EVOLUTIONS, AND (REGIONAL) SCIENCE
In a 1996 book, The
Future of Capitalism, Lester Thurow makes skillful use of two metaphors
from the natural sciences. The first is the concept from biology of
. The second metaphor is the image of tectonic
plates, the geological layers whose largest versions are continental in
scale, which lie beneath the surface of the earth and drift an inch or two a
year, causing the earthquakes and volcanoes that are visible to us.
Thurow's argument is that
the world economy has arrived at a moment of sudden change, marked by five
"tectonic" underlying forces. To wit:
(1) the end of
Time has not been kind to Thurow's diagnoses of America's weakness.
But our interest concerns not his predictions but his evolutionary metaphors.
(For more in the way of geological metaphors in particular, see his 1998 New
York Review of Books essay,
The Collapse and the Cure.)
(2) the arrival of a
truly global economy, owing to communications advances,
(3) the end of
America's technological advantage relative to the rest of the world,
(4) the end of
America's economic, military, and diplomatic leadership, and
including migration and the aging of the world's populations.
1. BIOLOGICAL ANALOGIES: FROM MARSHALL TO SCHUMPETER
Thurow is not the first
economist to use a biological analogy to chart capitalism's trajectory. The
logic of punctuated equilibria accords with Joseph Schumpeter's famous chapter,
"The Process of Creative Destruction" in his Capitalism, Socialism, and
Democracy (1942, 1962, pp. 81-86). "The essential point to grasp," he wrote
there, "is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an
evolutionary process (p. 82)." The driver he saw was innovationnot
only technological, but organizational as well. "The fundamental impulse that
sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers'
goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the
new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates" (p.
The biological metaphor
lies at the core of Schumpeter's vision of capitalism. In addition to
technological innovations in the steel industry, in energy conversion, and in
The opening up
of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational developments from
the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of
industrial mutationif I may use that biological term that
incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly
destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of
Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism (p.
Schumpeter, Alfred Marshall had also embraced biological and in particular
evolutionary imagery. His famous textbook, Principles of Economics,
which went through 8 editions until the last one in 1920, had the Latin motto
on the title page,"Natura non facit saltum." This translates (I gather) as
"nature does not work in leaps." Or, as he explained in another of his standard
works, Industry and Trade (1923, p. 6), The idea that, "Nature does not
willingly make a jump
is specially applicable to economic development."
(Cited in Laurence Moss, 1982, p. 3.)
In "Biological Theory and
Technological Entrepreneurship in Marshall's writings," Laurence Moss has shown
that Marshall's fondness for evolutionary imagery had a finite
life-cycle. As Moss writes in beginning his account, "it is instructive to
begin with Schumpeter's views on economic development because Alfred Marshall's
views are exactly the opposite" (Moss, p. 3). As we noted, Schumpeter believed
that nature (economic nature at least) moved not only in leaps, but in
revolutionary bursts of creative destruction, driven by entrepreneurial
The story Moss tells us
reveals a great deal about the politics of evolutionary metaphors.
Darwin's theory of evolution via natural selection implied long, smooth,
continuous adaptations of a species to its natural environment. When this view
was challenged in the early years of the 20th century by Mendel's earlier
genetic experiments, Marshall lost his appetite for evolutionary metaphors.
By that time, Darwin's
notion of survival of the fittest had long since been snatched by
Herbert Spencer to provide a justification for the extreme inequalities of
wealth that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Spencer propounded a theory
of Social Darwinism, i.e., to the victor belong the spoils. The victor,
in this context, is the industrialist best adapted to his economic environment.
John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and the other Robber Barons were rich
because they were best endowed. (From a subsequent perspective, that of
Schumpeter, the Robber Barons were also entrepreneurs, hence authors of
creative destruction, the engine of progress.)
