Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is not quite as bad as either its author or publisher try to make it. As reported in a major New York Times article heralding the publication of “the next blockbuster in economics,” the book represents a startling breakthrough in our understanding of how humanity escaped the Malthusian trap”in which rising populations always outpaced their food production”that had captured all human generations before the Industrial Revolution.

The daring approach by which Clark tries to explain this change is self-evidently silly. Yet, putting aside his deeply flawed grand theory, A Farewell to Alms (Princeton University Press, 420 pages, $29.95

) has some useful features. Clark’s central theme is frankly biological. Noting the explosion of self-sustaining economic growth in England around 1800, he uses for an explanation the spread of novel social and cultural patterns that favored enterprise, thrift, and the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Those patterns emerged, he suggests, because over the previous thousand years richer people in England had tended to have far more children than the poor, so that increasingly their genes dominated the population. Modern British people”and their overseas descendants”are largely the offspring of the rich and powerful of the Middle Ages. As that elite stock proliferated, so did its characteristic ideologies and behaviors, the patterns that had made its members rich in the first place:

Pre-industrial England was thus a world of constant downward mobility. Given the static nature of the Malthusian economy, the superabundant children of the rich had to, on average, move down the social hierarchy in order to find work. Craftsmen’s sons became laborers, merchants’ sons petty traders, large landowners’ sons smallholders. The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism”patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education”were thus spreading biologically throughout the population. Just as people were shaping economies, the economy of the pre-industrial era was shaping people, at least culturally and perhaps also genetically.

So what is wrong with this picture? The possibility of genetic change in fairly recent times cannot be rejected out of hand, although it should not be invoked without a full consideration of alternatives. For that matter, Clark is primarily an economic ­historian of the industrial era and knows next to ­nothing about who elites were in earlier times, still less what the elite cultural patterns were in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. He does not know what made for wealth in that Olde England, a society primarily built upon hereditary landed wealth rather than the work of craftsmen and merchants. The urban ­professionals whose wills and families he analyzes ­represented only a tiny fraction of the social elite. And although those medieval middling classes could and did rise, usually through law or commerce, only a small part of the elite owed its fortune to “patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education.” And once the mercantile families had ascended to high status, their children typically adopted the leisured ethos of their landed neighbors, otium cum dignitate , rejecting the vulgar ways of their fathers. One token of their new status was that the nouveaux riches sent their children to educational institutions where they would learn ­little of direct practical value or economic consequence. That’s a dreadful way to begin an economic breakthrough.

Clark’s views might make some sense if the traditional elites were like modern Western middle classes, but they emphatically were not, and no serious historian has ever claimed they were. Yet Clark repeatedly makes statements that assume the identity of elite with bourgeois, as when he links English success to “the embedding of bourgeois values into the culture and perhaps the genetics.” And if the real upper class, the progenitors of those superabundant children, was not bourgeois but landed, surely his argument falls at the starting gate.

At every point, the mores and culture of those authentic traditional elites contradict Clark’s picture. Anyone who looks at those landed upper classes as they actually operated in 1150, or even 1450, would see not diligent proto-consumers but a society with mores not unlike those of a Los Angeles street gang. What Tom Paine famously called the roving Norman banditti had a well-developed belief in instant gratification, in sinking wealth into ostentatious display, and in defending personal honor through immediate and extreme acts of violence. The English aristocracy had not advanced too far beyond the credo of its recent Viking ancestors, and they earned their wealth the old-­fashioned way: by stealing it. If the values of the medieval upper classes (rather than just their genes) had spread through the English population, then its members by 1800 would have been too busy beheading each other to start building power looms or forming shopping cooperatives. At every stage, the changes offered by Clark lend themselves to startlingly obvious alternative explanations. Take for instance that undoubted growth of literacy from the sixteenth century onward, measured for instance by the numbers actually signing wills rather than making marks. Any student of history would ask whether anything happened in England during the Tudor and Stuart periods that might at once have led to a greater desire for reading, as well as an urge to supply the means by which ordinary people could satisfy that craving. Some ­readers might dimly recollect something called the Protestant Reformation, which is in fact quite well-documented and widely studied. (Clark mentions the Reformation briefly in an aside that confirms his ignorance of the context.) The Reformation had similar effects on concepts of individualism, personal responsibility, and literacy”not to mention charity. So much for the “farewell to alms.”

