Bold books that offer grand theses to explain the course of human history are risky endeavors. Few such attempts rightfully linger in the collective conscious: from the 18th century's The Wealth of Nations to the following century's Das Capital and potentially to the relatively recent Guns, Germs, and Steel. But most are quickly forgotten. If these are judged on the merit of the arguments, Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, will quickly end up in the latter category.

Clark, an economic historian and the chair of the economics department at the University of California, Davis, asks a fundamental question of history: Why did the Industrial Revolution occur where and when it did? In other words, why did the global economy diverge? Why did northern Europe, particularly England, grow rich while the most of the rest of the world remained in poverty? And why haven't other areas caught up?

The answer he proposes is both beautifully simple and excessively reductionist. By essentially ignoring institutions such as government and religion, major developments, and power...