Longevity and the rise of the West

Did the Industrial Revolution happen because of improvements in institutions or because of improvements in human capital? A duo of new papers attack the question from an interesting new angle, looking at longevity, and finding that its rise precedes (by a good 150 years) the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The first, a 2013 study from David de la Croix and Omar Licandro, builds a new 300,000 strong database of famous people born from 2400BC to 1879AD (the year Einsten was born) and has four key findings (pdf) (slides):

  1. On average, before the cohort born in the 1640s, there is no trend in lifespans; they stay at an average of 59.7 years for 4,000 years
  2. Between the cohort born in the 1640s and Einstein's cohort, longevity increases by 8 years—this trend pre-dates the industrial revolution by generations
  3. This increase occurred across Europe, not just in the leading advanced countries
  4. This came from a broad shift, rather than a few especially long-lived individuals

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The second, published less than a month ago by LSE economic history professor Neil Cummins, makes use of an even more innovative source of data—a collaborative project between the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints and individual genealogical experts. Apparently the LDS is a major collector of genealogical information:

‘Baptism for the dead’ is a doctrine of the church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints(LDS). The practice is mentioned in the Bible (Corinthians chapter 15, verse 29, TheHoly Bible King James Version (2014)). The founder of the LDS church, Joseph Smith,revived the practice in 1840 and ever since, church members have been collecting historical genealogical data and baptizing the dead by proxy. The church has been at the frontier of the application of information technology to genealogy and has digitized a multitude of historical records. Today they make the fruits of their research available online at familysearch.org. The records number in the billions.

The paper draws longevity statistics on 121,524 European nobles who lived between 800AD and 1800AD to establish that the West was rising even before the marked gains seen from the 1640s, and suggesting that the roots of economic development go very deep (much deeper than institutions).

The fascinating paper is saturated with insight-nuggets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top ten exact death dates in the periods are all battles:

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There's also extra support for Stephen Pinker's thesis of massively declining violence in society:

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And here's the overall result:

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Taken together, the papers seem to provide strong support for the human capital thesis, as against the idea that changes in institutions were key in allowing humans to escape from the Malthusian trap and see general rises in the living standards, for the first time ever.