Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 7, 2007

The transition to capitalism: is it in our genes?

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

Dr. Gregory Clark: purveyor of sociobiological claptrap

I have begun reading Eric Mielant’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West.” The book reminds me that the “transition debate” is not just about dry, academic disputes over whether turnips were more critical to the rise of capitalism than sugar. As should be obvious from the title, “the rise of the west” addresses the question of how Great Britain and then the United States became hegemonic. Bourgeois historians and sociologists prefer to talk about the “internal” factors in Europe–Great Britain in particular–that supposedly led to capitalism. To admit that the rise of the west was accomplished by stepping on the backs of slaves and the corpses of indigenous peoples crosses the boundaries of what is ideologically acceptable, to put it in Chomskyan terms.

In the 19th century, when social Darwinism was at its peak, the rise of the west was explained in terms of the survival of the fittest. There was a certain genius to northern Europe that helped it to dominate the rest of the world. In the 20th century, particularly under the impact of the colonial revolution, it was no longer impossible to be so crass. Instead, there were efforts to be more “scientific”. For example, Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel” in order to show that the Europeans were not more intelligent or creative than those they came to rule, only more resistant to germs. You find a similar approach with Robert Brenner, who tries to prove that an accident of history–namely the rise of lease farming in Great Britain–led to the rise of capitalism and hence the rise of the west.

The latest explanation for the rise of the west is about as “internal” as you can get. As reported in today’s NY Times , Gregory Clark, a historian at U. of California/Davis, says it is all in our genes!

If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people’s behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies, his thesis implies.

Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. “Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”

Gosh, some people have all the luck. The British rose to the top of the heap because it was in their genes. In 1994 Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray wrote “The Bell Curve” to demonstrate that genetic differences between Blacks and whites accounted for economic and social inequality. I doubt that Clark is as reactionary as these two bastards, but he does seem to have it in for any attempts at a class analysis of the rise of capitalism. In his review of Michael Perelman’s “The Invention of Capitalism,” Clark dismisses the idea that game laws were used in order to force British peasants off the land:

Exhibit A in Perelman’s indictment of the Classical mob is the case of the Game Laws. The Game Laws banned the landless and small owners in the countryside from taking game animals. Thus in England by the laws of 1670 to take game even on your own land a person had to meet a very substantial property qualification. In both England and Scotland these laws became more severe as the eighteenth century progressed, and more people were convicted under the laws. Why, asks Perelman, did the new capitalist class and their PR agents, the Political Economists, support these feudal restrictions in favor of the country squires? They did so because it took away the sources of support that kept the poor in the countryside from the factory door. They did so because a hunting peasant was an idle peasant and an insolent peasant, not a docile and dependable worker.

(I should mention that Michael’s book is excellent in all respects, but that it too tends to identify primitive accumulation strictly in terms of the “internal” changes taking place in the British countryside. Perhaps he might consider writing a follow up one day that is inspired by the other aspect of primitive accumulation, namely the slave trade and the expropriation and murder of indigenous Americans.)

Clark’s general perspective is that before capitalism mankind lived in an undifferentiated mass of squalor and hunger. Malthusian law dictated that for every advance in farming technology (including the agrarian revolution’s turnip), there was an increase in population that always outstripped the food supply. It was only with the advent of the industrial revolution that the supply finally could exceed the demand. This thesis requires Clark to reject out of hand the notion that peasants could have been better off in some ways under feudalism than they were under capitalism. While Perelman never romanticized life under capitalism, he certainly made the case that it was better to be a self-husbanding farmer with hundreds of religious holidays in the medieval period than it was to be a starving landless peasant roaming the British countryside in search of work.

Unfortunately, the NY Times article is so poorly written that it is hard to determine what Clark’s thesis is all about down to its squalid core, but I will attempt a running commentary on the ideas and the personalities referred to therein.

