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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Both great and naif, 5 Jan 2008
This review is from: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (Hardcover)
Since the sixteenth century the scholarly community in the West has accepted the existence of scientific laws. Over the past four centuries modern science has been preoccupied with the discovery and practical application of these laws. This has revolutionized both the natural sciences and human civilization. While the humanities have also made progress during this time, their results have been less remarkable. They have been unable to account for the forces underlying the changing fortunes of human society. The book by Gregory Clark is another heroic attempt to discover the laws underlying the course of human history.

In 1930 Corrado Gini published his Harris Foundation lecture: "The Cyclical Rise and Fall of Population". Gini understood much of the wheel of history, but made - because of the lack of empirical data - the wrong assumption, that the well-to-do have always fewer children than the poor. Indeed, such is the situation since the last quarter of the nineteenth century until up to today. For theoretical reasons Oded Galor and Moav Omer in their seminal paper "Natural Selection and the Origin of Economic Growth" (2002) came to the conclusion that before 1850 the upper and medium stratum of society must have been more surviving children than the poor. Clark could confirm this assumption with empirical data of his own, and he makes this finding to the cornerstone of his theoretical derivations.

It is a pity that neither Galor and Moav nor Clark are aware of a large body of historical data, supporting their fundamental assumptions and claims. For example, in 1990 a preliminary summary on the "Social and Demographic Originis of the European Proletariat" was published in which we can read: "The data show that rural and urban proletarians are formed from the socially downward mobile sons and daughters and grandchildren of peasants." Despite Clark's staying of one sabbatical year at the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study) in Berlin, he does not cite any German source. In the Inventory of the German Central Office for Genealogy. Part IV (second edition, 1998, ISBN 3-7686-2099-9), he could find not only a complete bibliography of historical demography of Central Europe, based on local family reconstitutions, but also an exhaustive review (p. 74-176) of studies of differential fertility supporting his core argument. Clark could strengthen his point immediately, if he were able to read original papers and books in French, Dutch, German and Swedish, because the development in West, Central and Northern Europe was in principle the same as in England. - By the way, Ernst Engel undertook not studies of Prussian but of Saxonian working-class budgets.

Nevertheless, Clark wrote a couragous book of high originality, enriched with a large number of very interesting figures and tables, touching with their overall message the borderline of political incorrectness. But he should have better nothing written about the last decades. The last two chapters of his book are extraordinarily weak.

Despite his awareness (Table 14.4) of a general negative relationship between the number of surviving children and the social status of their parents in the modern world - the so-called demographic-economic paradox - in sharp contrast to the preindustrial world, where more children of the rich survive, Clark does not dare to draw any conclusion from this. For example, as Francis Galton became aware of this paradox, he founded the eugenic movement. Clark, too, understands the centuries where larger numbers of children in the households of the rich survived also as a process of a genetic enrichment of the cognitive basis of society. Could be the turning point (in England already about 1850, in Germany three or four decades later) in differential fertility also be the turning point of the cycle of industrialized society? Could it be, that the rich because of their rising social density would be the first to regulate their numbers in a cyclic fashion? What does or could this mean for the Aristotelian cycle of political constitutions, for the future of democracy? What are the differences and the similarities of the industrialized society with the rise and fall of the Roman empire and the repeated cycles within China?

"Why Isn't the Whole Word Developed?" is the caption of last chapter of this book. In agreement with his overall message and insight Clark could maybe find a contribution to the answer in the books by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen IQ and the Wealth of Nations and IQ and Global Inequality as well as in the most recent papers by Heiner Rindermann, Erich Weede and Garett Jones. Seen from this point of view Clark has written the first part of a new world history. To imagine and to write the second part should not be an impossibility. However, it will also be a dangerous look into our future.
Most important in this respect is the article "The Population Cycle Drives Human History ... ", published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies (Number Fall 2007).

Physical scientists are able to observe the natural world more objectively, because the observer is not identical to the observed. Science is not a potential battlefield for the survival of the individual scientist, as history is for the historian. This is the root cause for the failure of the human sciences to generate any laws governing history. I am sure, anyone who discovers such a general law or even the dynamics of the cycle of population and constitutions of the global industrialized society will be doomed to drain the hemlock cup to the dregs as Socrates.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 Aug 2010 16:15:19 BDT
Walter Braun says:
Interesting observations.
The question is: should we care? Humanity will forever go through cycles - and if the West is beginning to decline: am I bothered? There were many outstanding cultures that blossomed for a while and then disappeared completely. Why should we be concerned? "If in doubt, do nothing" is an attitude I learned from the Taoists.

"I am sure, anyone who discovers such a general law or even the dynamics of the cycle of population and constitutions of the global industrialized society will be doomed to drain the hemlock cup to the dregs as Socrates."
Perhaps there is no such law since we humans posses intentionality -- a will that is free enough to defy any biological norms and ensuing population patterns. Statistical aggregates firmly deny human freedom - but I think they are a rather daft frame of reference through which to watch (human) Reality ...
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