Book Summary: “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility” by Gregory Clarke


The Son Also Rises

Title: The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility
Author: Gregory Clarke
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Most studies of social mobility track the income of a person compared to their parent. Clarke focuses on a much longer time-scale. Tracking the outcomes of individuals with unusual last names over generations, Clarke finds that long-term social mobility of families across time is much lower than generally thought and is consistent across many different cultures.

My Comments

This book provides important evidence of the role of biology in determining social status and achievement. While there is a great deal of evidence that biological differences between societies is low (contrary to what racists claim), biological differences between individuals within the same society are much stronger determinants of outcomes.
This is important to the topic of this blog, because the most successful people tend to be those that innovation most and, at least in modern societies, the most likely to embrace innovations.
One point that I think should be stressed is that, though long-term economic growth of the last few centuries has not increased the rate of social mobility, it has led to a dramatic increase of the standard-of-living for billions of people. While increased social mobility seems an unachievable objective of government policy, increased standard-of-living is not only achievable but also the long-term trend.

Key Take-aways

  • Inequality starts at conception.
  • Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological traits, such as height and eye color (correlations are between 0.7 and 0.9 with 1.0 being the maximum possible).
  • Social mobility, moving between the top, middle and bottom ranks of society across generations, is much lower than most experts believe. This is because mobility experts measure social mobility over too short a time frame.
  • Social mobility is dominated by long-term biological factors and other short-term factors (parenting, government policy, personal choice and just plain luck). The non-biological factors play important roles within a single generation, but they play much less of a role when measured over many generations.
  • Progress or decline within one generation tends to be followed by a “regression towards the mean” of the family’s inherited traits.
  • The social/economic rank of a family, as measured by income, education, or occupation is very constant across centuries and across societies.
  • Social mobility of medieval Sweden and modern-day Sweden with its expansive welfare state is almost identical. It is also much the same as the rates in UK and USA. Nor is there any evidence that generations of Communism affected the trend.
  • If the Swedish welfare state and Communism cannot increase rates of social mobility substantially, it is difficult to imagine anything else being able to do so.
  • When parents adopt, the outcomes of the adopted children closely align with the outcomes of the biological parents, not the adopted parents. This is more evidence that the biology is the fundamental cause.

Important Quotes from Book

Most studies on social mobility greatly overstate the level of intergenerational mobility because they only look at a single generation.

“Families turn out to have a general social competence or ability that underlies partial measures of status such as income, education and occupation… Underlying or overall social mobility rates are much lower than those typically estimated by sociologist or economists… between 0.7 and 0.9… Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height.”

Modern welfare state, economic growth and education has not changed this rate. (p10)

“These high estimates of underlying intergenerational correlation imply that 50 to 70 percent of the variation in general social status within any generation is predictable at conception.” (p10)

“in the modern world, social mobility tends to be predominately upward, whereas in the preindustrial world it was mainly downward.” (p11)

“this book suggests, based on these characteristics, a social law: there is a universal constant of intergenerational correlation of 0.75, from which deviations are rare and predictable” (p12)

“If nature does indeed dominate nurture, this has a number of implications. First, it means that the world is a much fairer place than we intuit. Innate talent, not inherited privilege, is the main source of economic success. Second, it suggests that the large investment made by the upper classes in the care and raising of their children is of no avail in preventing long-run downward mobility… Third, government interventions to increase social mobility are unlikely to have much impact unless they affect the rate of intermarriage between levels of the social hierarchy and between ethnic groups. Fourth, emphasis on racial, ethnic, and religious differences allows persistent social stratification through the barriers they create to this intermarriage.” (p15)

“The practical implication is that you want to maximize your children’s chances, you need to pay attention not to the social phenotype of your marriage partners but instead to his or her status genotype. The genotype is indicated by the social group your potential partner belong to, as well as the social phenotype of their siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, and so on to the nth degree of relatedness. Once you have selected your mate, your work is largely done. You can safely neglect your offspring.” (p15)

All families also have a long-term regression towards the mean.

“And the evidence is that in the end, the descendants of today’s rich and poor will achieve complete equality in their expected social position. This equality may take three hundred years to come about” (p15)

“They show that current social mobility in Sweden is very slow – no faster, as we shall see, than comparable estimates in the United Kingdom or the United States, and no faster than social mobility in eighteenth-century Sweden under monarchic rule.” (p20)

Some social groups, such as Jews, blacks, Latins and Native Americans in the United States… exhibit the same rate of regression to the mean as the society as a whole… Slow mobility rates for blacks and Latinos do not reflect an enduring racism in American society.” (p113)

“The simple theory here makes a startling and powerful predication, which is that underlying mobility rates for all aspects of social status, such as earnings, wealth, occupational status, education, health, and longevity, are the same.” (p117)

“One of the most powerful implications of the simple model of mobility outlined here is that it explains the often-observed slow rates of social mobility for specific social, ethnic, racial, and religious groups without having to posit discrimination, ethnic capital, or ethnic social connections as contribution factors” (p123)

“Status may or may not be genetically inherited, but for all practical purposes, nature dominates nurture” (p126)

“Elites and underclasses have maintained themselves over periods as long as 1300 years because of very high rates of endogamy, which preserves the initial advantage of elites from regression to the mean preventing intermarriage with less advantaged populations.” (p239)

“a completely meritocratic society would most likely also be one with limited social mobility. Slow mobility does not, in itself, imply a rigidly hierarchical society” (p262)

“the worry about the elimination of human agency, is misdirected. Even with an intergenerational correlation of 0.75, more than two-fifths of variation in outcomes in generalized social status is still unpredictable.” (p262)

“The research on adoption outcomes, however, implies strongly that most of the variation in outcomes for adopted children stems from their biological parents or from chance, not from their adoptive parents. Biology may not be everything, but it is the substantial majority of everything.” (p264)

“These adoption studies suggest that even if we could make the familial environment of every child in the United States identical, we could reduce the intergenerational correlation of social outcomes by only modest amounts, perhaps one-quarter of existing values.” (p268)

“One balance, for the bulk of families in the middle of the status distribution, feasible social interventions, such as income transfers or boosts to education, appear unlikely to significantly change child outcomes.” (p273)

“For downward mobility is driven by the fact that people typically select mates who resemble them on the basis of observed social characteristics – their achieved education, income, occupational status, wealth, height, weight, and health… The means that the people currently occupying the upper tails of the distribution… tend to include disproportionately the lucky, the ones who benefited from happy accidents. Symmetrically, concentrated at the bottom are people who experienced bad luck and unhappy accidents… The curse of the elite is that they are surrounded by imposters.” (p282)

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