Join getAbstract to access the summary!

A Farewell to Alms

Join getAbstract to access the summary!

A Farewell to Alms

A Brief Economic History of the World

Princeton UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

How culture explains the wealth and poverty of nations.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


The topic of this thrilling book, 20 years in the making, is nothing less than the history of civilization, from the Neolithic Revolution to the Industrial Revolution to today. Rather than relating history as a story of kings, Caesars, popes, prelates and presidents, Gregory Clark tells the story through economic data, much of which is the result of his own analysis of documentary evidence. Almost every other page contains a beautiful graph, table or chart illuminating some dimly lit bit of history. And Clark’s detours are almost as wonderful as his main argument. His writing is elegant and clear, his sense of humor present but not annoying. While this book has outraged some commentators, it’s hard to see why, given the caution with which Clark presents his conclusions. Most likely, the flash point is his stress on culture as enabling and retarding economic growth – views that sometimes get wrongly equated with racism. getAbstract recommends this book to anyone who wants to quantitatively enhance his or her conception of human history.


Romantic Age or Stone Age?

Imagine for a moment life in 18th-century England. Perhaps such scenes come to mind as the one Sir Joshua Reynolds depicted in 1789 in his painting, The Braddyll Family. A woman in a flounced skirt sits with her lapdog on an ornate chair. Her husband, standing behind her in a powdered wig and red riding jacket, looks out toward the viewer, and the couple’s son, reclining languidly against a piece of statuary, holds his hat and gloves, apparently ready to stroll around the family’s estate once this tiresome business of posing is finished.

Now imagine what life was like for humanity’s hunter-gatherer forebears. It probably resembled the current lives of the Nukak, an indigenous people living in the Amazonian rain forest. A recent picture of a typical Nukak family shows two almost entirely naked women with few possessions squatting over a crude bowl in which they have gathered food (perhaps nuts). Their babies cling to them, suckling while the women work. Their shelter is a rough-thatched roof. Their life looks anything but easy.

With these two pictures in mind, consider which world you would rather inhabit – that of 18th-century...

About the Author

Gregory Clark, an economic historian, is chair of the economics department at the University of California, Davis.

Comment on this summary

More on this topic

Learners who read this summary also read