The book’s argument is pretty straightforward. The vast majority of the book discusses evidence which bolsters the relatively simple argument. I think I may have waited too long to read the book, as I had basically accepted the argument already, after reading summaries of the evidence from so many others.
Here’s the argument:
In the Malthusian economy before 1800 economic policy was turned on its head: vice now was virtue then, and virtue vice. Those scourges of failed modern states—war, violence, disorder, harvest failures, collapsed public infrastructures, bad sanitation—were the friends of mankind before 1800. They reduced population pressures and increased material living standards. In contrast policies beloved of the World Bank and the United Nations today—peace, stability, order, public health, transfers to the poor—were the enemies of prosperity. They generated the population growth that impoverished societies.
How did England escape this Malthusian trap? The rest of the argument is:
The richest men [in England] had twice as many surviving children at death as the poorest. The poorest individuals in Malthusian England had so few surviving children that their families were dying out. . . . The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism—patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education—were thus spreading biologically throughout the population. . . . Indeed the evidence is that the poorest individuals in the Malthusian era would typically not reproduce themselves at all. [This is basically opposite of what is happening today]
Thus, in sum:
The answer hazarded here is that England’s advantages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protestant Reformation, not the Enlightenment, but the accidents of institutional stability and demography: in particular the extraordinary stability of England back to at least 1200, the slow growth of English population between 1300 and 1760, and the extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful. The embedding of bourgeois values into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics, was for these reasons the most advanced in England.
This argument also explains why other countries and cultures have been unable to reap the rewards of advanced technologies:
In a modern world in which the path to riches lies through industrialization, why are bad-tempered zebras and hippos the barrier to economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa? Why didn’t the Industrial Revolution free Africa, New Guinea, and South America from their old geographic disadvantages, rather than accentuate their backwardness? And why did the takeover of Australia by the British propel a part of the world that had not developed settled agriculture by 1800 into the first rank among developed economies?
It’s worth noting that the book’s finding undermines the basic assumption of modern, mainstream economics:
The preferred assumption [of modern, mainstream economics] is that the desires and rationalities of people in all human societies are essentially the same. The medieval peasant in Europe, the Indian coolie, the Yanomamo of the rain forest, the Tasmanian Aboriginal, all share a common set of aspirations and a common ability to act rationally to achieve those aspirations. What differs across societies, however, are the institutions that govern economic life.
Er, not, if Clark is correct:
The bite of the Malthusian constraints was tighter in England than in Asia. The processes of selective survival were actually more severe in pre-industrial England. . . . income-based differences in fertility seem to have been much less pronounced in both Japan and China.
So the resulting populations were selected based on different pressures.
I think the book goes best with Understanding Human History and The 10,000 Year Explosion. If I take a meta-lesson from these works it’s that evolution is constantly happening, whether we like it or not. The effects of evolution, even over relatively short periods of time, are difficult to underestimate. Read the books together for maximum effect.