How far can cultural differences be traced back?

Cultural differences between countries are quite large, and likely affect differences in economic development. But how did these differences arise in the first place? Consider recent history: it’s not a stretch to believe that Europeans who immigrated to the US were generally individualistic, adventurous, entrepreneurial people who potentially did not fit in well with their existing society; they were possibly non-conformist, less obedient that those who stayed.

Values such as individualism, innovativeness and entrepreneurialism gave these immigrants an edge in the longer term, and this made the US very successful, even relative to Europe. Can such a story apply over the much longer term? Can it explain how cultures diverged thousands of years ago?

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How economic incentives shape wealth transmission

Parental wealth transmission to children can take many forms. Primogeniture refers to a preferred (usually first-born) child getting all the wealth, whereas a completely egalitarian transmission would mean each child getting the same share. Then there is everything in-between.

Which one of these societies tended towards historically varied quite a bit by time and place. Surely, there are cultural and historical reasons for this. But there are also economic ones.

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Will global population level off soon?

The Earth’s population has been growing steadily over the last century, and agricultural production could keep up with it. This means that there were no Malthusian constraints on population. The question in such a situation is for how long population can keep growing.

To answer this question, one has to make several assumptions. For instance, the UN’s calculations assuming a mid-level of fertility (meaning all countries converge to the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman) would imply that world population plateaus off around 11 billion by 2100. But how accurate is this prediction?
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The origins of patience

The rate of time preference or in other words long-term orientation has been found to be an important determinant of human behavior. Generally, it is associated with better educational outcomes, and even better physical and emotional health. On an aggregate level it can affect differences in GDP across countries.

This post presents a new paper that asks how differences in time preference arose. Clearly, we see substantial variation in time preference across countries, so the question is what caused this.

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The emergence of agriculture

For most of history, humans have actually been hunter-gatherers. Specifically, if we assume that “modern” humans started with the cognitive revolution about 70,000 years ago, then we’ve roughly spent 85% of our time on Earth as foragers.

It is now a largely accepted fact among historians that hunter-gatherers actually had better, healthier diets, they worked less and their lives in general were much more enjoyable. At least when you compare them to early agriculturalists. Then what made us change our minds about hunting and gathering? And why did it not happen at the same time everywhere?

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