The Industrial Revolution was the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the world. The British have been profoundly marked by the experience of our economic and social pioneering, and remain marked by this ─ even, it seems, in genetic terms ─ to the present day.1
The cotton industry2 best exemplifies the industrial Revolution, and its impact on people. Before the 1780s, spinning, weaving, cutting and tailoring had all been done within the home. Children of six years of age knew a lot about the labour that provided their daily bread. They might have been poor, but they had to use their brains effectively on a daily basis if they were to survive. Hand-loom weavers, however, were unable to compete with the newly invented steam-powered looms, and a whole craft industry disintegrated within little more than a decade. Desperate to find any work, the wives and children of such men (mill owners favoured the nimble fingers of youngsters) moved into the mills, and their men folk ─ sons, grandsons and great grandsons of self-respecting weavers ─ were lucky if they found a wage a third or less of that which they had earlier made for themselves.
Desperate country people flocked into urban areas such as Manchester3, whose population increased tenfold in seventy years. Cotton output increased at a phenomenal rate ─ by 39% in the ten years of 1810 to 1820, and 47% in the next ten years, but wages went up by only 5%. As hundreds of thousands of people worked extraordinarily long hours for a barely living wage, a tiny number were making phenomenal amounts of money. As with cotton so with other industries. An American in 1845 noted “wretched, defrauded, oppressed, crushed human nature lying in bleeding fragments all over the face of society”, and continued, “everyday I live I thank heaven that I’m not a poor man with a family in England”4. Adam Smith’s worst fears were being born out. “Civilised man is turned back almost into a savage”5, wrote de Tocqueville.
The Industrial Revolution turned vast numbers of formerly self-employed men into ‘proletarians’, workers who had no other means of support than the money they were paid for a job. No longer had workers to think for themselves, they just had to follow orders. Most work became a highly regulated, monotonous and routine activity over which workers exercised no control, and had little interest. Instead of working within their homes employment was now to be in factories in large, anonymous cities ─ cities that denied the kinds of integrated, interdependent communities from which their ancestors had come6. Most destabilising of all, the Industrial Revolution set up a conflict, still unresolved two hundred years later, between ‘the moral economy’ of the earlier integrated rural life, and the economic rationality of the capitalist present. Industrial man in the early nineteenth century was lost between the worlds of John Bunyan and Adam Smith.
Politicians and economic theorists have spent the last two hundred years trying to put society back together again. They have largely assumed that to improve a person’s material well being would enable them, naturally and reasonably easily, to return to the normal values and expectations of civilised social beings7. We now know it doesn’t work like that. A new question is emerging; could a mental trauma experienced by distant ancestors be transmitted genetically, not simply culturally, across several generations? If so, might the very essence of human behaviour have been biologically damaged by the events of the Industrial Revolution?
It seems that biology stands on the brink of a quite massive shift in its understanding of inheritance. In the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 assault on the World Trade Center researchers started to monitor the development of those babies whose mothers witnessed the attack8. Early in 2005 it was reported that, at the age of twelve months, the babies of mothers who saw the attack were found to have an important genetic marker for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There was no such genetic marker in those babies whose mothers did not witness the attack. The mother’s stress levels appeared to have negatively conditioned the baby’s ability to handle stress from birth. In 2005 scientists in northern Sweden9, working through the detailed parish registers of births and deaths, as well as contemporary medical records, have shown that a famine at critical times in the lives of the grandparents can affect the life expectancy of the grandchildren. Research into Epigenetics10 (the study of hidden, non-biological influences on genes) shows that the genes you inherit could have been switched on or off by the cultural experience of your ancestors. This raises questions of huge importance. Did the trauma of the Industrial Revolution, and the subsequent traumas of industrial decline, create the ‘learned helplessness’ that commentators often note in deprived inner-city areas?
Thesis 38: 24th August 2006