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01May

The Journey of Humanity review – ambitious bid to explain society’s economic development

Oded Galor’s attempt to unify economic theory is impressive and insightful, even as it overreaches

It is the social scientist’s dream: to outdo Adam Smith, Max Weber and Karl Marx and come up with a unifying theory of why society has developed as it has, where it is going next and how its wrongs can be righted. At times, reading Oded Galor’s upbeat book I thought he had cracked it, taken aback by his imagination and verve. For example, it is obvious once pointed out that agricultural economies reliant on the plough necessarily diminish women’s role in wider economic and social life because ploughs need male muscle, which leads to women taking over household duties rather than sharing duties in fields where soil is easier to work. What Galor shows is that this gendered division of labour persists over generations, even in countries to which plough-using peoples migrate. He is nothing if not original.

But ultimately, achieving the dream of explaining everything is too big an ask, even for an economist of Galor’s range. He is so devoted to the hidden long-run pulses that determine our destinies – geography, climate, diversity, the capacity to be future-oriented, the role of education, the rights and wrongs of Malthusian economics – that he neglects what is in full view. An account that purports to describe humanity’s journey without getting to grips with why some innovations – such as the three-masted sailing ship, printing press or computer – change civilisation while others are more ordinary, can only be incomplete. These “general-purpose technologies” not only have diverse origins, as he argues, but also require an extraordinary interplay between state funding, large markets, cultural readiness and capitalist organisation to get off the ground. The printing press was not only the result of Gutenberg living on the Rhine, where trade routes from various regions brought invention and ideas: it also needed Protestant princes to fund the prototypes and buy the presses, and then an exploding, religiously driven appetite for published bibles, hymns and sermons in Reformation Europe.

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