To start with, Clark is at odds with the Brennerite insistence that British agricultural breakthroughs created a fat and happy work force up to the task of running the new machines of the 19th century. Apparently, these British workers were just as hungry as the French, although according to some accounts they would at least have enough tea and sugar to get them through the day–like Bolivian miners dependent on their coca. The NY Times states:

This income was pitifully low in terms of the amount of wheat it could buy. By 1790, the average person’s consumption in England was still just 2,322 calories a day, with the poor eating a mere 1,508. Living hunter-gatherer societies enjoy diets of 2,300 calories or more.

“Primitive man ate well compared with one of the richest societies in the world in 1800,” Dr. Clark observes.

Of course, Great Britain was busily at work destroying hunter-gatherer societies so as to make the British dining table more ample, but that is obviously a topic that neither Clark nor the NY Times is interested in pursuing.

When the topic turns to “survival of the fittest”, either Clark’s explanation is incoherent or the NY Times reporter was drunk when he gave his version of it:

In support of the disease-resistance idea, cities like London were so filthy and disease ridden that a third of their populations died off every generation, and the losses were restored by immigrants from the countryside. That suggested to Dr. Clark that the surviving population of England might be the descendants of peasants.

A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, , but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.

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.

I honestly can’t figure out what Clark was trying to say, except that the average British citizen of today is descended from the aristocracy. Is this supposed to be a key to success? I don’t think so, based on the evidence of a recent Radar Online article:

The 7th Earl of Lucan (Richard John Bingham) 1934 – ? Lord Lucan appeared to be the epitome of an upright British aristocrat, what with his family home in Westminster, regal bearing, and sexy mustache. The dashing fellow also had a taste for speed boats and gambling, and after a particularly successful run in the casinos gained him both a sizable sum and the nickname “Lucky,” he dropped his other career pursuits to become a professional gambler. He ended up having a rough go of it and eventually found himself living the life of a drunken, debt-ridden, wife-beating gambler. Perhaps in an effort to reduce his expenses and secure sole custody of his children, he hatched a plot to kill his mentally fragile wife. But Lucky Lord Lucan, a direct descendant of the man responsible for the famously doomed “Charge of the Light Brigade” somehow botched the job, brutally killing his children’s nanny instead of his wife. Lucan has not been seen since that night in 1974, and his whereabouts remains the subject of much speculation.

Clark also makes the startling discovery that the industrial revolution came about because the British were thrifty: “Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving.” Impulsive, violent and leisure loving? I would love to see the good professor’s scholarly citations for this. What was he reading to come up with this conclusion? It sounds like the sort of thing that you hear about the Black community in the pages of the National Review today.

More nonsense follows. Clark says that the Industrial Revolution did not occur first in China or Japan. Why? Because the richer classes “were surprisingly unfertile” and couldn’t bequeath their “good” genes on the rest of society. How this crap gets taken seriously in the academy is beyond me. As Doug Henwood just observed on the LBO Talk mailing list, “How can anyone take seriously a purported evolutionary change that happens over the course of a couple of hundred years? If Ward Chuchill had written something so ridiculous, he’d have gotten fired.”

The article concludes with verdicts from three big name scholars. Kenneth L. Pomeranz, the author of “The Great Divergence,” a book that tries to explain China’s lagging behind Great Britain in terms of a lack of coal rather than cojones, says that Clark’s argument “is significantly weaker, and maybe just not necessary, if you can trace the changes in the institutions.” Weaker? How about just plain idiotic.

Robert Brenner says that Dr. Clark’s idea of genes for capitalist behavior was “quite a speculative leap.” Indeed, so was the Bell Curve.

Sam Bowles, a Santa Fe economist who had morphed from a kind of weak tea Marxism into mainstream liberalism, says that he was “not averse to the idea” that genetic transmission of capitalist values is important, but that the evidence for it was not yet there. “It’s just that we don’t have any idea what it is, and everything we look at ends up being awfully small.” So, apparently, are the brains of big-time academics.

28 Comments »

  1. “How this crap gets taken seriously in the academy is beyond me.”

