This is the 14th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
Our next speaker is economic historian Gregory Clark, the head of the Department of Economics at the University of California, Davis. Clark is seeking to explain the sudden rise in material wealth that occurred in Europe and America, starting about 200 years ago.
Contradicting Shermer, Clark argues that there was no real increase in the standard of living in England (the target of his study) until about 1800. If we look only at the aristocracy, we see something that might be thought of as progress over time. However, if we look at the standard of living for the average Englishman – the vast majority of the population – they did not live any better in 1700 AD then they did in 1700 BC. In fact, their lives may be said to be worse. They had to work longer and harder hours under dirtier conditions surrounded by more disease and suffering than hunter gatherers did for the same amount of food.
The challenge is to explain what changed to bring about this sudden burst in productivity.
Many people (and I have been one of them) attribute this sudden change to the enlightenment. There was a philosophical shift in England and Europe at that time, a shift that threw off superstitious nonsense and replaced it with a disposition to study and understand the real world. It was a shift away from explaining things in terms of gods and other supernatural forces, and towards explaining them in terms of natural forces that we can understand as natural laws and use to our advantage.
Clark suggests that this may not be the case. In terms of economic and social customers, England had nothing under the enlightenment that had not been replicated elsewhere without producing the great boom in productivity we saw in England. Against the idea that ‘enlightenment’ implies ‘skyrocketing growth’, Clark offers a number of examples of ‘enlightenment and no skyrocketing economic growth’
He offers an alternative theory. He looked at wills filed in Europe in the years before this tremendous economic boom and noticed a trend in England whereby unsuccessful Englishmen (the economically disadvantaged) were becoming extinct and replaced by the descendents of more successful Englishmen.
Specifically, these wills show that upper middle class Englishmen had an average of four surviving offspring, whereas significantly poorer Englishermen had an average of less than two (less than the replacement rate). The upper middle class Englishmen were passing the biological determinants of economic success down to their offspring. Many of those offspring themselves tumbled down into the lower class. So, while the old lower class was dying off, a new lower class was coming into existence who were the descendents of these successful upper middle-class Englishmen.
Some of the results of this, over time, is that the lower class became more literate. Clark asserts that in Roman times, for example, very few people even knew their own ages, or knew how to read or write. By the 1700s, almost all Englishmen knew how to read a calendar, and could record the actual date and time they were born, and how old they were.
According to Clark, this shift might well have had a biological component. Lower-class people with lower-class values were dying off, being replaced by a new lower-class form of life, with a new lower class form of values.
In short, Clark asserts, we evolved into a capitalist society. As a result of this biological phenomena, the basic preferences of Europeans changed over time – the fundamental biological underpinning of our values changed. An earlier enlightenment would not have helped an earlier species of Europeans because those Europeans were not biologically fit for an enlightenment environment. They did not have the psychological dispositions that would allow them to thrive in such an environment. After a few centuries lower-class die-off and replacement by the genetic descendents of middle-class culture, the population changed. The new population was, in fact, capable of thriving in a capitalist environment.
Among these middle-class values, there was a very low preference for giving anything to the poor. In examining these wills, Clark noted that the wealthier individuals left less than 0.5% of their income to the poor. They left the rest to their children. They did not even leave money to their wives (who were at risk of taking the money and using it to raise somebody else’s children) – or did so only under the condition that the wife not remarry and that the wealth gets passed on to the man’s own biological children.
These agents also practiced a rigid for of kin selection. If a man had no children of his own, he did not leave the money to strangers. He did not even leave the money to servants. He left the money to nieces, nephews, and other blood relatives. Again, this helped to ensure the survival of those who carried the genetic determinants of success into future generations, and withheld benefits from those who lacked the genetic disposition to thrive in a capitalist society.
There are a lot of things about this theory that could easily cause a person to feel uncomfortable. Primarily, it speaks of social Darwinism. We can easily imagine somebody like Hitler saying that, “My people are genetically superior to these others. It is only fitting that we eliminate these others, replace them, and thereby create a country of super-men who can then enjoy a thousand years of peace and prosperity.”
The Englishmen did not consciously adopt a program of replacing a biologically inferior form of Englishman with a biologically superior form of Englishman. However, can we make a moral argument against doing anything like this consciously?
Clark is careful not to make these types of value judgments. He does not state that the wealthy Englishmen were genetically superior to the (original) species of poor Englishman. He is simply describing a historical fact – he is not attaching any value to them whatsoever. Because his conclusions are value-free, they cannot be used to recommend for or against any particular economic policy.
However, his theory does contain an element that says not only that our values – our preferences – have the same historical and biological component, but that our fundamental values underwent a shift in the previous 200 years. He does not have anything to say against making the value judgment that certain forms of human are biologically superior to others. His neutrality implies saying nothing against the legitimacy of replacing biologically inferior (unfit) individuals in a society – namely, the economically disadvantaged – with the biologically/evolutionarily fit descendents of the upper-middle class.
One thing to say about these conclusions is that the mere fact that people do not like a particular conclusion, this does not imply that it is false. It is scarcely a good argument to claim, “If human values underwent an evolutionary change before the enlightenment, this might support racist doctrines that some people are inherently superior to others. Supporting racist doctrines that some people are inherently superior to others is morally repulsive. Therefore, the theory must be false.”
This would be like arguing, “The holocaust was morally repulsive; therefore, the holocaust did not happen,”
Or, “If carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, then we might be forced to reduce carbon emissions. It would be a pain to reduce carbon emissions. Therefore, it must not be the case that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.”
These types of arguments do not work. We cannot reject conclusions on the basis of the fact that we do not like where the argument is leading.
As it turns out, in this case, we can reject the idea that this line of reasoning actually supports these types of racist conclusions. To begin with, there is no such thing as intrinsic or no inherent value, so no justification for claiming that one segment of the population is intrinsically or inherently better than another. The only type of value that exists depends on relationships between objects of evaluation and reasons for action, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist. So, the type of person that is ‘better’ than any other – the type that is morally superior – is the type that tends to fulfill other desires. A person who lacks an aversion to wiping out a segment of the population would not easily qualify as a person with desires that tend to fulfill other desires. He would scarcely qualify as a good person.