Rare surnames reveal how success is inherited over centuries

Rare surnames reveal how success is inherited over centuries


Your success in life may be pre-determined, not by the wealth, education, and profession of your parents, but by the fortunes of your ancestors centuries ago.  And, according to Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California, it doesn’t matter whether you were born in medieval England, modern liberal Sweden, or communist China.



In his new book, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, Clark tracks the social status of families with rare surnames around the world over the last thousand years.  Using reams of family history data recorded in documents such as the Doomsday Book and the membership rolls of Oxford, Cambridge and Ivy League universities, Clark reckons that the rise and fall of a family’s fortunes occurs, not over 3 to 4 generations as previously thought by social scientists, but over 10 to 15.

This persistence of social status is highlighted by the distinctive surname of 17th century English diarist Samuel Pepys, who was a Member of Parliament, Secretary to the Admiralty, and President of the Royal Society.  There have never been more than a handful of people sharing the surname, and the first recorded Pepys enrolled at Cambridge University in 1496.  Clark explains:

“Since 1496, at least 58 Pepyses have enrolled at Oxford or Cambridge, most recently in 1995.  For an average surname of this population size, the expected number of enrollees would be two or three.  Of the 18 Pepyses alive in 2012, four are medical doctors.  The nine who died between 2000 and 2012 have left estates with an average value of £416,000 [$690,000], more than five times the average estate value in England in this period.”

The Son Also Rises - Surnames and the History of Social MobilityIn egalitarian Sweden, Clark found that social mobility today is no greater than in it was in the 18th century.  Although Sweden’s old nobility no longer hold political power as a birthright, the average taxable income of a Stockholm sample of people with noble surnames was 44% higher than that of people with the common surname Andersson.  The descendants of an educated middle class who Latinized their surnames in the 17th and 18th centuries (like the father of the botanist Carl Linnaeus) had average taxable incomes 27% higher than those named Andersson.  The old nobility are also 6 times more likely to be lawyers and doctors than the general population, with Latinized surnames 3 times more likely.

The inheritance of social status appears to survive great levellers like universal education, the welfare state, world wars and revolutions.  Even in China, where the 1949 Communist Revolution and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 saw the execution of swathes of the upper class, old high status Imperial era surnames continue to be overrepresented in the modern elite, including the Communist Party.  As Clark puts it, “Mao failed.”  The cream still appears to rise to the top, whatever the social system.

Clark concludes: “In modern meritocratic societies, success still depends on individual effort.  Our findings suggest, however, that the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper and the ability to overcome failure are strongly inherited.  We can’t know for certain what the mechanism of that inheritance is, though we know that genetics plays a surprisingly strong role.  Alternative explanations that are in vogue — cultural traits, family economic resources, social networks — don’t hold up to scrutiny.”

Source: NY Times



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