    Because he says precisely what the elite want to hear.

    Comment by Greg Andol — August 7, 2007 @ 9:36 pm

  2. ‘As Doug Henwood just observed on the LBO Talk mailing list, “How can anyone take seriously a purported evolutionary change that happens over the course of a couple of hundred years?’

    Clark’s thesis is whacky sociobiological bunkum, but this isn’t a good argument against it. Natural selection can produce signficant changes in a population within relatively few generations if the selection pressures are strong enough. Consider the famous textbook example of industrial melanism in peppered moths. Originally the population was largely light colored, but within a few decades, due to the effects of industrial pollution on trees, dark moth—who were now better camouflaged—came to predominate. A few decades later, after pollution lessened the color balance shifted back. The problem with Clark’s proposal is that, unlike the color of moths, there is no good reason for thinking that the kinds of behavioral characteristics he is interested in have any genetic basis at all and plenty of reasons for thinking that they don’t.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 7, 2007 @ 10:16 pm

  3. The key word is *sociobiology*. Clark is mixing sociobiology into history. There are obviously all sorts of adaptations taking place in nature. However, the origins of capitalism can only be explained in class/institutional terms–not in inherited genes. Clark’s bunk is not that different from Jimmy the Greek “explaining” Black superiority in sports because of “breeding”.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 7, 2007 @ 10:23 pm

  4. Hilariously funny post – and also a deep reading of the newspaper of record that shows the desperation for ideas we find so rampant among our contemporary bourgeoisie.

    “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.” …. for crying out loud, already.

    Great blogging! State of the art. Hooray for Louis.

    Comment by Andy — August 7, 2007 @ 10:30 pm

  5. In 1984, I spent some time with Clark when I spent a year at Stanford. He is very bright. His main focus is to prove that wealth and power are the result of the efficiency of markets; his dissatisfaction with my work was not surprising. Some of his work is far fetched, but he usually is very diligent in collecting data and using very up-to-date methods.

    This particular effort seems a bit far fetched. I don’t think that much factory work was taken up by middle class youth. England had their equivalent of Mexicans in nearby Ireland.

    Comment by mperelman — August 7, 2007 @ 10:46 pm

  6. There has beeen relatively recent natural selection affecting human populations (examples: sickle cell, lactose intolerance), and no particular reason to think that some behavioral and cognitive traits vary according to heredity as well as other factors (nutrition in early childhood, for example).

    That said, Clark’s ideas, as described, are interesting, but a this stage pretty loosey-goosey and speculative.

    Moreover, whether genetics played a part or not, it’s impossible to deny that the rise of Europe and America and of capitalism was accompanied by marked levels of violence and oppression.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — August 7, 2007 @ 10:52 pm

  7. “no particular reason to doubt” . . .

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — August 7, 2007 @ 10:53 pm

  8. “Malthusian law dictated that for every advance in farming technology (including the agrarian revolution’s turnip), there was an increase in population that always outstripped the food supply. It was only with the advent of the industrial revolution that the supply finally could exceed the demand.” If Clark proposes this analysis, it substitutes speculation for fact. As I remember my European history, the bubonic plague of the 14th century reduced European populations so severely that it took just about 400 years to return to those medieval levels. In other words, for the period of four centuries during which capitalism developed in Europe, the improvements in agricultural technology were essentially irrelevant to the population level.

    Comment by Chuckie K — August 7, 2007 @ 11:24 pm

  9. […] The transition to capitalism: is it in our genes? […]

    Pingback by Darwiniana » Stiff upper brit: it’s all in your genes — August 7, 2007 @ 11:25 pm

  10. It turns out that the Nicholas Wade article was the second puff piece for Clark’s book in the NYT. They ran an earlier review in the business section last year by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/02/business/02scene.html

    The sociobiology is really just an aside. Clark’s main point is apparently that economic history can be explained by the fact that some people are just no damned good. Some nations have developed because the quality of labor is high, others have remained backward because it is lousy. Here is Cowen’s summary of what Clark says about India:

    “As early as the 19th century, textile factories in the West and in India had essentially the same machinery, and it was not hard to transport the final product. Yet the difference in cultures could be seen on the factory floor. Although Indian labor costs were many times lower, Indian labor was far less efficient at many basic tasks.

