Tyler Cowen chews, but does not swallow, a new paper by Greg Clark. Clark writes,

we can test empirically whether the average person in 1800 was any better off than the people of 10,000 BC on any dimension, and the answer is no.

I’ve seen other economists suggest that the escape from the Malthusian trap began in 1500. Most economists believe that populations everywhere have escaped the trap by now, but I gather that Clark thinks that the populations of sub-Saharan Africa are deeper in the trap than ever.But here is where Tyler starts having indigestion: Clark writes,

In the Malthusian era on average every woman could have only two surviving offspring. But these two had to be selected by some mechanism from the average of 5 children each women had in the pre-industrial era. And as long as mothers and fathers varied in their characteristics this survival process favored some types of individuals over others. The Darwinian struggle that has shaped human nature did not end with the Neolithic Revolution, but continued indeed right up to 1800.

Clark proceeds to say that from roughly 1250 to 1800 in England, the rich reproduced more successfully than the poor. This tended to breed capitalist values into the population.

One interesting implication is that with a relatively stable overall economy, greater reproductive success at the top means that there has to be a lot of downward mobility intergenerationally. Clark claims to find evidence of such downward mobility.

The key argument:

Interest rates fell from astonishingly high
rates in the earliest societies to close to low modern levels by 1800. Literacy and numeracy increased from being a rarity to being the norm. Work hours rose between the hunter gatherer era to modern levels by 1800. Finally there was a decline in interpersonal violence.

Clark claims that these changes were due to natural selection of personality traits, rather than institutional changes. I would think that if this were true, one would tend to find smooth, exponential improvement. If institutions were important, one would be more likely to see jumps and plateaus.

Finally, as Tyler points out, arguing that selection pressures operated more strongly in England than in, say, Italy, is going to be difficult.