First posted 18 January 2015; last updated: 8 February 2017
I keep getting asked for survey-type books/articles on the economic history of particular regions or countries. In the list below, as much as possible, I stick to works of economic history with a stress on country and regional knowledge, not topical or thematic specialisation. (So no books focused on international trade or income inequality, etc.) But they are all recognisably economic history. I also don’t list any “big history” books along the lines of Jared Diamond. Suggestions are welcome!
Also see the companion page: Economic History Papers.
For someone with absolutely no clue about the basics of world economic history of the last 500 years, but who wants something written by an economist, a good primer is Robert Allen’s Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction. It’s a little gem, a masterpiece of parsimony, so short yet so much. Every sentence packs a mound of research, going from the “rise of the West” and the “great divergence” to the “big push” late industrialisation of Japan, the Soviet Union, and China. Yet unlike other books of this kind, it has an idiosyncratic touch that’s uniquely Allen.
Another general economic history must-read is Federico’s Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture 1800-2000. It delivers what it promises — a global history of the agricultural transformation of the past two centuries, with lots of data, ecological description, institutional transformations, and technological change, with a focus on how advances in productivity were achieved.
Also recommended: Livi-Bacci, A Concise History of World Population
The Industrial Revolution in Britain
Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective and Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy are the key works. I say start with Allen first. But you definitely need both for a balanced perspective. Allen’s book is also a good entrée to the “great divergence” debate, contrasting European and Asian living standards just before the modern era. Clark’s A Farewell to Alms offers a very heterodox take, but it’s also the best elementary introduction to the neo-Malthusian model. Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity, which is basically a chapter-by-chapter criticism of nearly all theories of the Industrial Revolution, serves as an excellent if idiosyncratic survey of the literature on the IR.
With the exception of the above volume, I prefer McCloskey from the early days of cliometrics in the 1970s to the early 1990s. The two editions of The Economic History of Britain since 1700 that Donald McCloskey edited with Roderick Floud (2 volumes, 1981; and 3 volumes, 1994) are great. I treasure my unfortunately outdated, but dog-eared, copies of the 1981 volumes. The 2004 update by Floud & Johnson, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain (3 volumes) continues in that tradition.
The 2014 successor, Floud, Humphries & Johnson, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain (2 volumes) is important as introductory material and updated literature survey. An interesting change from previous editions is that the chapter on overseas trade originally written by Knick Harley has been replaced with one by Nuala Zahedieh which makes a nod to Immanuel Wallerstein.
Morgan’s Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1660-1800 is an excellent review of the debate surrounding this question, but as of 2000.
For some Europe-wide perspectives on the “rise of the West”, see Broadberry & O’Rourke, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe (vol. 1). Unlike its predecessors in the same Cambridge series, this one is a very reader-friendly source. Another comparative look is Prados de la Escosura, ed., Exceptionalism and Industrialisation: Britain and its European Rivals, 1688–1815.
Books which review and summarise our current understanding of the “Great Divergence”, which used to be called the “Rise of the West”:
- Findlay & O’Rourke, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium offers the most nuanced perspective on the contribution of the external to European economic development. Not only does it serve as economic history of the world since the fall of Rome, but you might also notice in it a more sophisticated version of Beckert’s “war capitalism”. (What exactly was wrong with the word mercantilism anyway???)
- van Zanden, The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution reviews the latest evidence as assembled by economic historians on why the great divergence took place.
- Vries, Escaping Poverty: The origins of modern economic growth, reviews all the theories and all the evidence for the “Great Divergence” as assembled by economists, California school historians, and global historians. Vries is critical of all them.
- Persson, An Economic History of Europe: Knowledge, Institutions, and Growth 600 to Present, does not tell a conventional history or narrative; rather it is a lecturish or textbookish exposition of the main stylised facts of European economic history, explicated through modelling concepts.
- Hatcher & Bailey, Modelling the Middle Ages, an overview of the “super models” (Malthusian, Marxist, and Smithian) used to describe and explain economic change in the Middle Ages, with special emphasis on the late mediaeval “transition to capitalism” debate
Some books which focus on more specific aspects of European economic development in the long run:
- Hoffman, Why did Europe Conquer the World?