    “For instance, when it came to ‘doffing’ (periodically removing spindles of yarn from machines), American workers were often six or more times as productive as their Indian counterparts, according to measures from the early to mid-20th century. Importing Western managers did not in general narrow these gaps. As a result, India failed to attract comparable capital investment.”

    Will India and other undeveloped countries ever escape their poverty? Clark thinks probably not:

    “Professor Clark questions whether the poorest parts of the world will ever develop. Japan has climbed out of poverty, and now China is improving rapidly, but Dr. Clark views these successes as built upon hundreds of years of earlier cultural foundations. Formal education is no panacea, since well-functioning institutions are needed for it to be effective.”

    In fact Clark is nothing more than an unreconstructed global Malthusian:

    “The poorer countries remain stuck at the bottom as growing populations mean fewer resources for everyone else. Paradoxically, advances in sanitation and medical care, by saving lives, have driven down well-being for the average person. The population is rising in most of sub-Saharan Africa, but living standards have fallen below hunter-gatherer times and 40 percent below the average British living standard just before the Industrial Revolution. The upshot is this: The problem with foreign aid is not so much corruption but rather that the aid brings some real benefits and enables higher populations.”

    Cowen laps this stuff up. He says that Clark’s book “may just prove to be the next blockbuster in economics.” God help us.

    Here are some facts about India (from John Pilger’s fine new book, Freedom Next Time) that Clark somehow overlooks:

    “The East India Company’s ‘CEO’ was Robert Clive. ‘Clive of India’ looted, literally, Bengal’s treasury of all its gold and silver and loaded it onto a fleet of more than a hundred boats. The ‘profit’ to the company was £2.5 million (more than £200 million today), of which Clive’s cut was £234,000 (£20 million). The ‘multinational’ was born, conceived by a breed known as speculators, who in 1784 drove up the price of food beyond the reach of India’s poor. ‘Estimates vary,’ wrote [historian Nick] Robins, ‘but up to ten million people may have died of starvation.’ In a country which, in the seventeenth century, was the ‘agricultural mother of Asia and the industrial workshop of the world’, where the weavers of cotton enjoyed a higher standard of living than their counterparts in England, life under British rule became a lesser commodity.”

    I guess there won’t be any economics blockbusters written about that.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 8, 2007 @ 4:00 am

  11. With regard to Ireland being England’s Mexico. . . someone once told me that well within living memory (though certainly today) state schools in Northern Ireland (which had a largely Protestant intake, Catholic children being educated in church schools) were taught a model of Irish history in which we Catholic celts were simply too carefree and, well, shiftless to do well at the economic development game.

    Then in the 1980s, the British Journal of Sociology had a debate over the existence of discrimination in employment against the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland in which one fine fellow argued that perhaps these Catholics were simply not up to it. His opponent had merely to point to the advance of the Irish catholic diaspora in the United States to refute that one.

    More recently, the Ireland of economic decline and backwardness (approaching 20% unemployment in the 1980s) has been replaced by the new Celtic Tiger Ireland. This has not been without its own economic and social distortions (gross exploitation of immigrant workers and a much increased suicide rate, for example) but believe me, it is not the result of some sudden mutation amongst myself or my fellow countrymen.

    Finally, about sickle cell anaemia – it’s recent, but not that recent. If memory serves it goes well back to the opening up of the West African forest circa 2000 years ago. This produced pools of stagnant water exposed to light, ideal for the breeding of mosquitoes which spread malaria. This in turn created an opportunity for sickle cell mutation to spread, because even though it produces anaemia it does give protection against malaria (and not all West African people have it, by the way, and East African people don’t have it at all). 2000 years ago, I’d submit, is a rather longer time frame than the mere couple of centuries in which the Industrial revolution happened, or the two decades which saw Ireland’s transition to Tiger status.

