Rich Genes, Poor Genes — Sullivan (again) and Benjamin Friedman

Belatedly, one more quick jab at Andrew Sullivan — this time for another example of his seeming bent for genetic determinism. In this post of about a week ago, Sullivan links to Benjamin Friedman’s review of Gregory Clark’s Farewell to Alms.


Clark claims (Friedman writes) that there is an evolutionary backstory to the industrial revolution in Great Britain, and all the improvement in living standards that flowed in its wake. This social and economic transformation, Clark argues, derives from a process of biological selection, as for several centuries before the transformation took place, the rich out-reproduced the poor, thus disseminating “rational thought, frugality, a capacity for hard work — in short the familiar list of Calvinist, bourgeois virtues.” (Friedman’s words.)


All in all Friedman doesn’t do a bad job. He takes care to point out some of areas of concern, some gaps in the book. But he’s an economist. He won’t say for sure if he thinks Clark’s biological argument is bullshit. (He hints that it is, but holds back).

And that’s the problem: Friedman’s review, and Sullivan’s careful, clever use of it, highlight one of the most irritating features of a lot of public discourse on science:

Too much discourse and damn little science.

It’s not really Friedman’s fault. He was asked to review a book at least tangentially connected to his own field, and he did. But the radical claim in the book does not rest on economics — and Friedman is almost compelled to tread cautiously around the points that really matter.

It didn’t have to be this way. There plenty of people who do have some real insight here.

They’re called biologists. Some of them know quite a bit of math, too — and that would help with one of the most controversial aspects of Clark’s argument, the idea that this evolutionary adaptation towards industry-friendly behavior could take hold in a population in a few centuries. It seems to me to both crucial and obvious to ask some of those people — and not just an economist, however competent — especially given where a claims of genes and blood have led in Europe and elsewhere over the last several decades.

And hence my beef with Sullivan: for all his coy concession that the issues Clark raises are unsettled, he then goes on to highlight the idea that the Enlightenment belief in the malleability of humankind is wrong, because human nature is fixed in our genes. How does he know this? He doesn’t. But still he is all too willing to believe a story too good to check. That’s not near good enough.

Images: Alfred Rethel, Die Harkortsche Fabrik auf Burg Wetter, c. 1834. Private collection — source, Wikipedia Commons.

Jan van Eyck Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami, 1434 National Gallery, London — source, Wikipedia Commons.

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