- Goldstone, Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850
- Epstein, Freedom and Growth: The Rise of States and Markets in Europe, 1300-1750
- Bateman, Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe
- Mitterauer, Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of its Special Path
- Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West
- Iyigun, War, Peace, and Prosperity in the Name of God: The Ottoman Role in Europe’s Socioeconomic Evolution
- Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States 990-1992
- De Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Culture and the Household Economy, 1650-present
- Ogilvie, Institutions and European Trade: Merchant Guilds, 1000–1800
- Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia
- Grafe, Distant Tyranny: Markets, Power, and Backwardness in Spain, 1650-1800.
The spread of the industrial revolution
After my recent post on the Hobson-Lenin thesis, someone asked if there’s a good book on the “first globalisation” of 1870-1914. My answer: Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy, by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, the best summary-analysis of the econ hist literature on the epic movement of people, goods, and capital in the long 19th century. If you’re interested in the impact of the “first globalisation” on today’s developing countries, then Williamson’s Trade and Poverty: How the Third World Fell Behind.
Scylla & Toniolo, ed., Patterns of European Industrialization: The Nineteenth Century is a collection of surveys with chapters on France, Russia, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Trebilcock, The Industrialization of the Continental Powers 1780-1914, also covers Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Spain.
- Broadberry, The Productivity Race: British Manufacturing in International Perspective, 1850–1990 covers three important themes: the so-called “decline of Britain”, the rise of Germany and the USA, and the “Second Industrial Revolution”.
- For a short article on how industrialisation spread from Britain to Europe, see Harley, “British and European Industrialisation“.
- Allen’s article “The Spread of Manufacturing” is more global but I don’t see a copy online. Both articles are contained in the 2nd volume of The Cambridge History of Capitalism.
There are surprisingly not that many general economic histories of France or Germany in English with a quantitative orientation and updated findings.
- Hoffman, Growth in a Traditional Society: The French Countryside, 1450-1815
- Horn, The Path Not Taken: French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution, 1750–1830
- O’Brien & Keydar, Economic Growth In Britain And France 1780-1914: Two Paths to the Twentieth Century
- Lévy-Leboyer & Bourguignon’s The French Economy in the Nineteeth Century: An Essay in Econometric Analysis dates from 1985/1990.
- Heywood, The Development of the French Economy (1992)
- Dormois, The French Economy in the Twentieth Century (2004)
- Crouzet’s survey article, “The Historiography of French Economic Growth in the Nineteenth Century” (2003), describes how the cliometric revolution was introduced into French economic history (and resisted by the older generation). But Grantham’s article (1997), “The French cliometric revolution: A survey of cliometric contributions to French economic history”, actually summarises the research.
- More of a cultural history with an economic history backdrop, Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France is a narrative of how a ‘backward’ country transformed into a ‘modern’ one.
- Pierenkemper & Tilly, The German Economy During the Nineteenth Century
- Despite the rather restrictive-sounding title, Grant’s Migration and Inequality in Germany in 1870-1913 is really an examination of German industrialisation and political economy from the perspective of development economics of the Arthur-Lewis-Simon-Kuznets variety.
- Tilly (2001), “German economic history and Cliometrics: A selective survey of recent tendencies”
- Sommariva & Tullio, German Macroeconomic History, 1880-1979
For the economic history of slavery, don’t read Fogel’s Time on the Cross. Instead, read his Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. It’s updated and corrected compared with the first, taking into consideration the extensive debates Fogel had with economists and historians after Time on the Cross was published. But you should also read the sceptical assessment of F & E’s claims by Gavin Wright (2006), Slavery and American Economic Development.
The “Fogel of Emancipation” is Ransom & Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. Olmstead & Rhode, Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development is an agricultural history of the United States which touches on many themes from slavery to innovation.
- Lindert & Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700, despite the title, is really a complete economic history of the United States. It’s the most updated of its kind.
- Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US Standard of Living since the Civil War, conveys better than any other book how life was transformed by technological changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and how the welfare gains from that are underestimated in GDP measurements).
- Field, A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth
Russia & the Soviet Union
Gatrell, The Tsarist Economy 1850-1917 is now rather old, but Gregory, Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five-Year covers roughly the period from the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to the end of the New Economic Policy in 1928. Mironov is mostly about biological living standards in the prerevolutionary period, but has a chapter or two on wages and prices.
