The logic of Gregory Clark’s widely acclaimed book, A Farewell to Alms (2007), is succinctly simple and insightful: the quality of life for the vast majority of humans across the world — in terms of living standards, exposure to diseases, life expectancy, sanitation, working conditions — barely improved between 10,000 BC and 1800.
Hunter gatherers were slightly better off than post-Neolithic peoples in terms of nutrients, working hours, and leisure. Humans in all post-Neolithic societies thereafter (except for a tiny elite) remained trapped in a Malthusian world where technological advances merely produced more people growing food in less fertile lands, driving down living standards, generating diseases, and bringing inevitable declines in population. The only way to eke out a living above mere subsistence was through limitations on fertility.
“Jane Austen may have written about refined conversations over tea served in china cups […] small elites had an opulent lifestyle, [but] the average person in 1800 was no better off than his or her ancestors of the Paleolithic or Neolithic”. “Over the long run” income “is more powerful than any ideology or religion in shaping lives”.
England was the first nation to escape this Malthusian trap “due largely” to the adoption by aristocratic families of “bourgeois values of hard work, spendthrift, patience, honesty, rationality, curiosity, and learning”. Darwinian pressures were stronger on the poor, leading to fewer surviving children, whereas the wealthy classes had two times as many surviving children in the years 1250-1800, leading to the genetic spread of bourgeois values across England.
Adam Smith, and all the economists who followed him since, have been wrong in thinking that “people are the same everywhere” in their inclination to behave in a “bourgeois way” the moment new institutional frameworks [lower taxes, security of property and freer markets] are created offering them incentives to invest in better technology.
What happened is that the higher survival rate of segments of the aristocracy with bourgeois values eventually changed the genetic character of the population of Britain, creating a new people with psychological traits for thriftiness, hard work, and prudence — replacing the old values of aristocratic impulsiveness, violent temperaments, and “leisure loving”.
So what could be wrong with this neat explanation? The book ends with the observation that “there is little evidence of gains in happiness from gains in income, life expectancy, or health by societes as a whole” — once societes reached the levels of income of the hunter gatherers who were slightly better off on average than humans from the Neolithic revolution to 1800s.
The flaw in this account is similar to that of every other “materialistic” (Malthusian, Darwinian, Marxist) account in believing that the main purpose of life is survival and pleasurable leisure; and in belittling thereby the high cultural achievements of man. Income is NOT “more powerful than any ideology or religion in shaping lives”. Income on its own gives no meaning to life except insofar as we exercise our instincts and talents in its pursuit.
The Europeans who made up about 98% of the greatest explorers in history did not seek to discover the unknown merely because of the higher income they stood to gain. The ones who reached the center of Antarctica or climbed the highest/most difficult mountains did so precisely to overcome the suffocating feeling of a life for the sake of its pleasurable prolongation. This has always been a powerfully defining trait of “aristocratic honor” among Europeans.
When one examines history from this perspective, without being ensnared by the precise quantitative measurements of Malthusian/Darwinian explanations, we realize that Clark is fundamentally wrong in claiming that all civilizations were alike between 10,000 BC and 1800.
Westerners, starting with the Indo-Europeans who colonized major civilizations of the Old World, and imposed their aristocratic ethos and languages throughout the European continent, achieved far more than the peoples of the other civilizations combined, not only in the development of all the natural sciences, and the ability thereby to detect patterns in history, including Malthusian and Darwinian patterns, but in the generation of the highest arts, philosophies, literatures, architectures, and music — without which life has little meaning.