June 28, 2023

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One of the more fascinating scholarly oeuvres of the 21st century is economic historian Gregory Clark’s planned trilogy of books with bad Hemingway puns for titles.

In 2007 came Clark’s speculations on the causes of the Industrial Revolution, A Farewell to Alms, with its immodest subtitle, A Brief Economic History of the World.

Seven years later saw Clark’s The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, in which Clark pointed out that even 700 years after their invention, surnames continue to suggest statistically significant things about social status. For example, among the 25 most common last names in Britain, people named “Hamilton” are twice as likely to graduate from Oxford or Cambridge as people named “Smith” or “Jones.”

“The English class system endures because it is voluntary, rather than legally imposed, and finely gradated.”

My grandparents came from Ireland to work in the coal mines and steel mills of the Clyde Valley, as part of the great diaspora of the Irish triggered by Ireland’s failure to industrialize in the nineteenth century.

But his rise to tenure at UC Davis was slightly predetermined by his last name: Folks named “Clark” tend to be descended in the male line from somebody who was a clerk (i.e., a literate white-collar worker) when surnames were chosen around 1300. As Clark’s predecessor in surname research Nathaniel Weyl pointed out, “Clarks” remain overrepresented in high-end jobs.

Note that Clark’s goofy titles are applied to works of serious scholarship. Clark realized that the English system of wills and property titles represents a massive database for a quantitatively oriented economic historian. Unlike countries where all the existing property records were burned by invaders or revolutionaries, England has had continuity of legal protection of property rights going back roughly to the Domesday Book of 1086. With the exception of records accidentally destroyed by fire, flood, or rodents, wills from hundreds of years ago are still on file in case they are relevant to a lawsuit. Therefore, so many of the relatively limited number of hard facts we know about Shakespeare’s life come from his will and other legal documents.

On the other hand, Clark’s puns do suggest his lively mind. Nine years ago, I speculated that these two books were likely leading up a third to be titled For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls. And indeed, Clark has confirmed that was his plan.

Of course, 2014, back at the beginning of the Great Awokening, was a more easygoing, less hysterical era, so we’ll see if that will be his title when his third volume is finally published. In 2021 Clark was scheduled to deliver a lecture at Glasgow University under the titled “For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls,” but it was canceled by outraged undergrads. (Who knew in 1969 that we would someday live in an era when students are stuffier than professors?)

So far, there’s no listing for his third book on Amazon, but on Monday Clark published a major article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science: “The inheritance of social status: England, 1600 to 2022.”

Clark has a genealogical database of 422,000 English individuals with unusual surnames going back to Shakespeare’s time. Clark writes:

…the lineages used here are mainly those constructed by the members of the Guild of One-Name Studies. Guild members aim to include all persons with a chosen rare surname––Argall, Errey, Byatt, etc.—in their lineages.

For men born since 1780, he has assembled nine measures of status, such as their occupations, educational attainment, and literacy.

What he’s discovered are very high correlations in status (not even counting wealth, which is of course heavily inherited, although perhaps not as much as French economist Thomas Piketty has argued) with distant extended family members:

…status persists strongly across even very distant relatives, across all measures of status. Even fourth cousins, who shared a common ancestor only five generations earlier, typically show statistically significant correlations in status.

As you move outward in a family tree from an individual to his brother to his first cousin to second then third then fourth cousins, each correlation remains surprisingly strong compared to the previous relationship.

The second is that the decline in status correlations with each step outward in the lineage is a constant 0.79, for different measures of status, and for different epochs from 1600 to 2022. The vast social changes in England since the Industrial Revolution, including mass public schooling, have not increased, in any way, underlying rates of social mobility.

These extended family similarities would hardly be surprising among, say, the Bedouin. But keep in mind that the English are among the least clannish people on earth. Heck, the English upper class don’t even seem to like their own small children all that much, traditionally packing them off to boarding school at as early of an age as 7.

The English are, of course, highly sociable. Their great ambition often is to form a band with their schoolmates, like Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards. For example, when the novelist Martin Amis died recently, his famous friendships with other writers such as Christopher Hitchens were recalled, as were his novelist father Kingsley Amis being pals with poet Philip Larkin and historian Robert Conquest. But father and son didn’t spend all that much time together.

While Clark’s latest findings fit with a model in which genes are highly significant, it doesn’t completely resolve the conundrum of nature vs. nurture because there aren’t many detectable adoptions or cuckoo’s eggs in his database to help distinguish between the effects of genes and environment. He does, though, have about 40,000 sons who were orphaned before turning 14. Their adult status is very slightly less correlated with their fathers than that of sons whose fathers survived into their adulthoods.

