Abject poverty is humanity's natural state. But during the last two centuries, a portion of humanity (those of you reading this for example) managed to escape into a world of previously unimaginable affluence. How did this happen?
University of California, Davis, economic historian Gregory Clark thinks that genetic changes to human nature are responsible. According to the New York Times, Clark
…believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.
Clark appears to be arguing that the rich (with good habits) simply outbred the poor (mired in vice). The result is that those whose genes incline them to thrift have inherited the earth.
Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. "The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages," he concluded.
As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.
Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people's preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.
"Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving," Dr. Clark writes.
Clark lays out his arguments and evidence in his new book, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.
Frankly, I think that genetics can't be the explanation for such a rapid shift in human fortunes. On the other hand, once the cycle of immiseration is broken, people who are no longer on the edge of subsistence can begin to think about the longer term. Thus a virtuous cycle of enhanced productivity got established. For another view take a look at Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr's interpretation of the economic history of the Industrial Revolution in his magisterial, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy.
Whole New York Times article on Clark is here.