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Inicio Investigaciones de Historia Económica - Economic History Research Gregory Clark (with Neil Cummins, Yu Hao, and Daniel Diaz Vidal). The Son Also R...
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Vol. 12. Núm. 2.
The business of fashion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
Páginas 131-132 (Junio 2016)
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Vol. 12. Núm. 2.
The business of fashion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
Páginas 131-132 (Junio 2016)
Book Review
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Gregory Clark (with Neil Cummins, Yu Hao, and Daniel Diaz Vidal). The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Princeton (New Jersey), Princeton University Press, 2014, XII+364 págs., ISBN: 978-0-691-16254-6.
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Chris Minns
London School of Economics and Political Science, London, United Kingdom
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Have elite parents always bred elite children? This question is at the core of The Son Also Rises, Greg Clark's recent contribution to the Princeton Economic History of the Western World series. The Son Also Rises follows on from his controversial and provocative (some might even say notorious) Farewell to Alms in 2007. Here the attention is focused on the distribution of economic opportunities over the long-run in many of the world's largest nations and societies. Surnames are used to generate evidence of intergenerational outcomes of both global and historic scope. By comparing the frequency of elite names to more common names in occupations such as medicine, law, or other indicators of society's highest economic strata, Clark (and various collaborators on working papers that underpin several chapters) compute the extent to which identified elites are overrepresented in top jobs. The results are striking – wherever around the globe Clark is able to look, for any period where data is available, there is a large, persistent, bias favouring established elites over the course of centuries. In Sweden, the Leijonhufvuds dominate entry into medicine in 2000 much as they did in 1900; in England, names linked to medieval land holding (like Beauchamp) remain strikingly over represented among Oxbridge students at the end of the twentieth century; Brahmin and Samurai families maintain their leading positions in India and Japan. The empirical results presented in many chapters are striking in their consistency. While surnames are an imperfect instrument for elite identity and intergenerational transmission, few readers will come away doubting the reported patterns of relative representation.

One of Clark's central arguments is that conventional measures of income mobility consistently overstate the true extent of change in underlying economic status to a much larger extent than previously thought. I am willing to believe that this is true, but found it hard to properly evaluate this claim, at least from the evidence shown here. I agree that long-run evidence of group status is a solution of sorts for issues of measurement error in the prior literature, but it was less clear what to make of generational correlations based on imputed status from a narrow strata of elite positions. The technical explanations in Appendix 3 give a sense of how indices of over-representation are transformed into intergenerational correlations, but not in enough detail, at least for this reader, to evaluate firmly based only what is published in the book.

The later chapters delve into discussions that are likely to be contentious to many readers: the role of genetic inheritance in shaping economic outcomes. Clark's take is that the extremely strong persistence of leading families in the highest rungs of the economic ladder can ultimately be explained by little else; the intergenerational correlations and indices of representation in almost all societies examined are strikingly unaffected by the emergence of publicly funded education, legislative changes designed to improve the fortunes of particular ethnic or social groups, or even history's greatest social upheavals, as experienced in China over the second half of the twentieth century. This will make grim reading for historians and social scientists who value the role of social policy or human agency, and this perspective does not sit particularly well with recent studies that emphasize the substantial impact of early life interventions on long-run outcomes.

While not a geneticist, I also suspect that Clark's perspective will trouble those with expertise in that field too. Recent studies in evolutionary biology have, at least to the eyes of this non-expert, shifted understanding of the connection between nurture and nature due to the role of epigenetic mechanisms and behavioural inheritance, in which early life and pre-birth conditions themselves shape preferences and even genetic development. If elite and middle income families provide environments in which certain genes are more likely to «switch on», then there would seem plenty of scope for nurture to retain a leading role even in environments with low income inequality, or where elites suffer significant shocks to wealth and current material living conditions.

The Son Also Rises includes delightful, entertaining examples of families with remarkably high persistence of social status. The descendents of Charles Darwin and Samuel Peyps feature prominently, among others. These examples are a wonderful way for Clark to make his point. But tracing the lineage of these families also makes clear the difficult of separating genetic inheritance from nurture – these families by and large maintained environments that fostered economic success over the generations. There is no counterfactual presented where the Darwin or Pepys families gave up reading books or lively conversation in the home. Even in societies where revolutions impoverished elites, it is entirely possible that the maintenance of behaviour and environments associated with success favoured successive generations, perhaps through epigenetic mechanisms outline above. While evidence from adopted children is presented as an example of the dominance of genetic factors, it is also true that this group is particularly likely to suffer the in utero and early life insults that matter for later life outcomes.

As The Son Also Rises is firmly focused on the very long run, many readers will wonder how to fit the findings with what is arguably most important long-run development in the world economy: the emergence of modern economic growth. A dynastic world of strong intergeneration persistence in status will appeal to stylised models of a pre-modern economy where long-run economic growth is absent, but the stability of these patterns during the shift to a world where successive generations are significantly better off than their parents are harder to understand.

This review probably captures how many will react to this book: the evidence on surname patterns in elite positions is compelling and impressive in scope, but I found it hard to accept all of the explanations offered for these findings. As a consequence, I thought a lot more about the subject matter than I anticipated before reading the book. Whether or not you ultimately agree with Clark, The Son Also Rises makes for stimulating reading, and I recommend it.

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