This is only one egregious example of the book’s greatest flaw: its persistent neglect of the ideological and legal factors making for social and economic change. Though many passages illustrate the book’s crass materialism, I especially enjoy the comment that “there is no sign, for example, that the rewards to numeracy and literacy were any higher in England in 1800 than they were in 1200.” How about such rewards as access to the Bible, and thus the possibility of eternal salvation under the Protestant belief system, together with the social status and possibility of political action permitted by that literacy?

Clark is undoubtedly right to posit an English ­Difference, but his theoretical framework forbids him from dating it appropriately, and thus he cannot see the more plausible sequence of events. Already before 1066, England had a more effective government than any European country, with a system of shires and writs that amazed the Norman invaders, who immediately saw its potential for efficient tax gathering. Over the next two centuries, English law developed a complex institutional framework (Parliament, assizes, ­circuit-riding judges, new procedures, new kinds of writ) and a growing body of theoretical writing that found an early monument in Henry de Bracton.

Long before the supposed diffusion of upper-class mores throughout the society, English society was thoroughly oriented to concepts of legality and legal process, so that property and inheritance were far ­better protected than in most European societies and infinitely better than in contemporary Asian states. Of course the law was subject to the abuses of power; one fifteenth-century judge claimed not to know he was doing anything illegal when he mobilized his private army to ambush a rival. But for all the factions and all the corruption, ideology and politics already revolved around courts, laws, and rights, in ways that are thoroughly familiar to modern Americans. Even when scholars trace the emergence of the modern English language, they quote a ­thirteenth-century squib in which the struggle between king and barons is framed in terms of a type of writ, the Quo Warranto , by which the state demanded to know by what authority landowners held their power: Le roi coveit nos deneres et la reine nos beaus maners [The king wants our money and the queen is out to get our fine manors] / And the Quo Warranto maketh us all to do . Although it took a long struggle, writs and courts really did make them to do. A remarkably strong and flexible state apparatus succeeded in reducing interpersonal violence, admittedly assisted by a slowing of demographic growth and a reduction in the number of young adult males.

The legal environment also permitted (and not just followed) the rise of economic prosperity. Primogeniture helped concentrate estates and capital while ­forcing younger sons to seek their fortunes elsewhere, ­particularly in new imperial ventures. Court decisions about mineral rights made it worthwhile for landowners to explore and exploit the wealth under their land. The invention of the joint-stock company laid the foundation for the unparalleled prosperity that allowed England to remain at war with France off and on from 1689 to 1815 without raising its miserly interest rates. (Incredibly, Clark does not cite John Brewer’s classic 1989 book, The Sinews of Power. )

Everything contributed to the growth of confidence and a sense of security”in money, in legality, in prosperity”and the result was a society willing to save, work, and invest. And high confidence in the economy in turn promotes low interest rates, which Clark sees as a touchstone of his argument. Confidence breeds confidence.

Remove any one of those basic legal building blocks and the political consequences would have been utterly different. Nothing vaguely comparable developed in the capricious despotisms of the Middle East or Asia, where property rights were always subject to official whim and all sensible people knew that starting a profitable business was a good way to encourage local bureaucrats to confiscate it. These factors alone are a sufficient explanation of the circumstances for which Clark feels the need to venture into specious genetics.

And yet, although so much is wrong with A Farewell to Alms , the book can still be read profitably, once you take out the author’s basic argument. With a little care, the reader actually can pull together the isolated references that do provide a plausible explanation for the great transition that is the book’s main theme. Clark knows, for instance, about the central ­importance of property, and he even realizes just how long-established the security of property was in ­England. And, throughout the book, his broad range of ­references often suggests interesting parallels and ­connections.

Most important, he has done a wonderful job in describing the Malthusian trap, and he convincingly portrays the deprivation that characterized all societies before the rise of modernity. As he says, Stone Age people were physically larger, sturdier, and ate better than most of their descendants before 1800. Thinking this through helps us realize the appeal of religious and social movements in those earlier eras of European history, when poverty and hunger were as rife as they are today in Africa. Food and eating were fundamental cultural symbols in Early Modern times, just as they were in the biblical era”and perhaps the Bible and other scriptures can only be read authentically through hungry eyes. Clark reminds us just how very recent is the widespread health and prosperity that we take for granted.

It is an open question whether these virtues outweigh the book’s obvious flaws. Perhaps its most ­worrying feature is that A Farewell to Alms will be used to legitimize biological and genetic approaches to the study of modern history. It may well begin a fad that we can expect to see imitated in studies of other fields and eras, as scholars start explaining cultural changes in terms of recent evolution and genetic diffusion. Welcome back, eugenics.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University.

Articles by Philip Jenkins