The political thorn in
Social Darwinism cuts more deeply when it strikes the system's losers, ordinary
people. In Spencer's scheme of things, they were less suited to the
environment, but, alas, that was nature's way, as it were. To this extent,
Spencer accepted the ideological baton from Thomas Malthus, whose policy
message in works such as his at first anonymous Essay on the Principle of
Population (1798) was that it is useless to help the poor, since
they will only reproduce themselves in larger numbers. On the scale of the
world economy, similar reasoning justified imperialism, and the domination of
"inferior races" by whites (and in Asia, by Japan).
What, then, was Mendel's
heresy that dislodged Marshall from his love of (Darwinian) evolutionary
metaphors? In retrospect, the answer is surprising. While Mendel's genetic
"laws" modified Darwinian "natural selection" in basic ways, nothing in
Mendel's genetic laws is necessarily "mutationist." Instead, what Moss notes is
that an interpreter of Mendel's theory, one Hugo de Vries, pushed the
mutationist emphasis because it suited his tastes. The mutationist (and
therefore discontinuous) interpretation of Mendel popularized by de Vries seems
to have put a chill on Marshall's interest in biology.
What is clear is that
Marshall backed away. In a footnote quoted by Moss, Marshall distances himself
from the vulgarity of a "great-man" theory of economic change as follows:
will remain valid even if further investigation confirms the
suggestion, made by some Mendelians, that gradual changes in the race are
originated by large divergences of individuals from the prevailing type. For
economics is a study of mankind, of particular nations, of particular social
strata; and it is only indirectly concerned with the lives of men of
exceptional genius or exceptional wickedness and violence. (Marshall, 1920, p.
In other words,
Marshall saw fit to reject biological analogies once they seemed to permit
mutationist disruptions. In contrast, such disruptions (or discontinuities) are
just what Schumpeter's entrepreneur inflicts upon the world..
Not that contemporary
biology still holds to a mutationist view of evolutionary change. As summarized
by Daniel Levinthal in a 1998 article (p. 218):
perspective, introduced by Gould and Eldredge
hinges not on single
mutational event but on speciationthe separation of reproductive
activity. The initial speciation event is minor in the sense that the form does
not differ substantially from its predecessor. However, as a result of a
separate reproductive process driven by genetic drift and a possibly distinct
selection environment, the speciation event may trigger a divergent
explain evolution, then, (1) Darwin advocated natural selection
(giraffes with long necks being better adapted to reach the leaves on higher
branches), (2) Mendel introduced the science of genetics, which was interpreted
later to highlight the role of mutations, whereas a school of
contemporary biologists highlight (3) speciation.
2. MODELS AND METAPHORS TODAY
Why does any of this
matter for our purposes? The metaphor is being used to help us understand
the way technologies evolve. As Levinthal writes, "These ideas are applied
here to provide insight into the pace and nature of technological change." In
his view, "As in the process of punctuation in the biological context, the
critical factor is often a speciation event, the application of existing
technological know-how to a new domain of application" (p. 218).
In turn, the application
of the metaphor can reveal something about human agency, the role of
entrepreneurs in advancing the pace of technological change. That, at least, is
the goal. As Levinthal observes, "The process of 'creative destruction'
occurs when the technology that emerges from the speciation event is
successfully able to invade other niches
." (p. 218). The case he
explores is the development of wireless communication technology. His
conclusion, consistent with the speciation theme, is that the great events in
the 20th century history of wireless were not dramatic technical breakthroughs
but rather applications of existing techniques to new commercial domains.
IS THE NEW ECONOMY A
BIOLOGICAL ECOSYSTEM? (PROBABLY NOT)
On the other hand,
metaphors can mislead. Or they can obfuscate. (Come to that, watch out for
fabricated quotes attributed to
an imaginary Darwin.)
Kevin Kelley's useful
book, New Rules for a New Economy, advocates the use of biological
metaphors to understand the new economy:
technological systems is becoming more biological. This will take a lot of
getting used to. Networks actually grow. Evolution can really be imported into
machines. Technological immune systems can be used to control computer viruses.
