England's Success May Be in Our Genes
Posted on: 2007-08-22 11:45:08
A radical explanation of what made this island so wealthy
The Industrial Revolution is the great event of world history. Before this, from the Stone Age to 1800, there was no gain in average living conditions. Now incomes rise steadily.
It is attributed to political stability and free markets in 18th-century England. But this is the convenient fantasy of modern economists. Medieval England was much more pro-market than even Thatcherite England – the average government tax rate then was less than 1 per cent – yet achieved no growth.
Instead, the Industrial Revolution is more plausibly linked to a Darwinian process of “survival of the richest” that operated from at least 1250. Capitalist attitudes and economic growth triumphed in England because those with such attitudes came to predominate in the population by biological means. The modern English are the descendants of the upper classes of the preindustrial world, those who prospered economically. The poor disappeared. This process was most likely cultural, but we cannot exclude the possibility that the English may even be genetically capitalist.
To see how these processes operated consider the following. The average Briton in 1788, when the first edition of The Times appeared, ate only as many calories a day as hunter-gatherers (2,300). The diet was more monotonous. Life expectancy was only slightly above that of hunter-gatherers (38 years). Height is a good guide to nutrition and health: men in England averaged 5ft 6in (1.68m), the same as males in the Stone Age. And while foragers satisfy their material wants with small amounts of work, the modest comforts of the English in 1800 were purchased only through a life of unrelenting drudgery. Men then worked 60 hours a week. Male hunter-gatherers typically got by on the 35-hour week.
Since you have doubtless watched TV adaptations of Jane Austen novels, this claim will be puzzling. But the abundance enjoyed by Austen’s upper classes in 1800 was more than counterbalanced by the stinted life of the mass of people. The vast majority would have been better off if they had transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.
The English were rich in 1788 compared with most countries. The Japanese, for example, had an even more limited diet. They could afford only rice, little meat or alcohol and were consequently shorter: 5ft 3in on average for males. What trapped preindustrial societies at a subsistence wage was was that the slow technological advance that created better living conditions simply resulted in population growth, declining land space per person and a return to subsistence.
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