    Comment by Idris of Dungiven — August 8, 2007 @ 4:51 pm

  12. “Finally, about sickle cell anaemia – it’s recent, but not that recent. If memory serves it goes well back to the opening up of the West African forest circa 2000 years ago. This produced pools of stagnant water exposed to light, ideal for the breeding of mosquitoes which spread malaria. This in turn created an opportunity for sickle cell mutation to spread, because even though it produces anaemia it does give protection against malaria (and not all West African people have it, by the way, and East African people don’t have it at all). 2000 years ago, I’d submit, is a rather longer time frame than the mere couple of centuries in which the Industrial revolution happened, or the two decades which saw Ireland’s transition to Tiger status.”

    The environmental changes that led to the spread of malaria in parts of Africa certainly go back at least 2000 years, but that doesn’t mean that it took 2000 years for the sickle cell mutation to reach its present level in the population. I believe that about 20 percent of people in West Africa carry the mutation, and even if it started at almost nothing, it could have reached that level in 15-20 generations (i.e. about 3-400 years). I think there’s a confusion going on between micro and macro evolution. Macro evolution, involving the emergence of new species, requires hundreds or thousands of generations. Micro evolution, involving the change in frequency of a particular gene or allele within a population, can take place much more quickly.

    I’m not arguing that this adds any plausibility whatsoever to Clark’s nutty idea, but what makes the idea nutty is not that it claims that the gene pool in England, or wherever, changed in some significant way between, say, 1400 and 1800 (or, for that matter, the fact that it can’t explain economic growth in Ireland over the past two decades—even the correct explanation of the rise of capitalism can’t do that). In other words, we should reject his hypothesis for the right reasons, not for the wrong ones.

    As an aside, I believe it was the Marxist biologist J.B.S. Haldane who suggested in the 1940s that the prevalence of the sickle cell mutation in certain areas might be related to the presence of Malaria.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 8, 2007 @ 9:21 pm

  13. Louis writes:
    “Clark also makes the startling discovery that the industrial revolution came about because the British were thrifty: “Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving.” Impulsive, violent and leisure loving? I would love to see the good professor’s scholarly citations for this. What was he reading to come up with this conclusion? It sounds like the sort of thing that you hear about the Black community in the pages of the National Review today.”

    What puzzles me is the tacit assumption that “impulsive, violent and leisure-loving” are somehow (necessarily and always) bad, and that thriftiness, prudence, hard work, etc., are good. It is as though the axiology of the National Review (et alia) has been adopted, without question.

    Comment by Alan — August 9, 2007 @ 12:54 pm

  14. Phil writes:
    “Clark’s main point is apparently that economic history can be explained by the fact that some people are just no damned good. Some nations have developed because the quality of labor is high, others have remained backward because it is lousy.”

    “No damn good”. “Lousy”. More National Review values.

    Comment by Alan — August 9, 2007 @ 1:35 pm

  15. Say what? If Phil Gasper wrote that Hitler’s main point is that the Jews were a Bolshevik/banking conspiracy to take over the world, would that make him a Nazi? If I wrote that Bush’s main point is that we need to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq before they come over here to blow up buildings, does that make me a supporter of the president?

    You seem like a bright fellow, but not a very good reader.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 9, 2007 @ 1:43 pm

  16. Another hole in this swiss cheese argument is that the rise of modern nation-states is far too recent to be observable in the human genome, i.e. you can’t look at a strand of DNA and figure out if it’s French, English, Russian, etc so the idea that “the Brits had better (capitalist) genes” has to go out the window, along with the rest of the garbage.

    Comment by Binh — August 9, 2007 @ 2:08 pm

  17. Louis, somehow I did not get, from what was written, any sense that the National Review’s (bourgeois) VALUES might be wrong; rather that the National Review’s empirical assessment of things (the supposedly innate characters in question) was wrong. Do you understand me? As I said, there seems to be (here) a tacit acceptance of some behavioral characteristics like hard work (etc., etc.) as good, and of love of leisure (etc., etc.) as bad. Correct me if I am wrong about that. Maybe I AM wrong about that.