This neobiologicalism seeps directly into our new economy. More and more,
biological metaphors are useful economic metaphors (p.
Examples are used
throughout the book. Consider this simile (not strictly a metaphor, but at
least a trope): "[Life evolved] from globular organisms into fantastic beings,
just as networks allow place-based firms to blossom into fantastic spaces." P.
This rhetoric helps
Kelley explore the ramifications of Metcalfe's Law. Recall that the law says
that (unlike costs, which are linear) benefits to the N users of a network
increase quadratically (N x N) as the number rises. The threshold effects that
result lead to images of increasing returns, meaning not the economist's
increasing returns to scale, but positive feedback. As Kelley puts it, "In
networks we find self-reinforcing virtuous circles. Each additional member
increases the network's value, which in turn attracts more members, initiating
a spiral of benefits" (p. 25).
Kelley's book is
worthwhile, and a real clarification of some of the preliminary ideas that
appeared in the on-line version at Wired, where he is the top editor. For
example, he has reduced his controversial "12 rules for the New Economy" to 10:
the Swarm (Embrace "the decentralized points of control.")
Returns (As in Metcalfe's Law, with positive feedback added.)
3. Plenitude, Not
Scarcity (Software and net firms can have low variable costs.)
4. Follow the
Free (Software, e.g., with zero marginal costs, can be given away.)
5. Feed the Web
First ("Unless the net survives, the firm perishes.")
6. Let Go at the Top
(Be ready to cannibalize your success and go for it again.)
7, From Places to
Spaces (We see disintermediation and "new mid-size niches.")
8. No Harmony, All
Flux (Keep innovating to survive.)
Tech (As in "high tech, high touch": the winning mix.)
before Efficiencies (Do the right thing, not just things right.)
On the other hand, a
book like Michael Rothschild's Bionomics: Economy as Ecosystem (1990) is
for some tastes, at least, over the top. The metaphor permits countless
biological examples that may or may not shed light on economic relationships.
Mostly, by my reading, they do not. But many business people seem to find his
comparisons useful as an aid for thinking about competition (as in
Two points about
metaphors are worth making in this context. One is that, as just noted, they
can stimulate new thinking. "A metaphor achieves its effect by holding in
tension two incompatible meanings that reveal some new insight." Or, "A
metaphor expresses an is/is not tension that creates meaning." (Both quotes are
in a spectacularly constructive essay on deconstructionism and
by William Grassie.)
The second point is more
elusive. It is that metaphors are mental models, just as mathematical models
are in a sense metaphors. You will recall from high-school English classes
that a metaphor is one form of "trope," or figure of speech. It says that one
thing is something else, so as to make a point. A simile, in contrast, says
that one thing is like something else. Either trope, metaphor or simile,
is intended somehow to get at an as yet undefined property of an object,
relationship, or idea.
Mathematical models in
science have the same function. We need not go into this point here, as later
in this textbook you will find an abundance of beautiful mathematical models
to help you test your visions of the world. Suffice it here to tell you
Paul Krugman's punch-line when he
addressed the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy in
November, 1996. "In short, I believe that economics would be a more productive
field if we learned something important from evolutionists: that models are
metaphors, and that we should use them, not the other way around."
As a student of the
"real" evolutionary literature, Krugman can also be
scathing about the
mis-use of evolutionary metaphors. And yet it would hard to find a more
informative exploration in the field of complexity theory (based on the study
of pattern in nature) than his 1996 book, The Self-Organizing Economy.
This lively little book, a counterpoint to
Brian Arthur's work, reappraises
much of urban economics and recasts it using models of self-organizing systems.
Someone has said that the
history of mathematics can be understood as progressing from place to pace
to pattern. "Place" refers to Euclidean geometry in the ancient world.
