The Rhythm of the West: A Biohistory of the Modern Era AD 1600 to the Present

By Meisenberg, Gerhard | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

The Rhythm of the West: A Biohistory of the Modern Era AD 1600 to the Present


Meisenberg, Gerhard, Mankind Quarterly


The Rhythm of the West: A Biohistory of the Modern Era AD 1600 to the Present Michael A. Woodley of Menie, A. J. Figueredo, M. A. Sarraf, S. C. Hertler, H. B. F. Fernandes and M. Peñaherrera-Aguirre Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies Monograph Series No. 37, 2017

The rise of modern industrial civilization is among the most important topics in macrohistory, the study of large-scale historical change. This slim volume (119 pages + references + data appendix) presents a biologically informed theory that seeks to explain the sometimes contradictory demographic, cognitive and economic trend lines in the evolution of modern societies, specifically the "Britannic" ones, which include Britain and the United States. It starts with a chapter about the history of population thinking, focusing on Malthus (emphasizing population size) and Galton (emphasizing population quality). It recounts how the warnings issued by Malthus appeared increasingly irrelevant because of collapsing fertility rates in modern societies, and those of Galton because of rising intelligence (the Flynn effect) and continuing economic growth. At the same time, the demise of Lamarck's theory of the inheritance of acquired traits had created the nature-nurture debate. This development impeded intellectual progress by framing genes and environments as alternative explanations for individual and society-level outcomes, rather than as interacting elements in individual and social development.

The authors investigate the interplay between modern populations' size, genetic constitution, and responses to cultural and economic change. They best fit into an intellectual tradition that they themselves label "neo-declinism": the view that the warnings issued by Malthus and Galton should be heeded because these thinkers got their basic ideas about population growth and population quality right, but that the postulated processes play out on a longer time scale than has commonly been recognized.

There are two important questions that any theory about modern industrial civilization must answer in order to be taken seriously: (1) Why did it arise when and where it did? (2) Why did it not only survive but continue to advance during the last two centuries? The authors answer the first question by adopting Gregory Clark's "survival of the richest" theory, which states that in pre-industrial societies, or at least in pre-industrial England, wealthy people had on average more surviving children than the poor (Clark & Hamilton, 2006). Assuming at least slightly "meritocratic" conditions in pre-industrial societies, this theory predicts rising frequencies of those genetic traits (favoring, for example, intelligence and foresight, but possibly materialism and selfishness) that lead to the acquisition of wealth. The theory is plausible, and there is some initial evidence showing that this or a similar genetic process did take place in Europe during the last two or three millennia before the Industrial Revolution (Woodley of Menie et al., 2017).

This being an easy question to answer, the authors proceed to the more difficult task of explaining why this civilization is still running strong although the demographic transition of the 19th century replaced the survival of the richest by the survival of the dumbest (Kong et al., 2017; Meisenberg, 2014; Skirbekk, 2008). To solve this puzzle, the authors combine two theoretical approaches. One is g factor theory, which postulates a biologically based general intelligence that has limited malleability by environmental factors. The other is life history theory, which distinguishes between "fast" and "slow" life histories. The fast strategy manifests high mating effort, risk taking, preference for immediate rewards, high cognitive and behavioral flexibility and, importantly, a generalized ability pattern. The slow strategy is characterized by an emphasis on stability, preference for delayed rewards, willingness to cooperate, high parenting effort, and persistence in cognitive and social niche construction. …

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