November 10, 2013

Alberto Alesina
Department of Economics
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass. 02138

Dear Alberto Alesina:
I read your good article (Alberto Alesina Women, Fertility and the Rise of Modern Capitalism SCIENCE vol. 342 no. 6157 October 25, 2013 page 427) with interest.  You are quite clear and I agree with just about everything you say.  I’m not so sure on the one out of three killed by the Black Death.  That was the report at the time and somebody pointed out that the phrase is biblical.  It really needs independent confirmation, which ought to be specified.  No matter.  It was just dreadful.  That’s all you need for your point.

Much as I like your paper there are a couple of issues you might consider one day.  One of them is that plagues have happened before.  I think it was the Justinian plague that affected Rome and another plague hit ancient Greece.  Both of those societies had resources approximating medieval Europe, but no industrial revolution followed.

The second issue has to do with the fact that the industrial revolution happened in England, and England is remarkable for that reason and for two others.  First the culture is very old.  I don’t mean superficialities like language and government.  I mean the soul of the people.  When the English channel opened wandering Old Stone Age people were cut off, that or they crossed into the British Isles soon thereafter.  Their genes still constitute, oh I don’t know, maybe a half of the British population.  That means their ancient attitudes were never really wiped out.  Of course they got overrun.  The first wave was what I call the Master Builders.  They built Stonehenge and Avebury and a lot of other stuff that can be traced across the seacoast of Europe down to north Africa and Egypt all the was to a sort of mini Stonehenge in the Sudan.  A mildly increased incidence of Rh negative blood follows the same distribution.  An enthusiast might claim parallel with such American things as the Mayans, but leave that be.  The industrial revolution did not happen in pre-Columbian America. 

Next they were overrun by the Celts with their Indo-European pantheon of gods, their horses and their tribalism.  They imposed their superficial culture, but they all died out.  Those who look find no Celtic genes.  Since then the people who they conquered have been promoted to Celtic.  You have to live with politics, after all.  Then they were overrun by the Romans, who left a trace of their genes, then the Anglo-Saxons, who do remain to a degree and then the Normans..  Of course they are getting overrun as usual now.  Just watch for a century or so.  But at least at the time of the Industrial Revolution they were still quite largely Paleolithic as far as their genes go and that means as far as their deep culture: their attitudes toward family.  So that is the second strange thing.

The third thing is that since 1066 nobody has rounded up the entire aristocracy and murdered them.  That’s incredible.  You know how regime changes work.  In France there was the Terror.  In America there was something: you can find members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and they are all descended from Whigs.  A handful of Tories escaped to the Bahamas, but I have never heard of anybody who claimed decent from a Tory in the US.  When the Nazi’s took control of Germany there was a blood bath.  When the Nazi’s were defeated there was another bloodbath; it’s still going on.  So the regime in England has survived over nine hundred years and quite likely will round out a thousand.  Can you think of anything else like that?  Here’s a link:
Look it over.  There is a brick wall at three hundred years and before that there is usually a long decline in the viability of any empire or society or social order or whatever you want to call it.  Let’s say regime.  The site also explains why this has to be.

So the reason for the industrial revolution is simple.  It takes a long time for a regime to work out an industrial society.  England was just the only one that made it that long. 

It all comes down to who marries whom.  Marry kin and you will survive in the long run.  Just about every English village present in 1066 is there now.  You don’t get ghost towns in England (rotten boroughs, yes, ghost towns no).  Ghost towns happen when the people die out. 

If you look at the survival of the noble families in the first couple of centuries after the Norman invasion you see that they go extinct with dismal regularity.  But at the end of the two hundred years they are no more likely to go extinct than at the beginning.  There is not the progressive delay visible, say, in Southern Mesopotamia.  (You did check out that web site, didn’t you?) 

It works like this.  During Neolithic times people would make advances and then the situation would collapse.  There were cities of 100,000 in what used to be Yugoslavia.  The streets were straight.  They had two story houses.  They know that because excavations have found two story dollhouses within them.  Then it all goes splat.  Then somebody apparently came up with the idea, “Let’s all hate each other.  We’ll kill each other off, tribe on tribe, because our gods are better than their gods.  And by the way, women are our slaves, they are property.  Their fathers tell them whom to marry.” 

Not the nicest attitude, I should say, but look at the result.  Warring bands and imprisoned women meant tight gene pools.  Regimes could survive longer.  Almost at once come the copper age, the Bronze Age and so forth.  But it always stalls out short of the steam engine. 

But back in Britain these things never quite took hold.  Women could own land.  They could marry whom they would.  So a rich man, one with land, would look for a rich woman, one with land, to marry.  Of course to manage both estates they’d look for one with land nearby.  Presto.  There is a tight gene pool without the dreadful wars.  Oh sure.  There was plenty of fighting.  But it wasn’t essential to survival to make travel impossible.  Even today in Africa a person doesn’t just move from village to village.  Hostility is essential.  But women’s rights made that unnecessary.  The rich could survive just like the poor, who of course were “tied to the land,” which kept the gene pool tight and the population biologically viable.  In Farewell to Alms Gregory Clark notes with amazement that the industrial revolution occurred in the context of “downward social mobility.”  The rich were having more children than the poor.  But he makes little more of it.

Just thought you might be interested.

What do you think?


M. Linton Herbert

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