Saturday, August 11, 2007

Evolution leading to the Industrial Revolution?

I've been meaning to post something about this article from Sunday's Times about a new study suggesting that the rise of the industrial revolution was mostly because of the spread of a certain set of attitudes and behaviors--longer work hours, lower violence, more willingness to save and postpone gratification. No controversy so far.

However, the argument is made that this change was driven by evolution; that European cities were so disease-filled that a large proportion of the population died off annually, to be replaced by new migrants from the countryside. Children of the rich were more likely to survive than children of the poor; thus the surviving population is increasingly represented by the offspring of the rich, perhaps bringing with them behaviors that lead to wealth.

But of course, there are questions he doesn't address. Why were people flocking to the cities, when your chances of foraging outside the cities, admittedly not great, were at least better than in the middle of the disease-infested hell-hole a medieval city was? He notes this didn't happen in Asia because the ruling classes of China and Japan were "surprisingly infertile." Why? And could biological selection account for that large an effect in only a few hundred to few thousand years? He's an economic historian, not a geneticist.

Yes, there have been some intriguing studies suggesting genetic selection over historic time periods (mentioned in the article, which is really worth reading). But all too often I've seen academics read one or two papers from another discipline, misunderstand a key point, and apply that misunderstanding incorrectly in what they fancy is an 'interdisciplinary' paper. As a friend of mine at UNC-Chapel Hill puts it, "Just because you co-authored a paper with a historian, that doesn't make you a historian." And reading a few genetics papers doesn't make you geneticist. My academic specialty is bioinformatics, and I have no pretense at all of being a biologist, or geneticist, or biochemist, though my work (such as it is; I'm primarily an instructor, not a researcher) has touched on all three areas.

An intriguing hypothesis. The book is called "A Farewell to Alms," and comes out next month. I may have to order a copy.

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