ANDt is the social scientist’s dream: to outdo Adam Smith, Max Weber and Karl Marx and come up with a unifying theory of why society has developed as it has, where it is going next and how its wrongs can be righted. At times, reading Oded Galor’s upbeat book I thought he had cracked it, taken aback by his imagination and verve. For example, it is obvious once pointed out that agricultural economies reliant on the plow necessarily diminish women’s role in wider economic and social life because ploughs need male muscle, which leads to women taking over household duties rather than sharing duties in fields where soil is easier to work. What Galor shows is that this gendered division of labor persists over generations, even in countries to which plow-using peoples migrate. He is nothing if not original.

But ultimately, achieving the dream of explaining everything is too big an ask, even for an economist of Galor’s range. He is so devoted to the hidden long-run pulses that determine our destinies – geography, climate, diversity, the capacity to be future-oriented, the role of education, the rights and wrongs of Malthusian economics – that he neglects what is in full view. An account that purports to describe humanity’s journey without getting to grips with why some innovations – such as the three-masted sailing ship, printing press or computer – change civilization while others are more ordinary, can only be incomplete. These “general-purpose technologies” not only have diverse origins, as he argues, but also require an extraordinary interplay between state funding, large markets, cultural readiness and capitalist organization to get off the ground. The printing press was not only the result of Gutenberg living on the Rhine, where trade routes from various regions brought invention and ideas: it also needed Protestant princes to fund the prototypes and buy the presses, and then an exploding, religiously driven appetite for published bibles, hymns and sermons in Reformation Europe.

Indeed Galor devotes little of his book to capitalism, the structure of states and the consequent dynamic interdependence between the public and private sectors, or the importance of Enlightenment values ​​that unleashed notions of the public sphere and rule of law. These are gigantic omissions. His is a technocratic journey full of illuminating graphs, but strangely bloodless and neglectful of political economy in explaining humanity’s journey.

Yet great sections of Galor’s book are to be applauded. The economist Thomas Malthus, now dismissed by mainstream economics as an interesting crank, is resurrected by Galor as the man who correctly saw that for millennia humanity had been trapped by its own fertility into subsistence, starvation and famine. As soon as material matters improved, the birthrate went up, so did the population, and the pressure on food resources exploded – returning humanity to starvation. Incredibly, wages demonstrated these Malthusian effects, buying broadly the same amount of food from the Assyrian empire, through the Romans and right up to the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

Oded Galor: too optimistic? Photograph: Peter Goldberg

What broke the Malthusian armlock on humanity’s destiny, argues Galor, is the gradual quickening in the introduction of technologies that required mass education for their successful implementation. This triggered a virtuous circle of more innovation, more investment in education, more need to invest in the quality of children rather than quantity, so that birthrates declined sufficiently to allow living standards and life expectancy to rise. Because it was now rational to invest in children’s education rather than get them working, child labor and exploitation fell away.

Above all he shows how cultural attitudes persist long after whatever concatenation of events brought them into being, so that countries and cultures that get ahead tend to stay ahead. He is scathing about the shock programs of market liberalization that accompanied the “Washington consensus”, ignorant of these persistent traits. Effective market economies can’t be built spontaneously in cultures that are hostile to the very conception.

Yet his optimism about humanity shines through – prize its diversity, commit to educate its children and they will find their way to innovate and create a culture of growth. It’s a great way to look at the world, but a healthy recognition that power, capitalism, finance, the existence and structure of states and public philosophies – some right, some wrong – are all part of the brew would have made his account more realistic . Sad to say they would also have made it less optimistic. Humanity, as Kant said, is made of crooked timber from which nothing entirely straight can be made. Galor’s book would have been the stronger had he leavened his sunshine with some shadows.

The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality by Oded Galor is published by Bodley Head (£ 20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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