But strikingly, these extended family correlations discovered by Clark are also much higher than genetics would predict, if you assume random mating:

With no assortment, the expected correlation of a trait, even with a heritability of 0.7, for fourth cousins, would be 0.001. Even for second cousins, it would be only 0.02.

This implies that English marriages were highly assortative for whatever it is—nature and/or nurture—that contributes to social status.

In his influential 1971 article “I.Q.,” Richard Herrnstein, coauthor of The Bell Curve, speculated that assortative mating couldn’t have been all that strong before the rise of standardized testing.

But Clark’s paper suggests otherwise. Clark’s article was edited by Dalton Conley, a left-leaning sociologist who, impressively, earned a second doctorate in biology in order to better understand the impact of genes on society. In recent years, Conley has been methodically attempting to test Herrnstein’s hypotheses using newly available data.

But yes, a high degree of assortative mating is about what you’d expect from reading English literature. After all, the English class system is extremely well documented by the best writers in the language.

Indeed, I probably know more about the English class system than the American class system (to my detriment). The American class system tends to be downplayed because of our Jeffersonian roots. For instance, last week’s U.S. Open golf championship was held at Southern California’s bastion of old money, the Los Angeles Country Club, which, despite adjoining the world capital of publicity-seeking, Beverly Hills (with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion being alongside its 14th hole), is a black hole of privacy.

But the English know no such shame when it comes to exposing their class system. They love writing about it.

The English class system endures because it is voluntary, rather than legally imposed, and finely gradated. For example, there are certain legal distinctions privileging the 806 hereditary peers of the realm. If I recall correctly from Kind Hearts and Coronets, a duke accused of murder has the right to be tried by the House of Lords and, if found guilty, to be hanged with a rope made of silk. (Note: The famous silk rope may be apocryphal.)

But the vast majority of English were commoners. For example, Winston Churchill was the first son of the second son of a duke, so he benefited politically by being a member of the more powerful House of Commons. That’s why Churchill, rather than Lord Halifax, became prime minister on the ominous day of May 10, 1940.

But this hardly means that England was a utopia of egalitarianism. Instead, the lack of clear legal distinctions among the vast majority of the population meant that most people held their own strong (if not always congruent) opinions about why they were higher-class than certain other people.

The class system of course affected who married whom. Thus, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice famously begins:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

But it’s not just class. Note that the English class system has coexisted since the Middle Ages with the unruly institution of the love match. Loveless arranged marriages faded out centuries ago at all but the highest levels of society. When Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, he knew his audience would be rooting for the young lovers. Thus, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy are cut out for each other because they are smarter, braver, and more strong-willed than the other characters.

A familiarity with English literature will also point out another aspect relevant to Clark’s thesis: English authors tend to be closely related to other authors. (In contrast, famous American writers like Hemingway seem less likely to emerge from literary dynasties.)

For instance, one of the rare names traced by the Guild of One-Name Studies, genealogists who specialize in the relationships of everybody with the same name, related or not, is “Byatt.” The best known Byatt is A.S. Byatt, the author of the outstanding novel Possession, who was married to economist Sir Ian Byatt. Ms. Byatt has published sixteen works of fiction, while her sister Margaret Drabble has published 22. In the grand English tradition, they don’t get along.

Or consider that Olivia Wilde is rare among movie actresses in becoming a screenwriter. But that’s less surprising because her father Andrew Cockburn, and his brothers Patrick and Alexander Cockburn, were all famous left-wing journalists in their time. And her grandfather Claud Cockburn was a well-known communist propagandist and screenwriter (Beat the Devil with Humphrey Bogart). Claud was the first cousin of the novelist Evelyn Waugh, the greatest of the many writing Waughs, some of whom continue to be around today.

Waugh’s father was a leading publisher and essayist, while his older brother Alec had written a best-selling novel at age 17. Evelyn wished to forge his own path into some career other than writing, but that was not to be. As he wrote in his memoirs:

Dickens held it against his parents that they tried to force him into a blacking [shoe polish] factory instead of letting him write. The last firm at which I solicited a job was engaged, among other things, in the manufacture of blacking. I pleaded desperately. If I wasn’t employed there I should be driven to Literature. But the manager was relentless. It was no use my thinking of blacking. That was not for the likes of me.


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