Gregory & Stuart, Russian & Soviet Economic Performance is a textbook covering the entire period of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian history from 1917 to the present.
- Allen’s Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution is a controversial, provocative history of Soviet industrialisation, roughly covering 1928-70.
- Hanson, The Rise and Fall of the The Soviet Economy: An Economic History of the USSR from 1945
- Davis, Harrison & Wheatcroft, The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945
- McClean’s Why Australia Prospered: The Shifting Sources of Economic Growth
- Ó Gráda, Ireland: A New Economic History 1780-1939
- Since Irish late developent is so interesting, I add: Ó Gráda, Rocky Road: The Irish Economy since the 1920s
- Magnusson, The Economic History of Sweden
- Fenoltea, The Reinterpretation of Italian Economic History: From Unification to the Great War and Toniolo, The Oxford Handbook of the Italian Economy Since Unification.
- De Vries, “Dutch Economic Growth in Comparative Historical Perspective, 1500-2000“, an article, is much much shorter than De Vries & van der Woude, The First Modern Economy (Netherlands, 1500-1815), which is very detailed.
- Costa et al. An Economic History of Portugal, 1143-2010
- Kalyvas, Modern Greece is not strictly speaking a work of history; it’s rather an FAQ-type backgrounder for the Greek financial crisis, with a lot of historical and country information.
- Prados de la Escosura, Spanish Economic Growth, 1850–2015 (free & open-access), which is mostly a quantitative description.
- Tortella, The Development of Modern Spain is more of a narrative. But Spain badly needs an updated book in English that incorporates the major themes of European economic history, such as the response to the Black Death and the “little divergence” between northern and southern Europe, but also covers country-specific issues such as the new understanding of Hapsburg state capacity, late industrialisation, the Franco years, etc.
Comparative historical development
Nathan Nunn “Historical Development” (a chapter in The Handbook of Economic Growth) and “The Importance of History for Economic Development” are indispensable readings. For the “deep roots” literature, Spolaore & Wacziarg’s “How deep are the roots of economic development” is the best entry way.
VoxEU has also just issued a 3-volume series of free e-booklets called The Long Economic and Political Shadow of History (~150 pages in each volume). It brings together very readable summaries of the “deep history” literature by some of the key researchers themselves. Parts one (global), two (Asia & Africa), and three (Europe & the Americas).
Epstein, An Economic and Social History of Later Medieval Europe, 1000-1500 is probably the most general mediaval econ history. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe — the greatest fucking debate in economic history ! A synthesis of the Malthusian and the Brennerian-Marxist approaches is contained in Turchin & Nefedov, Secular Cycles, which models “structural-demographic cycles” in ancient Rome, medieval England and France, and Russia.
Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History (Boldizzoni & Hudson, ed.) is rather uneven, but this is a sui generis volume: there is no other place where you can read about the history of the economic historiography for the major regions and countries of the world.
The Cambridge History of Capitalism (2 volumes) has all kinds of short synoptic essays about many countries and regions, such as by Bresson (ancient Greece), Jongman (Roman empire), Pamuk (the Middle East), Roy (India), Jerven (Africa), and Atack (USA). I think Gareth Austin’s chapter in the 2nd volume, “Capitalism and the Colonies”, is the single best short treatment of the economic relationship between the imperial metropolis and the colonies. Harley’s chapter on British industrialisation stresses the crucial role of “agrarian capitalism” (big capitalist farms, as opposed to the peasant agriculture of France).
Asian economic history
The recent The Economic History of China (2016) by von Glahn has no equivalent. There is no other book at the moment which simultaneously contains a readable narrative of the full sweep of Chinese economic history; and reflects recent scholarship both Chinese and international (although the most important scholarship on Chinese economic history is actually Japanese, which is what von Glahn relies on); and covers the major themes and controversies of the historiography. Von Glahn’s book might have dealt a little bit more with the controversies surrounding the revisionism of Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, which really changed the terms of the debate and is an absolute must-read.
A bit dated but for the “big issues” approach, Elvin’s The Patterns of the Chinese Past is still worth reading). Also recommended is Lee & Feng, One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000, a demographic and family history of China.
