Let’s say that we have two endogamous groups – one with high intelligence, and another with low intelligence. If these two groups drop their endogamy and start furiously mating with each other, the average intelligence will not reduce, but the standard deviations will go down, simply because now the smartest person from the high intelligence group would now start mating with less intelligent people than before.

    Anyway, I think that all this is moot, because I am not convinced that the problem with any society is the shortage of intelligent people, but the structural incentives that reward intelligent people rather than put them on the rack.

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