This book explores the key question in the history of economics: how did humanity escape the Malthusian trap? Although the author ultimately does not offer a satisyfing answer to that question, the evidence marshalled in favor of his argument is thought-provoking.

Clark’s thesis is summarized as follows:

[The Industrial Revolution] emerged only millenia after the arrival of institutionally stable economies such as ancient Babylonia, because in the interim institutions themselves interacted with and changed human nature. Millenia of living in stable societys, under tight Malthusian pressures that rewarded effort, accumulation, and fertility limitation, encouraged the development of cultural forms — in terms of work inputs, time preference, and family formation — which facilitated modern economic growth. (p. 208)

In other words, the particular timing of the Industrial Revolution was essentially random. It could have happened time after the establishment of agriculture, cities, and organized religion. This “invisible hand” explanation seems to beg the question, though. Even if that were true, what made 18th-century Britain the place where the spark caught flame, rather than a host of potential alternatives (Greece in 100BC; Rome in 300AD; medieval Arabia, China, India, or Japan; or France or Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries)?

To his credit, Clark explores most of these alternatives in at least some detail. He explains each of their failures in large part for a single reason: they did not exercise the same selective genetic pressure that English society did. The richest men in England had twice as many surviving offspring at their death as the poorest (p. 7, 116, 131). The “extraordinary fecundity of the rich” (p. 11) meant that the wealthy produced more offspring. In a Malthusian world this in turn led to their genetic traits being dispersed amongst the population since there was not enough “room at the top” for all of their children to attain the same social standing as their parents. (Another credit goes to Clark for really taking the Malthusian world seriously and exploring why institutions such as feudalism were rational in that context, e.g. on p. 35.) In several of the other potential candidate societies listed above, Clark argues, the rich reproduced at only slightly greater rates than the poorest and so this selective pressure was not present (cf. p. 73ff and p. 269).

There are several reasons to doubt this claim, though. First, treating the entire period from 8000BC to 1800AD as equivalent in terms of average workers’ life satisfaction is dubious at best. Surely workers were thankful for the advent of basic technologies such as metalworking (which led to the plow) and distillation (liquor and other foodstuffs). Even though the addition of spices and other imported foods may be difficult to measure economically, they certainly improved European cuisine (to the point that it is difficult to imagine British food without potatoes or Italian food without tomatoes). Although the differences were marginal, life improved throughout the Malthusian period in appreciable ways and the absence of this in economic figures is a fault with the figures themselves.

Second, if humanity did not exit the Malthusian period until about 1800, how is it that the writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other early modern economists accurately describes a period they were not yet living in? Were they simply science fiction authors who got lucky? Or were they empirically observing a world that had begun to change in substantial ways earlier than Clark’s figures would suggest? The latter seems far more likely given the predictive power of those economists’ work for the following two centuries.

Certainly substantial features of modern economies had already been developed well before 1800. The discovery of the New World led to both large-scale resource extraction and international trade (see La Capital). Perpetual corporate enterprises such as the Dutch and British East India Companies professionalized that trade and dispersed its economic benefits amongst their shareholders (see The Anarchy). Central banking, stock markets, and insurance were already well established; they enabled entrepreneurs to take greater risks than at times past and to benefit economically from their innovations.

Although the attention to the Malthusian world and the perspective of genetic pressure operating on national economies is interesting, Clark’s argument is ultimately unsatisfying. While these factors may have played a supporting role, they do not explain the key question about the Industrial Revolution — its place and time — nearly as well as the exogenous shocks and the institutional changes listed above.