For China after 1949 —
- Perkins, The Economic Transformation of China, covers both Mao and post-Mao, and qualifies as a short history of both periods.
Naughton, The Chinese Economy, is a very good descriptive work on the post-Mao period.
Qian, How Reform Worked in China is probably the best analysis.
In my opinion, the absolutely necessary first stop: Chaudhary et al., A New Economic History of Colonial India. As the title suggests, it embodies the most modern research by economic historians.
Tirthankar Roy’s The Economic History of India 1857-1947, which is used in both India and the UK as the South Asian intro, is more detailed. It can be seen as an updated, reader-friendly version of the even more detailed The Cambridge Economic History of Modern India, volume 2. Also check out Roy’s recent book, How British Rule Changed India’s Economy.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of these two books by Roy and Chaudhary et al. In 1963, Morris D. Morris, an American economic historian of India, wrote:
It is dismaying to realize that even within very broad ranges of error we do not know whether during the past century-and-a-half the economy’s performance improved, stagnated, or actually declined.
The fact that we have no satisfactory basis for any judgments has not prevented the emergence of a widely-held interpretation of the career of the Indian economy in the nineteenth century. This conventional doctrine starts with a notion of “traditional India,” a subsistence economy which was self contained and static. Into this traditional socio-economic order came the shattering influence of market forces represented by Western commercial and industrial competition, reinforced by the power of the modern imperial state… Indian writers typically stress the exploitative features of British rule as the cause of nineteenth-century decay.
That’s no longer (as) true. Many things about the 19th century remain quite patchy, but the picture we now have is much more nuanced than “Britain impoverished India” — even though that crude and antiquated view still predominates in Western history departments or amongst nationalists and neo-Marxists in India.
For pre-colonial Indian economic history, see Moosvi, The Economy of the Mughal Empire c. 1595: A Statistical Study.
Parthasarathi, How Europe Got Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600–1850 (2011) tries to do for India what Kenneth Pomeranz had done for China. But Parthasarathi doesn’t quite make the cut, and I can’t recommend the book for reasons I touch on here.
But the historians Pomeranz and Parthasarathi (as well as Joseph Inikori) are so much better at writing economic history than others trained in history departments! In fact, if the “historians of capitalism” all reasoned and wrote like Pomeranz, Parthasarathi, and Inikori, I would probably still disagree with them but I would bitch less about them !
Given Japan’s status as the premier non-Western late industrialiser, there should be more books on Japan’s economic development with updated research. An ideal volume would start from the late Tokugawa period with Japan’s own version of the “industrious revolution” and the Meiji Restoration. It should also cover not only Japan’s pre-war industrialisation but also assessments of Japan’s post-war industrial policy and state planning (as described by Chalmers Johnson). Nothing really fits that bill in English:
- Francks, Japan and the Great Divergence: A Short Guide
- Minami (1986), The Economic Development of Japan: A Quantitative Study (the most economist-oriented of the books listed here)
- Mosk, Japanese Economic Development: Markets, Norms, Structures (2008)
- Francks, Japanese Economic Development (1999)
- Macpherson, The Economic Development of Japan 1868-1941 (1995)
- Alexander, The Arc of Japan’s Economic Development (2007)
- Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region
- Wade, Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialization
- Amsden, Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization
- van Zanden & Marks, The Economic History of Indonesia 1800-2000
Overall, the best economic history of Asia is still mostly found in papers. (See this list.) Personally I think the relative dearth of East Asian economic history must be related to the near-absence of East Asia in development economics — despite the ‘historical turn’ taken by development studies in general. Acemoglu & Robinson’s Why Nations Fail is very sketchy about Japan or South Korea! And many political economy of development syllabi are all about Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia or Latin America and very little about East Asia.
- Akyeampong et al., Africa’s Development in Historical Perspective
- Frankema & Hillborn, ed., The History of African Development, an open access online textbook
- Some articles: Austin & Broadberry, “The Renaissance of African Economic History“; Hopkins, “The New Economic History of Africa” & a reply by Fenske, “The Causal History of Africa“
- Jerven, Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. Although this is a criticism of the way economists have done research on Africa (past and present), you learn a lot of African economic history & development from this book. An article worth reading: Austin, “The ‘Reversal of Fortune’ Thesis and the Compression of History“, an historian’s critique of various economists’ theories of African development.
