Friday, August 31, 2007

the protestant genome and the spirit of capitalism

I've started reading A Farewell to Alms, a book about the economic history and macrosociology of the last two thousand years. It received an enthusiastic write-up in the New York Times (here), and I think its publication date might have been accelerated as a result.

The moral and political implications of the book's argument, either if it is true or if it comes to be regarded as true, are so breathtaking as to be hard to understate, especially in a hastily written blog post by someone who is moving.

The argument, most briefly, is that part of what led to the Industrial Revolution was a more longstanding improvement of the species over the preceding several hundred years, and, although the book is coy about saying this improvement could be either "cultural" or "genetic," it's clear that author's inclination is "genetic." The seemingly obvious implication if that were true--although I am uncertain from the 30-odd pages I've read so far whether the author will actually connect the dots he draws right there on the page--is genetic variation among people with ancestry from different parts of the world on traits pertinent to socioeconomic attainment. Good to have ancestry from the regions of the world that were the leaders of the Industrial Revolution or otherwise socially close to it, and bad to be from regions that were not close. In this respect, the argument could be interpreted as providing the historical backstory for The Bell Curve. So, it's important, especially given that it is by an economist and all the recent hoopla for economics as the enterprise that has the apparatus to uncover hidden insights into social affairs and the independent-mindedness to speak unpopular "truths."

As I said, I haven't read enough of the book to be able to begin to evaluate its evidence, and moving isn't exactly allowing great focused cognitive space for reading. I'm approaching the book with a lot more skepticism than the author of the NYT article. I know I post perhaps surprisingly little about the substance of social science on this blog, but it doesn't get more substantive than the history of human organization and the causes of social inequalities, so I'm putting y'all on alert about this book if you haven't heard about it.


Tom Bozzo said...

From what I understand, it is radical and thus skepticism is warranted.

If you want some background reading, and since I so love handing out blog homework, try Carlo Cipolla's Before the Industrial Revolution, Phyllis Deane's The First Industrial Revolution, and Jan De Vries's The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis (all readings from my 1991-92 European economic history reading course). I can lend you any or all next time you're in Madison. You can also throw in the collected works of Douglass North on institutions and economic performance if you're so inclined.

Kieran said...

I have the book but haven't read it yet. The argument sounds extremely implausible on its face. We'll see, I guess.

jeremy said...

I hard the argument difficult to judge from the NYT article, especially since Nicholas Wade isn't exactly the best at recounting the actual arguments of other people. So far, the book reads like something that has too many uncertain steps to be as confident as the author is in it. Interestingly, I just read an economist talk about the problem of arguments with too many steps--Tyler Cowen, in Discover Your Inner Economist, but Cowen is one of the people who blurbs Farewell to Alms.

Kieran said...

I thought Tyler's blurb ("Possibly the next blockbuster in economics" or something close to that) was a very finely-judged bit of praise. For one thing, it doesn't endorse the thesis.

jeremy said...

Kieran: Correct, his blurb doesn't endorse the thesis.

gabriel said...

in this interview he comes a it closer to connecting the dots