No English Gene Classes

Greg Clark gave a talk here Thursday, and presented data showing that in the long run, England has no social classes!  When English surnames were first created, they marked the status of folks.  The village smith, for example, was called “Smith.”  But by now, those rich and poor surnames are totally mixed – a surname tells you little about someone’s status.  For example, this table describes a sample of once-rich names with especially low rates of mistaken names changes:


Clark claims this does not contradict the main thesis of his recent book:

A Farewell to Alms argued that for 800 years at least in pre-industrial England the rich were taking over the society demographically, and replacing the poor.  The evidence above of the dominance of regression to the mean may seem to contradict that argument.  But there is no conflict.  The rich can still have a reproductive advantage within each generation.  It is just that the rich change from generation to generation under the forces of regression to the mean.  But if the argument of A Farewell to Alms is correct then the rich in 1600, or in any generation, should have many more descendants by 1851 than the poor, even though by 1851 they are no longer distinguishable by occupation, income, or wealth. While there was complete regression to the mean in terms of economic status, we do observe that the rich of 1600 left many more descendants than the poor.  … Economic success by a man in 1600 substantially increased his share of their genes in the English gene pool by 1851, as was predicted in A Farewell to Alms.

Substantially increased?  Going from 0.45% to 0.59% of the population is a gain of 31%, but a 31% gain by the rich in six centuries is hardly enough to “take over” England genetically in anything less than tens of thousands of years!  Even if we assume twice this gain from illegitimate kids, clearly Clark’s new work has shown his main book thesis false.

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  • Almost the entirety of this “long-run classlessness” is explained by the change between the first two time periods, when different data sets are used, i.e. inquisitiones post mortem and wills. What caused this remarkably rapid change? It’s hard to believe that the two institutions are comparable if they produce such different results, but I presume the author knows his stuff.

  • gwern

    ‘Clearly’? I wouldn’t call this clearly a falsification unless similar datasets exist for other nation >31% increases and no industrial revolution/economic development.

    (If we can even trust this; I’m suspicious of results based on surnames rather than direct head-counting. Surnames are rather indirect.)

    Perhaps 31% was just enough to begin the slow centuries-long process of ramping up to the industrial revolution or reach it first.

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  • Gregory Clark


    If you look at my book I show that it was not the very upper class in England who engaged in warfare and political intrigue who had great reproductive success before 1800, but the upper middle group who engaged in commerce, farming and industry.

    So it is too early to conclude from this data that there was no long run “survival of the richest.”

    In this working paper I also show that the frequency of some lower class names such as “Taylor” actually declined substantially between 1381 and 1600.

    As I think I tried to emphasize in the talk, this is still work in an early phase and it is too soon to proclaim that one or another vision of pre-industrial England has been vindicated.



    • Where in the working paper should I be looking? Table 6 was the closest I could find, where Percent Other Artisan Names falls from 9.2 in 1381 Poll Tax to 3.8 in England all 1853. Is that it? It seems to me even that isn’t a strong enough selection to support your book’s story.

      • Gregory Clark

        The combination of survival of the richest, plus rapid downwards mobility, means that any group that is high in the economic ladder in one generation, only has a couple of generations to increase the numbers of their descendants in the general population before they regress to the mean. Vice versa for any poor group. So looking at particular surnames you would not expect any to be under or over represented by more than 2-4:1 in later generations as a result of these processes.

        But in each generation a different assortment makes it to the top. So that is compatible with continual strong social forces promoting particular cultural or genetic types in pre-industrial societies.

        As I noted in the previous post the surnames project is still at an early stage. It does not have strong enough evidence to refute or confirm the selection process at present. But give it time!

      • Hmm, you may have a point. I shall ponder further.

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  • I have not read Clark’s book as published, though I did read the earlier on-line version. (Which helped provoke a rant about stirrups.)

    It strikes me that any such “genetic” effect, rather than refuting or undermining institutional analysis, actually relies on it. That is, that there existed in England over a long period of time a robust set of institutions under which but the upper middle group who engaged in commerce, farming and industry could prosper so that, in broad terms, was a winning demographic strategy generation after generation required that institutional stability. If institutions were unstable, the winning strategy would keep changing in a rather fundamental way. Or be one to survive institutional instability, which is hardly likely to be a commercial property-based one: it is much more likely to be something like large families with few assets so as to be less likely to be plundered and more likely to have post-disaster survivals (to adapt a point from Eric Jones).

    Which suggests that there may be a similar effect in Japan, which also had significant institutional stability over a long period of time. That these are two archipelagoes on the edge of the Eurasian land mass (so with trade possibilities, disease and technological exchange but invasion protected) is not accidental.

    So, if his thesis is sustainable, it strikes me as a demographic effect of a certain sort of institutional stability.

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