Gregory Clark, an economist at UC Davis, posted an essay several years ago titled Genetically Capitalist? in which he proposed that the stable social environment and institutions of Medieval England selected for a new kind of human who was less prone to violence, had an affinity for work, had low time preference, and was individualistic in several ways. This essay was a warmup for his subsequent book. I prefer the earlier essay and assign it in my courses.
It is easy to see, in retrospect, how the social and institutional environment selected for the changes that Clark describes. Higher reproductive fitness of the wealthier led to pervasive downward social mobility so that today the English are descended from the Medieval gentry. How did one enter the gentry? Save some money. With interest rates pushing 10% any savings at all would quickly accumulate. This paid because there were enforceable contracts, courts, and such mitigating risk. A ruthless constabulary and judicial system selected against the violence prone, of course, as well as those with high time preference. Debtors’ prisons for goodness sake.
Clark’s thesis is no less than that this environment bred a new version of humans by selection. This is absolutely revolutionary in the current climate yet it has slipped right past the self-righteous chatterers that have crucified Jason Richwine.
In an important article Peter Frost describes essentially the same process in the Roman Empire with its Pax Romana. Here again a central government with courts and constabulary shaped a new version of human who was peaceful and law abiding and worked hard. Frost also describes the reaction of this new version of human to the Barbarian invasions:
Nonetheless, when Rome faltered in the fifth century it did so as never before. Earlier, the third century had seen a similar crisis: civil war, foreign invasion, return of brigandage, and steep economic decline. Yet Rome fought its way back and reasserted its authority. There was no such response in the fifth century. Instead, the crisis was met with a strange mixture of complacency and willful naiveté.
We cannot understand this change without considering the ideology that now shaped the Roman worldview, i.e., all humans share the same potential for peaceful and submissive behavior. This was largely true among the pacified populations inside the empire’s borders. Outside, it was largely false. Tragically so.
Thinking about the response of the pacified and submission Roman population to barbarian invaders immediately brings to mind the response of contemporary North Americans and Atlantic Europeans to barbarian invaders. It reads just the same: “welcome new neighbor!”
What about the Eastern empire? They kept the barbarians out for a few centuries longer in the European half, but accounts of the loss of the Asian provinces show the Clark/Frost pattern, a pacified submissive population hardly contesting the invasion of Islam (Jenkins 2008, 2010). The new neighbors simply walked in and took over. The downfall of the Western Roman empire reads much like the downfall of the Asian and North African parts of the empire. It is certainly no accident that the Asian provinces were the heartland of Christianity.
This all brings up an interesting question: what happened in East Asia over the same period? No one to my knowledge has traced parallels with the European and Roman experience in Japan or China. Is the different East Asian trajectory related to the East Asian reluctance to roll over, wag their tails, and welcome new barbarian neighbors?
Phillip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, And Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe For The Next 1,500 Years, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2010. 328 pages.
Phillip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008.