SURVIVAL OF THE "FITTEST"?
POST DATE August 9, 2007, 12 AM
POSTED BY Geoff Davis
There's an intriguing article in yesterday's Times about a new theory about the factors that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution in England.
For centuries, England's citizens lived on the brink of starvation. Although innovations would periodically increase agricultural productivity, greater access to food invariably led to population increases, which in turn brought per capita food levels right back to where they started. It took the Industrial Revolution to finally bring the growth rate of the food supply above the growth rate of the population.
Historian Gregory Clark's study of wills from 1200-1800 found the following:
Clark speculates that there may be genetic and/or cultural components to these changes in behavior:
I don't know enough about behavioral genetics to have a sense of whether this is plausible; regardless, his application of Darwinian thinking in this particular case is intriguing.
Substitute funding for food, and it's clear that the current NIH mess is a Malthusian crisis. And as with England, this is only the most recent of a series. What are these selection pressures doing to the population of academic scientists?
When times are tight, it becomes a lot less pleasant to be an academic. Fewer proposals get funded, and even if you do get funded, a lot more work has to go into your proposals. Industry starts looking a lot more attractive by comparison. Increased numbers are forced out, and more interestingly when we start thinking like Darwin, increased numbers either leave by choice or never seek academic careers in the first place.
Economics tells us that the more attractive one's industry prospects relative to academic alternatives, the more likely one is to end up there. And if you work in industry, you don't "reproduce" by training students. Thus, academia's Malthusian crises may very well be selecting against those who are most capable of success outside of academia.
Funding levels in academia are driven by the prospect of economic returns to investments in research. Unfortunately for all concerned, unlike Clark's hypothesized England, academia appears to be selecting against some of those most capable of increasing the "food" supply.