Descent with modification--continuity and change in evolutionary economics.

Author:Redmond, William H.
Position:Book review

An extended review of The Evolutionary Foundations of Economics, edited by Kurt Dopfer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2005. Cloth, ISBN 0521621992, $110.00. 592 pages.

Evolutionary concepts are much in evidence these days, appearing in conference sessions, journal articles, and a variety of books. The Evolutionary Foundations of Economics is a welcome addition to this stream as it gathers in one place the observations of a number of scholars in the vanguard of this movement. This is a substantial volume of sixteen chapters by nineteen stalwarts representing two scholarly disciplines. Happily, there are three natural scientists included among the economists in order to supply a broad foundation to the theories. Surprisingly, given the topic, the natural science contributors are not biologists but rather physicists, and this combination lends the book something of the flavor of a report from the Santa Fe Institute. The contributions, in some cases derived from earlier publications or lectures, encompass a range of current and future research challenges. This review aims to give a sense of the breadth and depth of ideas being applied to the evolutionary approach, rather than a critical appraisal of this very diverse set of essays.

In chapter 1 Kurt Dopfer provides a comprehensive philosophical/theoretical framework for evolutionary economics. Here, the foundations of the title are given attention in an effort to furnish a systematic and integrated conceptual frame for evolutionary economics. There is much discussion of axioms, categories, phases, trajectories, philosophy of science, and ontology--not entirely reminiscent of Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter's seminal Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. But times do change, and scholarly underpinnings need to be secured. Such discussion is and must be part of the development of a still youngish subdiscipline; the entire June 2004 issue of the Journal of Economic Methodology was devoted to ontological issues in evolutionary economics. Dopfer's explication is admirable and thorough, yet some readers may find a bit of a challenge in this chapter (which, in fairness, is styled as a prologue rather than an introduction). However, the first half of the book isn't overly linear, so that the chapter might be read with equal profit last as well as first. Indeed affinity may well dictate sequence so that a reader with, say, a preference for institutionalism over philosophy could choose to start with history.

An interest in evolutionary processes implies an interest in how things get to be the way they are, which is to say it implies an interest in history. Geoffrey Hodgson (chapter 5) has written an interesting historical account of the use of biological metaphors in economics. This chapter sketches the rise, fall, and revival of biological analogies--particularly of evolution--from the 1880s to the 1980s. While drawing a sharp focus on American institutionalism, the analysis does not neglect neoclassical economics in the United States or Britain and starts with a brief look at pre-war German social sciences. The time line of the rise and fall will be familiar to institutionalists who have traced the parallel rise and fall of the use of instinct psychology. However, the revival of the biological metaphor started earlier and is much more pronounced than that of instinct psychology to date. The treatment is more informative than a simple time line: Hodgson provides a rich context for the discussion, noting shifts in approaches to the social sciences, the freighting and unfreighting of concepts with ideology, the change of intellectual fashions and the change in the general tenor of the times. This story is peopled not only with economists but also with the philosophers and social scientists who influenced the thought and science of their times. There is also discussion about metaphors generally and how they affect the thinking of the people who use them--and we all use them. The use of evolution...

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