- Bates, Markets & States in Tropical Africa
- Bates, When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa
- Herbst, States & Power in Africa
- Austen, African Economic History: Internal Development and External Dependency: Internal Development and External Dependancy
- Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa — old but classic
- Feinstein, An Economic History of South Africa: Conquest, Discrimination, and Development
- Engerman & Sokoloff, Economic Development in the Americas since 1500 qualifies as the “deep origins” analysis of Latin American economic development, examining the legacy of colonial institutions, geography, slavery, etc. You can also read an article distillation of the book in “Institutions, Factor Endowments, and Paths of Development in the New World“
- A chronological economic history of Latin American is covered by Bertola & Ocampo’s Economic Development of Latin America Since Independence, which goes from independence to the present.
- More in-depth, with country-specific chapters: Cárdenas, Ocampo & Thorp, ed. volume 1 (roughly 1870-1930s); Thorp, volume 2 (the 1930s and 40s), and Cárdenas, Ocampo & Thorp, volume 3 (the post-war era to circa 1980, a lot of coverage of import-substitution industrialisation).
- Much less in-depth is Franko, The Puzzle of Latin American Economic Development, a textbook (very simple) covering roughly from the 1930s to the present.
- Dornbusch & Edwards, The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America deals with individual country experiences under populist governments in the post-war period.
- Haber, ed. How Latin America Fell Behind: Essays on the Economic Histories of Brazil and Mexico, 1800-1914
- della Paolera & Taylor, ed., A New Economic History of Argentina
- Baer, The Brazilian Economy: Growth & Development which goes from colonial times to the present, but 3/4 of the book covers the post-1980 period.
- Moreno-Brid & Ros, Development & Growth in the Mexican Economy: A Historical Perspective.
- Bulmer-Thomas, The Political Economy of Central America since 1920
- Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of the Caribbean since the Napoleonic Wars
The Middle East:
- Owen & Pamuk, A History of Middle Eastern Economies in the Twentieth Century, which is insufficiently analytical, but the pickings for the Middle East aren’t abundant.
- Owen, The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800-1914
- Pamuk, Uneven Centuries: Economic Development of Turkey since 1820
- Pamuk, The Ottoman Empire & European Capitalism, 1820-1913
- Tignor, Modernisation & British Colonial Rule in Egypt
- Esfahani & Pesaran (2009), “The Iranian Economy in the Twentieth Century: A Global Perspective” [article]
- Not historical, but valuable intros to political economy of MENA: Cammett et al. The Political Economy of the Middle East and Diwan & Galal, Middle East Economies in Transition.
- There’s a crying need for an economic history of the Middle East & North Africa that covers both the 19th & 20th centuries, especially Egypt and Iran. Charles Issawi‘s books are now too old !
- In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the World Bank & the Oxford University Press published a series of comparative country case studies edited by Lal & Myint; one of which was Hansen, The Political Economy of Poverty, Equity, and Growth: Egypt and Turkey. This starts in the 1920s.
- Nugent & Pesaran, eds. Explaining Growth in the Middle East
- For ‘deeper roots’ — Kuran’s The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East as well as Jared Rubin‘s comparative institutional history of preindustrial Europe and the Ottoman empire.
Developing countries in general, the Global South
The Spread of Modern Industry to the Periphery since 1871, edited by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, is now the standard reference for the spread of industrialisation from the western core to the periphery, both European and non-European, with chapters on most major regions by specialists. Also see their VoxEU column.
Other books which had previously covered this period:
- Reynolds’s Economic Growth in the Third World 1850-1980
- Amsden’s The Rise of the Rest: Challenges to the West from Late-Industrializing Economies — its first half covers 1850-1950, even though the main part of the book is extolling the virtues of the “developmental state” in 1950-80.
But there isn’t a specifically post-war economic history of the “Global South” taken as a whole, that’s really up to date. Radelet’s The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World doesn’t quite fit the bill. Ideally you want a book which covers the colonial period, the postwar boom, the fad for import-substitution industrialisation and other kinds of state-led development, the external shocks of the 1970s and 1980s, and structural adjustment in the 1980s and 1990s. But I’m not aware of a book which fills this woeful lacuna.
