The Clarkian Process

I am calling it the “Clarkian process” – Gregory Clark described (in his book Farewell to Alms of 2007) how for centuries before the modern era wealthy British left more descendants than the poor. Presumably the wealthy had heritable traits that helped make them wealthy. It follows that those traits would have spread more broadly through the population. This, says Clark, is what made possible the industrial revolution.

Ron Unz ponders whether a Clarkian process happened in China.

One possibility is that descendants of the manadarins spread. But Unz doubts this had much effect. They were too few.

With Chinese civilization having spent most of the past 1,500 years allocating its positions of national power and influence by examination, there has sometimes been speculation that test-taking ability has become embedded in the Chinese people at the biological as well as cultural level. Yet although there might be an element of truth to this, it hardly seems likely to be significant. During the eras in question, China’s total population numbered far into the tens of millions, growing in unsteady fashion from perhaps 60 million before AD 900 to well over 400 million by 1850. But the number of Chinese passing the highest imperial exam and attaining the exalted rank of chin-shih during most of the past six centuries was often less than 100 per year, down from a high of over 200 under the Sung dynasty (960-1279), and even if we include the lesser rank of chu-jen, the national total of such degree-holders was probably just in the low tens of thousands, a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the overall population—totally dwarfed by the numbers of Chinese making their living as artisans or merchants, let alone the overwhelming mass of the rural peasantry. The cultural impact of rule by a test-selected elite was enormous, but the direct genetic impact would have been negligible.

I am not quite convinced. China was polygynous. The elite there could produce more offspring than in England. Many of those would have been downwardly mobile. In a polygamous society, the Clarkian process would be faster.

Unz thinks that if there was a Clarkian process, it occurred within the peasantry.

Traditional rural China was a society faced with the reality of an enormous and inexorable downward mobility: for centuries, nearly all Chinese ended their lives much poorer than had their parents.

only the wealthier families of a Chinese village could afford the costs associated with obtaining wives for their sons, with female infanticide and other factors regularly ensuring up to a 15 percent shortfall in the number of available women. Thus, the poorest village strata usually failed to reproduce at all, while poverty and malnourishment also tended to lower fertility and raise infant mortality as one moved downward along the economic gradient. At the same time, the wealthiest villagers sometimes could afford multiple wives or concubines and regularly produced much larger numbers of surviving offspring. Each generation, the poorest disappeared, the less affluent failed to replenish their numbers, and all those lower rungs on the economic ladder were filled by the downwardly mobile children of the fecund wealthy.

What sort of traits may have spread?

Successful peasants might benefit from a good intellect, but they also required the propensity for hard manual toil, determination, diligence, and even such purely physical traits as resistance to injury and efficiency in food digestion.

Yet, all this raises a major question: Why didn’t a Clarkian process happen elsewhere? Surely the rich had more descendants than the poor in all agrarian civilizations?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Clarkian Process

  1. “how for centuries before the modern era wealthy British left more descendants than the poor. Presumably the wealthy had heritable traits that helped make them wealthy”

    I question the assumption that undergirds the process – namely, that a heritable phenotype was the central factor in the maintaining wealth from one generation to another. Even if one phenotype can be identified as leading to wealth/power, it does not necessarily follow that this same phenotype was passed on or that the wealth of the next generation came because they possessed this phenotype. Rich folk had higher living standards. Even the imbecile prince had a greater chance of both surviving and owning great wealth than the most brilliant/strong/[insert phenotype that leads to wealth here] peasant. Their environments were different enough to cancel out most genetic advantages.

    “Why didn’t a Clarkian process happen elsewhere? Surely the rich had more descendants than the poor in all agrarian civilizations?”

    I suppose the greatest measure of Darwinian fitness in an agrarian civilization had less to do with brains, brawn, or even culture than it had to do with disease. If disease was the greatest evolutionary pressure for the agrarian man, it makes sense that no general “Clarkian process” emerges, because the diseases are evolving along with the humans. Clarkian process might result in a generation impervious to the Antonine Plague, but that hardly helps when the Plague of Cyprian comes around a generation later.

  2. I agree that disease and diet would have been the main focus of selection in agraria. Still, I wouldn’t rule out that personality traits may have been selected too.

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