    Comment by Alan — August 9, 2007 @ 4:11 pm

  18. Binh wrote:
    “Another hole in this swiss cheese argument is that the rise of modern nation-states is far too recent to be observable in the human genome, i.e. you can’t look at a strand of DNA and figure out if it’s French, English, Russian, etc so the idea that “the Brits had better (capitalist) genes” has to go out the window, along with the rest of the garbage.”

    See comments above from Grumpy Old Man and Phil Gasper, regarding selection pressures.

    Of course it is ridiculous to hold that there are such things as “capitalist genes”. But it is not ridiculous to think that certain behavioral characteristics associated with (and favoring) acquisitiveness and the tendency to accumulate might have some genetic component. Of course it would be a complex gene/culture interaction thing, if that were the case; NOT some simplistic Mendelian genetic determinist thingie. Copische?

    Comment by Alan — August 9, 2007 @ 4:24 pm

  19. “But it is not ridiculous to think that certain behavioral characteristics associated with (and favoring) acquisitiveness and the tendency to accumulate might have some genetic component.”

    At this level of generality, anything is possible, I guess. But there is zero evidence that any behavioral differences between the English (or some group of English) and, say, the Germans in the late middle ages had any genetic basis. On the other hand, we have plenty of evidence that human behavior is enormously flexible–the same person can be cooperative or competitive depending on the environment in which they are placed. Change the environment enough and the behavior changes too.

    Let me also add something to my point about how quickly a genetic mutation can spread in a human population. It is certainly possible for it to reach significant levels within a few hundred years, but in order for that to happen there would have to an extremely strong selection pressure in its favor. In the case of the sickle cell allele, that is the case–individuals who are heterozygous for the mutation (i.e. who possess one copy of the normal allele and one of the mutation)develop a strong resistance to a deadly disease, whereas those who are homozygous (possessing either two of the normal alleles or two copies of the mutation) lack that resistance. Is Clark maintaining that there is a single allele (it would have to be one to spread quickly enough) both responsible for all of the behavioral characteristics that he thinks are important (absurdly implausible) and which confers resistance to some deadly pathogen (just as implausible)? Why should anybody who isn’t being driven by some bizarre ideological need to naturalize capitalism take such an idea seriously?

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 9, 2007 @ 10:13 pm

  20. Yes, there is plenty of evidence that behavior is enormously flexible — hence my emphasis on gene/culture interaction. But at the same time, there’s no profit in dismissing genes entirely. The issue, as S J Gould (I think) put it, is not whether or not genes influence behavior — of course they do! — but precisely HOW and to what extent. It is almost always a complex gene/culture interaction.

    The sentence about being “responsible for ALL the behavioral characteristics” (why does it have to be “all”?) and “which confers resistance” makes no sense to me. “Confers resistance” to what? What are you talking about?

    I don’t know that I buy that “it would have to be a single allele to spread quickly enough”.
    REmember also that we are not talking about (or at least I am not talking about) simplistic deterministic effects, with single allelic variations directly and ineluctably causing fixed or stereotypic behaviors. Genetic influences on behavior pass through, and intimately interact with, a heavy filter of culture/environment.

    But even if that were the case, it is known that single alleles can have profound impact on
    personality and behavior, perhaps in ways that are relevant to this discussion. Neuroticism for example has been linked to a single allele that boosts serotonin action. Also, so-called novelty-seeking, characterized by poor impulse control, is associated with a single allele that depresses dopamine action. Seems to me that the good bourgeois Prostestant-work-ethic imbued budding capitalist would be the high-serotonin, high-dopamine type. 🙂 But yes, I know, that would be polygenic.