Little et al.’s Boom, Adjustment, and Crisis: The Macroeconomic Experience of Developing Countries (1993) is excellent but has a narrower focus than I’m talking about.
I must say, the finest fusion of economics and psychology is not some book on nudges or biases, but The Hive Mind by Garett Jones. It’s also the first time that differential psychology has been substantively applied by an economist to the questions of economic development and political economy. The book is also a masterpiece of cunning ambiguity, causing different readers to have diametrically opposed interpretations of it!
- Temin, The Roman Market Economy, definitively defends the idea that Rome had a market economy, contrary to the post-war view that it didn’t.
- Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, a material history documenting through archaeological data the collapse of a civilisation
- Bulliet, Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History
- Ekelund & Tollison, Economic Origins of Roman Christianity
- Morris & Scheidel, Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium
- Laiou & Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy
- Scheidel, Morris & Saller, The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. This volume reflects the “new ancient history”, which is heavily influenced by neoclassical and institutional economics. It’s more than 900 pages long so it’s hardly light reading but it’s a standard reference.
- Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. It conjures up some Mickey Mouse economic growth ‘numbers’ through a combination of archaeological data and deductive sleight-of-hand. Then this ‘effluorescence’ is explained through the theoretical framework of new institutional economics.
Culture and cultural evolution
After my post on the origins of “pro-social institutions“, I have been asked about books on culture & economics, and the new(ish) interdisciplinary field of cultural evolution.
For the economistic perspective on culture, the key summary articles are Nathan Nunn, “Culture and the Historical Process“; and Alesina & Giuliano, “Culture and institutions“. Also see Sriya Iyer’s survey, “The New Economics of Religion“.
The best book on cultural evolution is by far Joe Henrich’s recent The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. (You can also see Henrich’s 15-minute presentation of his book.) It offers many delights, but my favourite bit is this. Henrich has a very interesting way of looking at (premodern) technology as a designerless-yet-designed, culturally evolved product for which no single person has any idea why it works but users have confidence in ancestrally transmitted methods. The best example is manioc processing — manioc is toxic yet the detoxification process is completely non-intuitive and users have no idea why any of the steps in the incredibly labourious system work. They just blindly imitate ancestral customs, but somehow this blind cultural evolution has an ‘intelligence’ and is highly efficient. If you skip one step in the process the whole thing fails. The manioc processing example is all the more evocative for its causal opacity — the damage from failure to follow all the steps in the traditional process (such as merely removing the bitter taste) is only apparent in the very long run, so there is no way individuals could have put 2 and 2 together and said it prevents toxin poisoning. I haven’t read a book with as many eureka! type insights in a long time.
Henrich’s book is compelling as narrative. But if you want more nuts-and-bolts description of what cultural evolution is about, especially in relationship with biological evolution, then Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences; and Boyd & Richerson’s Not By Genes Alone: How culture transformed human evolution. The mathematical theory is translated into ordinary language; it’s argued that cultures evolve in a way analogous with Darwinian biological evolution; and evidence (mostly) from the social sciences such as anthropology and sociology is put forward. Rest assured: this movement upholds culture as the driver of human social evolution, not genes or biology, but they reject the dichotomy between cultural and biological evolution, considering it a single process.
However, most of the cultural-evolution guys (Henrich, Mesoudi, Boyd, Richerson) are quantitatively orientated anthropologists who are more comfortable trucking in evolutionary game theory or talking about foraging bands like the Aché of Paraguay. You won’t get too much about the role of culture in history or economic life. For cultural evolution and recorded human history, the best (and almost the only) book-length exemplar is Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War: the Rise and Fall of Empires. This is the popularisation of theoretical modelling and empirical work he has done elsewhere. Not only does it apply the principles of cultural evolution to the dynamics of state formation and decay, but it also has the best single chapter describing the science of human sociality. Also worth a look is Turchin’s Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth with arguments drawn from anthropology, archaeology, religion, ancient history, as well as contemporary life. It’s also got a chapter with the best explanation-illustration of cultural group selection.