Interview at Gene Expression with economic historian Greg Clark.
"I came to economics as an undergraduate expecting, as is the central view of economics, that the explanation for wealth and poverty would ultimately be located in social institutions and that people everywhere have basically the same aspirations and abilities.
But unlike most of my colleagues in economics I have always been interested in the mechanisms, and the fine details, of how things actually function. Much of modern economics is entirely theoretical, and even most empirical work in economics involves just looking at very high level correlations between variables such as income per person and education, or democracy, or the openness of trade.
When I set out in my PhD thesis to try and explain differences in income internationally in 1910 I found that asking simple questions like "Why could Indian textile mills not make much profit even though they were in a free trade association with England which had wages five times as high?" led to completely unexpected conclusions. You could show that the standard institutional explanation made no sense when you assembled detailed evidence from trade journals, factory reports, and the accounts of observers. Instead it was the puzzling behavior of the workers inside the factories that was the key."
Clark came to the conclusion that it's differences between the British and Indian workers themselves - maybe their culture, maybe their genes - that explained the difference. Naturally Laban will be on the side of the culture club. Some say that the recipe for economic success and productivity lies in the rule of law, limited government, property rights and sound currency - and Clark points out that these things existed in Britain for a long time before the Industrial Revolution.
They certainly didn't of themselves produce free markets - think of the guilds and the monopolies. And it's not genes that make the difference between 14th and 18th century Britain, unless the history books are missing something out. The culture must have changed between Edward I and Adam Smith.
I wonder how much sea trade, unregulated by guilds and monopolies and often exposed to competition (often decided by firepower rather than price, I admit - like some forms of competition today), although with its own complications of letters patent and financing, contributed to the idea of a free market - an idea that didn't seem at all obvious to many of our mediaeval forebears.
In a related big-human-theme vein (via), Professor Roy Baumeister on Men and Women.
The first big, basic difference has to do with what I consider to be the most underappreciated fact about gender. Consider this question: What percent of our ancestors were women?
It’s not a trick question, and it’s not 50%. True, about half the people who ever lived were women, but that’s not the question. We’re asking about all the people who ever lived who have a descendant living today. Or, put another way, yes, every baby has both a mother and a father, but some of those parents had multiple children.
Recent research using DNA analysis answered this question about two years ago. Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.
I think this difference is the single most underappreciated fact about gender. To get that kind of difference, you had to have something like, throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.
Right now our field is having a lively debate about how much behavior can be explained by evolutionary theory. But if evolution explains anything at all, it explains things related to reproduction, because reproduction is at the heart of natural selection. Basically, the traits that were most effective for reproduction would be at the center of evolutionary psychology. It would be shocking if these vastly different reproductive odds for men and women failed to produce some personality differences.
For women throughout history (and prehistory), the odds of reproducing have been pretty good. Later in this talk we will ponder things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce. They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you’ll be able to have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. We’re descended from women who played it safe.
For men, the outlook was radically different. If you go along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you won’t have children. Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities. Sailing off into the unknown may be risky, and you might drown or be killed or whatever, but then again if you stay home you won’t reproduce anyway. We’re most descended from the type of men who made the risky voyage and managed to come back rich. In that case he would finally get a good chance to pass on his genes. We’re descended from men who took chances (and were lucky).
So the men went out to try risky things, while the women played safe and waited for the best offer. In the words of a famous evolutionary biologist :
"You are just like all women. They are ever content to build their lives on any incidental position that offers itself; whilst men would fain make a globe to suit them."
Thomas Hardy, The Return Of The Native
But hold on - WHY did the men have to build ships and go off, or do other things to differentiate themselves ? Why couldn't they just stay put like the women and have one mate each ?
"For men, however, it was more a matter of beating out lots of other men even to have a chance for a mate" - that surely implies a lot of men wanted all the women (or as many as they could) for themselves - and presumably were willing to kill for them. We're back in Lawrence Keeley country, where warfare was endemic and a large percentage of males died violently before they could reproduce - but the women survived. At the prehistoric massacre site of Crow Creek, the bones of young women are under-represented. No prizes for guessing their fate.
So all of that culture and sex difference comes from our need to reproduce. And those novels and movies where the heroine prefers the bad lad to the steady guy, Heathcliffe to Linton, those complaints that 'women go for bastards' or that 'every woman loves a fascist' - there is or was some evolutionary truth there. Zar, zan, zamin - gold, women and land - that's apparently what the chaps really really want.
This makes me wonder again - because after all, we're (we being the native Brits) stopping reproduction - and a group generally considered to be the poorest and most deprived in the UK are, in reproductive terms, by far the most successful.