    Perhaps Clark has a bizarre ideological need to naturalize capitalism, but that should not inhibit us from seeking wholistic answers to complex problems — answers that might include biology along with culture and environment.

    I should note that “biology” does not mean fixed, unchanging, and resistant to environmental variation. Not at all. Recent work in epigenetics (very exciting, IMO) has shown that genetic expression is much more plastic, within just a few generations, than anyone imagined possible just a few years ago.
    Lamarck is on the verge of being rehabilitated,
    and I say hip-hip-hurrah. But those old, conservative genes are still in the picture, too; we are plastic, but not infinitely so.

    To me, this is not about “naturalizing” anything, in the sense that you mean it (which I take to be “justifying”). It is about understanding.

    Comment by Alan — August 10, 2007 @ 3:44 pm

  21. PS: It is possible that the behavioral characteristics associated with (and favoring) acquisitiveness and the tendency to accumulate might have some genetic component that could be treated, medically, either with some sort of gene therapy, or perhaps with epigenetic modification (by way of diet and etc.). 🙂 To “naturalize” something does not mean to make it desirable. Smallpox is natural.

    Comment by Alan — August 10, 2007 @ 3:52 pm

  22. Of course it is ridiculous to hold that there are such things as “capitalist genes”. But it is not ridiculous to think that certain behavioral characteristics associated with (and favoring) acquisitiveness and the tendency to accumulate might have some genetic component. Of course it would be a complex gene/culture interaction thing, if that were the case; NOT some simplistic Mendelian genetic determinist thingie. Copische? – Alan

    You’re missing my point which is why would those genetic predispositions (assuming they exist, which is at best debatable) come to the fore at a certain place and time, i.e. England in the 1600-1800s? This is the hole that these particular bourgeois thinkers cannot dig themselves out of.

    Comment by Binh — August 10, 2007 @ 4:30 pm

  23. Binh:

    It seems to me that you are cartoon-izing Clark’s argument as a hard-core genetic-determinist thing — that the genes ineluctably and absolutely DETERMINE particular behaviors or characters, and that if they so determine in one place at one time, then they must determine precisely the same stuff elsewhere at that exact time. But that is not the case. There are too many things influencing genetic expression, and too much gene/culture complexity, for that to be true.
    Given the complexities, it is not only plausible but likely that there would be geographic and temporal variation of particular expressions — especially temporal variation of such minor extent (a few centuries is nothing, really).

    You — and others here — also seem to be thinking (I am reading tea leaves here; correct me if I am wrong) that to admit of any genetic influence is to slip-slide down the slope into crude, “iron-laws-of-nature” determinism. But that’s really not the case. The fact that genes influence behavior does not instantly compel us to become fascists, for gosh sakes.

    Comment by Alan — August 10, 2007 @ 5:37 pm

  24. “The issue, as S J Gould (I think) put it, is not whether or not genes influence behavior — of course they do! — but precisely HOW and to what extent.”

    Please don’t drag in the late great Stephen Jay Gould to add any credence to Clark’s nonsense. Gould makes the point that if human biology had been substantially different (if we photosynthesized, for instance) then human society would be substantially different too. So biology obviously constrains history in some very general ways, but Gould argues forcefully against people like Clark who think that history and society can be explained by postulating genes for specific kinds of behavior:

    “If intelligence sets us apart among organisms, then I think it probable that natural selection acted to maximize the flexibility of our behavior. What would be more adaptive for a learning and thinking animal: genes selected for aggression, spite, and xenophobia; or selection for learning rules that can generate aggression in appropriate circumstances and peacefulness in others?”

    Gould also writes:

    “Human uniqueness resides primarily in our brains. It is expressed in the culture built upon our intelligence and the power it gives us to manipulate the world. Human societies change by cultural evolution, not as a result of biological alteration. We have no evidence for biological change in brain size or structure since Homo sapiens appeared in the fossil record…. All that we have done since then—the greatest transformation in the shortest time that our planet has experienced since its crust solidified nearly four billion years ago—is the product of cultural evolution.… Our large brain is the biological foundation of intelligence; intelligence is the ground of culture; and cultural transmission builds a new mode of evolution more effective than Darwinian processes in its limited realm—the ‘inheritance’ and modification of learned behavior.”

