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Nature: An Economic History
Princeton University Press, 2006
445 pp., $38.95
Andrew P. Morriss
What do you think of when you think of economics? Supply and demand curves crossing? Constrained optimization problems? Is economics just a science (or black art) dealing with the money supply, comparative advantage, and inflation? Over the past fifty years, there have been a number of bold efforts at pushing the frontiers of economic analysis past such obviously "economic" issues. Gary Becker won the Nobel Prize for applying economic analysis to issues ranging from marriage to discrimination, and several economists, including Lawrence Iannaconne at George Mason University, have profitably deployed economics to study religion.
Even these bold steps outside of the traditional subject matter of economics left a great deal of the world outside economists' domain. No longer. Geerat Vermeij, a geologist, has taken economic reasoning even further, arguing in Nature: An Economic History that economists and natural scientists are asking the same kinds of questions in their seemingly disparate fields. He contends that "common principles underlie all these diverse fields, and that these principles imply broadly predictable patterns of change through time, patterns with interesting implications for our future." Margaret Schabas, a philosopher with an economics degree, makes the case in The Natural Origins of Economics that economics once had strong connections to the natural sciences, connections that she thinks the discipline should revive. These are provocative assertions worth considering in detail.
Is Natural Science Economics?
Vermeij defines an economy to be "a system of living, self-interested, interacting beings or entities that compete for locally scarce resources." With this broad definition, much of the natural world falls into a system of natural economies. Vermeij makes a convincing case that thinking about large swaths of the natural world in terms of a competition for scarce resources is both accurate and useful. For example, Vermeij's science leads him to reflect ...