"Pace" refers to the discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz in the 17th
century. "Pattern" is the current mode in science, as buzzwords and phrases
like chaos, complexity, emergent properties, and self-organizing systems make
clear. It is just this new emphasis on pattern (as distinct from formal
hypothesis-testing using simple refutable statements to be tested with data)
that makes metaphor an increasingly prominent instrument in science.
ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY AS A
STUDY IN "THE FALL OF SCIENCE"
What was the scientific
method? In a 1996 book, the geographer Trevor J. Barnes highlights the dance
between logic and evidence:
From the 1920s
to the late 1950s and early 1960s, the received view within the philosophy of
science was the hypothetico-deductive model of explanation. Before then the
inductivist model prevailed. But because of a fatal logical flaw first
recognized by David Humethat an empirical regularity observed in the past
need not logically continue into the futureinductivism was supplanted by
a deductive model at the turn of the century. It was not until 1948, though,
that the H-D method was formally codified in a well-known paper by Hempel and
Oppenheim. They argued that all scientific explanation is characterized by the
same logical structure, one combining hypothesized laws with the deductive
is called Logics of Dislocation: Models, Metaphors, and Meanings of Economic
Space. (Barnes, 1996.) He recounts the rise and fall of "the scientific
method" in geography using the story of David Harvey, who performed "the most
famous about-face in geography" (Barnes, p. 103). In 1969, Harvey's book,
Explanation in Geography, advocated the H-D (hypothetico-deductive)
philosophy of science and advanced the cause of mathematics within the field.
Within four years, Harvey
reappeared as a full-blown Marxist geographer, advocating an almost completely
different system of thought. Eventually, in 1989, the year the Cold War ended,
Harvey would move on to a post-Marxist stance, in The Condition of
Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. In Barnes'
view, Harvey's 1969 version of the scientific method was already dated when it
appeared, having been eclipsed by the "strong program" in the sociology of
scientific knowledge (SSK) at the University of Edinburgh, a view that makes
knowledge claims in science a matter of social relations.
transformation could be described in the cliché as a "paradigm shift."
The word paradigm derives in practice from a hugely influential 1962 book by
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The concept has
been extended in academic circles to mean that "all belief-systems are
arbitrary," artifacts of one's socially derived framework and implicit
assumptions. That Kuhn himself was in some fundamental way confused is
suggested in a powerful recent downgrading of his book, Steven Weinberg's 1998
"The Revolution that Didn't Happen."
The upshot is that to an
outsider, at least, economic geography today appears polarized as between
pragmatic empiricism and ideological abstraction. Consider in this regard a
recent working paper on "The New Regionalism," posted on the site of
The Economic Geography
Research Group. John Lovering of Cardiff University, in "Theory Led by
Policy: The Inadequacies of 'The New Regionalism' in Economic Geography
Illustrated from the Case of Wales," critiques the "New Regionalism in
Thought." That is, he disputes "that sub-set of ideas in policy-related
economic geography which converge on the claim that 'the region' is
displacing the nation-state as the 'crucible' of economic development." (p.
Sophisticated New Regionalism and Vulgar New Regionalism:
Sophisticated New Regionalism concerns itself
with the logical implication of assumptions, and operates in a theoretical
space carved out by the invention of ideal-types. As such, it is unaffected by
claims concerning the real world. Its purpose is to point out
theoretical possibilities (such as the possible role of economic
interactions or relations of 'Trust' in territorial 'clusters' of industry).
The sophisticated version, he continues, is sophisticated by virtue of its
distance from empirical claims that might be readily refuted.
By the same
token, Vulgar New Regionalism lends itself to refutation: (VNR) assumes or
implies that theoretical categories can be read-across to real-world empirics.
It derives its force from concrete empirical claims, and its vulgarity arises
from the fact that many of these are crude, over-generalised, or just plain
inaccurate. In other words, regional development in the case in question is not
in reality shaped by the processes upon which it focuses, but is in fact shaped
by other factors altogether.
3. REGIONAL SCIENCE: OPEN, MULTIDISCIPLINARY, TECHNICAL,
So when it comes to
evidence and belief, it depends on what you are trying to do.