    That’s my last word on this subject here. I’ve written about these issues at greater length here:

    http://www.isreview.org/issues/38/genes.shtml
    http://www.isreview.org/issues/40/genes2.shtml

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 11, 2007 @ 4:14 pm

  25. Phil: Did you just cite Dr Gould, or did you “drag him in”?

    With all due respect to Gould, brain size HAS changed since the advent of the neolithic (last 10-15,000 years); perhaps he was unaware of that. But more important than that, it has become evident in recent years that gene expression and brain function can be modified, sometimes quite profoundly, by environmental influences, especially diet. Gould was likely simply unaware of these developments — some of which have been published since his death.

    Indeed, genes can “generate aggression in [some] circumstances and peacefulness in others” — and influences on that gene expression can themselves be biological.

    “Human societies change by cultural evolution, not as a result of biological alteration.” — that is a statement of opinion, not fact. It is certainly largely correct; i.e. societies (obviously) DO change by cultural evolution. But the idea that biological alteration has no impact is mere speculation — and indeed speculation increasinging inconsistent with anthropological and other evidence. The advent of agriculture produced physiological and brain changes that were very likely to have changed society. (Such things are by their nature impossible to prove, however it is almost unimaginable how they could NOT have.) Further, the changes are ongoing and to some extent reversible. The brain, and behavior, are quite plastic and responsive to environmental influences — sometimes amazingly so.

    The fundamental problem here, it seems to me, is a sort of allergic reaction to the idea that biology can be important, which results from the misconception that biology is UNALTERABLE and inflexible. That’s not the case. See my posts above (“epigenetics”, etc.). See above, what I just wrote about diet and etc. (much detail and references on request).

    Bottom line: I am arguing more on your side than Clark’s, but you’re not seeing that, for whatever reason. I’m actually not arguing on Clark’s side at all. My only concession to Clark is just that his ideas are not implausible “nonsense” as many here seem to think. He might be wrong; we don’t know.

    Comment by Alan — August 13, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  26. Phil: from your article:
    http://www.isreview.org/issues/38/genes.shtml

    You write:
    “The attempt to explain important features of society in evolutionary or genetic terms—biological determinism—has two goals. First, it tries to convince us that the social order is a consequence of unchanging human biology, so that inequality and injustice cannot be eliminated. Second, in the case of problems that are impossible to ignore, it tells us to look for the solution at the level of the individual and not at the level of social institutions. The problems lie not in the structure of society, but in some of the individuals who make up society. The solution is thus to change—or even eliminate—the individuals, not to challenge existing social structures.”

    My comments:

    1. The social order is not a direct or simple “consequence of”, but is **influenced by**, human biology — but not “unchanging” human biology, since human biology is constantly changing. Human society is influenced by CHANGING human biology.

    2. The solution to some problems (at least things commonly deemed to be problems) will indeed involve the changing of individuals — by way of changing social structures. You portray this matter as an opposition, when it is not. The structure of society has a very bad influence on some individuals. (Again, accepting the common axiology of “bad”.) These individuals can be changed by way of (certain) social and institutional change.

    Comment by Alan — August 13, 2007 @ 2:46 pm

  27. “The law doth punish man or woman
    That steals the goose from off the common
    But lets the greeater felon loose
    That steals the common from the goose.”

    ~anonymous 18th-century English epigram

    Comment by m.c. — August 17, 2007 @ 6:26 pm

  28. […] have it right?. * Cultures of Blood. * Cain and Abel. * ADHD in Nomadic Tribesmen. * The transition to capitalism: is it in our genes?. * Forum. * Adult. * […]

    Pingback by Not a disease, you evil bastards « Khannea Suntzu's Nymious Mess — October 5, 2010 @ 5:23 pm


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