Ok, this is mildly terrifying.

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, has a new book is coming out, called "A Farewell to Alms".

From the NYT's article: (via mefi)
"from 1200 to 1800... the [English] economy was locked in a Malthusian trap — each time new technology increased the efficiency of production a little, the population grew, the extra mouths ate up the surplus, and average income fell back to its former level.
The Industrial Revolution, the first escape from the Malthusian trap, occurred when the efficiency of production at last accelerated, growing fast enough to outpace population growth and allow average incomes to rise. Many explanations have been offered for this spurt in efficiency, some economic and some political, but none is fully satisfactory, historians say.

Dr. Clark’s first thought was that the population might have evolved greater resistance to disease. The idea came from Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which argues that Europeans were able to conquer other nations in part because of their greater immunity to disease.

In support of the disease-resistance idea, cities like London were so filthy and disease ridden that a third of their populations died off every generation, and the losses were restored by immigrants from the countryside. That suggested to Dr. Clark that the surviving population of England might be the descendants of peasants.

A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped."
And so the population literally evolved to be better workers and more productive in society - better behaved. Mostly this was memetic evolution, but genetic selection probably played a part.

The traditional explanation is simply that machines made us more productive, but this work gives evidence that humans themselves changed dramatically too.

What's terrifying is that this is precisely what happened to single-celled organisms when they surrendered their individuality to become multi-celled creatures. There's a very famous book called The Major Transitions in Evolution (amazon) that lays this all out, and suggests that society is the next level of life on this planet.

And this isn't an analogy, or just a different way of looking at things - this new work of Gregory Clark has found evidence that we have already evolved to be less individualistic; we are literally changing to better fit in with the workings of society, to become worker ants.

Are we happy about this transition? In the next few thousand years the effects of this will only become stronger and stronger. Perhaps the most important question we can ask about our behaviour is whether we should embrace the new order and suppress our individuality in the interests of overall affluence, or rebel and attempt to keep what is left of our freedom to be ourselves.

This post was originally on LiveJournal.