Regional science can be
understood as a tolerant safe haven for people from other, more formally
controlled or method-constrained disciplinessuch as neoclassical
Yet from its inception in
1956 at the University of Pennsylvania, regional science has had a
hard-scientific bent to it. The Penn Ph.D. program in regional science began
when Walter Isard and Benjamin Stevens came there from MIT, where Isard had
been Stevens' dissertation supervisor. (You can read this story in a more
graceful version on the
Memorial site, in a biography written by Ronald Miller, who for many years
edited the discipline's flagship journal, The Journal of Regional Science,
along with Isard and Stevens.) A snapshot of Ben (in
the hat) and Walter at a regional science
conference a few years ago has kindly been provided by Robert C. Douglas, who
took the picture.
Stevens was a renegade
scion of the J.P. Stevens textile empire. After a year at Cornell, followed by
a year working in a factory in Mexico (at local wages), he came back to Georgia
Tech for a degree in mechanical engineering. He arrived in 1952 at MIT's
Economics Department (then as now, as good as it gets) fully credentialed in
the quantitative arts.
Now one might ask why,
when Stevens showed up mathematically legitimate at the nation's top economics
department, he got a degree instead from MIT's planning program. The answer,
perhaps, is that economics as then practiced in the very best departments
had no room for space as a variable. As Paul Krugman has said recently,
The first big
effort to get space into economics came in the 1950s, under the leadership of
the redoubtable Walter Isard. Isard was and is a man of huge energy and vast
learning; he performed an invaluable service in making the previously
inaccessible German tradition available to monolingual economists like myself;
and he created an interdisciplinary enterprise, regional science, which has
been of considerable practical importance in the real world. But the aim he set
himself in his magnum opus, Location and Space Economy, to bring spatial
concerns into the heart of economic theory, was never attained.
Krugman, 1995, Development, Geography, and Economic Theory, p. 55.)
The reason, Krugman
believes, is that economic theory in that day was dependent on the assumptions
of constant returns to scale and perfect competition. Only much later, when a
newly formalized model of monopolistic competition was introduced by economists
Avinash Dixit and Joseph Stiglitz in 1977, was the way cleared for what Krugman
sees as a more unified theory of location and spatial structure, which he has
now described as "the new economic geography." (Paul Krugman, "Urban
Concentration: The Role of Increasing Returns and Transport Costs,"
International Regional Science Review, 1996, 19, p. 6.)
What needs to be
understood is that regional science began as a science. Ron Miller's biography
on the Stevens site
observes that in 1957 Stevens added space to the domain of linear
programming just as Isard had already done with input-output
"An Interregional Linear Programming Model"
infused the linear programming framework with a spatial dimension in rather the
same way that Isard's article on regional input-output analysis had done for
input-output models some seven years earlier.
Ben continued to explore
the ways in which mathematical developments in economics, operations research
and related disciplines could enrich the field of regional science.
The result, says
Miller, was to extend "a sound quantitative foundation for the still-young
field of regional science." This foundation would eventually be extended to
include other formal models in location theory.
What, then, is regional
science today? Krugman's conclusion is on target:
ended up creating was an eclectic applied field: regional science. Regional
science is not a unified subject. It is best described as a collection of
tools, some crude, some fairly sophisticated, which help someone who needs an
answer to practical problems involving spatial issues
. (p. 57).
multidisciplinary, technical, and pragmaticall these, combined with an
orientation to space and location, are the hallmarks of the discipline.
In putting together the
Stevens memorial site, I had occasion to compile two sets of links to do
justice to the discipline that Isard and Stevens and Miller created. One list
is long, a kitchen sink. The other I dubbed
in regional science. It is short and selective: a dozen sites that are intended
to convey the range and power of the discipline. Someone else could come up
with a different list, perhaps an entirely non-overlapping one. In any case,
this selection may give you a place to start your explorations.
to Section C