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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

May 7, 2021

In the winter of 2021, I noticed a minor controversy regarding ‘academic cancellation’ around Gregory Clark, an economic historian at UC Davis. Representative pieces are Glasgow University in row over decision to invite guest speaker Gregory Clark, and Why is the woke mob so scared? The Free Speech Union put together a petition, Letter to Adam Smith Business School About No-Platforming of Professor Gregory Clark Signed by Over 70 Academics, signed by numerous public intellectuals after his talk was canceled.

This was not entirely surprising. In 2014 Clark submitted a piece to The New York TimesYour Ancestors, Your Fate, which outlined some of his findings in his book, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. His conclusion was that social status was far more persistent across lineages than economic historians had realized. This contention drew some sharp reactions. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a review headlined For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls.

As it happens, I know Greg a bit from my time at UC Davis, and I sent him an email and asked if he’d talk about the controversy. He agreed and cleared up the major points. The crux of the issue is that he had taken to the headline “For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls” (his earlier book was A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World), and his use of the phrase “bell curve” in the talk’s title had engendered the perception he was a eugenicist.

Thankfully we did not spend most of the conversation on the controversy. Greg was more bemused than alarmed. Rather, we explored Greg’s descriptive finding, very high long-term persistence of social status across lineages, and discussed possible reasons for this, including genetic factors.

Is Greg Clark a “genetic determinist”? We discuss. You decide.