Clark on violence


Jason Collins


January 6, 2011

In Greg Clark’s excellent book A Farewell to Alms, Clark posited that there was only one important event in human history - the Industrial Revolution. Before that time, per capita income was effectively flat, with no discernible trend. That all changed around 1800 AD with the Industrial Revolution. Clark saw the Neolithic revolution and the move to settled agriculture as simply an extension of hunting and gathering and symptomatic of the steadily improving efficiency that had occurred over the previous tens of thousands of years.

Following publication of the book, a series of articles by reviewers were published in the European Review of Economic History (which are unfortunately gated for those without university access). In Clark’s response (which he has helpfully placed on his website), he concedes that there is another event to the Industrial Revolution that we should note. This event is not the Neolithic revolution but is the move to societies where violence was limited (and centralised). It is in such societies the competition for reproductive success shifts towards economic means, meaning that those traits conducive to economic growth can spread.

Clark noted the poor understanding that we have of this transition. Following from my posts of the last two days on violence (here and here), if a violent society favours genotypes which have a tendency to violence, what is the trigger to exit that violent state? The Neolithic revolution appears to be a necessary but not sufficient step.

Clark uses the example of the Huli of the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea. They had established a settled system of agriculture and men accumulated wealth through the accumulation of pigs and control over gardens. However, 20 per cent of male deaths and 6 per cent of female deaths were from violence or warfare. Rather than social status being attained through wealth, causation was reversed, with high social status leading to wealth and that status often coming from being distinguished in fighting. Success in this society was built on war and social intercourse and not skill in production.