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Readings: February 23, 2020
Economic Existentialism, Philosophical Transcendentalism, and Biological Dilettantism
A new week begins, and a change of format follows. I followed no discernable theme with these summaries, except for shortening them where I could.
by Roger E. Backhouse and Steven G. Medema | Journal of Economic Perspectives | Winter 2009
A concise history of economists’ struggle to define the discipline and the changes wrought on methodology, subject matter, and ideology.
Economics is not a science renowned for consensus; pithy jokes abound on their capacity for waffling and basic disagreement. Nevertheless, Backhouse and Medema find trends in self-characterization among prominent economists since Xenophon—from the practice of household management to the science of rational decision. One interesting variance includes a rough dialectic between economics as the study of national and institutional entities and of individual choice. Smith, for example, saw the economy in terms of macroscopic equilibrium formation and national industries; a century later, Alfred Marshall, following the Austrians, called the paramount purpose of economics “the study of man,” eschewing wealth. Paul Samuelson would later synthesize both approaches in his 1947 textbook. The authors also stress disagreements over the scope of economics (which periodically enclosed psychology, sociology, philosophy, and history) from the “study of scarcity” definition offered by Lionel Robbins in 1932 to the all-encompassing rational behavior framework indulged by Gary Becker during the late twentieth century.
by Ola Olsson and Christopher Paik | Journal of Economic History | 20 January 2020
A provocative study qualifies Jared Diamond’s thesis that early adoption of agriculture predicted later prosperity and development.
As many readers will know, Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel was (and may still be) the canonical work on the geographical determinants of economic growth. One of his most provocative claims positively correlated (among global macro-regions) the swift transition to settled farming with future wealth. This paper, however, produces a substantial negative relationship from an analysis of an array of sites within Europe (where C14-dated locales abound)—in effect, finding that an earlier Neolithic Revolution manifested itself in lower modern income levels. Also, this relationship has been becoming increasingly negative over time, and can be extended to the advent of democracy. In their model (which seems rather speculative), this outcome is due in part to the weaker extractive institutions formed by the later adopters. The regression associates each 1000-year increase in years since adoption with a 39% decrease in present GDP, a result which essentially holds both for countries and NUTS2-regions (states/provinces).
by Patrick O’Brien | Reviews in History | November 2010
An overview of competing perspectives on widening inequality between West and East Eurasia in the leadup to the Industrial Revolution.
Economic history would be difficult enough without the traditional and unavoidable injections of ideology, and few topics have had so many doses as has the Great Divergence Debate—the question of why output and income in Western Europe outpaced that everywhere else during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. O’Brien presents a fairly balanced review of the major explanatory hypotheses (represented by Weber, Pomeranz, and Marx/Wallerstein), and concludes that each, while potentially viable, is endemically flawed; he himself lands near Robert Allen’s view that cheap resources facilitated the substitution of machinery for organic sources of power. Max Weber’s claim (echoed by David Landes) that European culture and institutions uniquely fit growth is outdated and ahistorical, as is the Marxian model stressing the transition from feudalism; Kenneth Pomeranz’s assertion that China had neared its production possibilities frontier is dubious, given the success of resource-poor Japan; and the World-Systems doctrine of an exogenous boost from foreign imports, silver, and exploitative labor exaggerates the importance of global trade to European economies.
by Allen W. Wood | Times Literary Supplement | January 2020
A short, but surprisingly comprehensive, introduction to the metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics of Immanuel Kant.
Here, Kant is introduced as part of a series of “Footnotes to Plato,” but Wood repositions all of modern philosophy as footnotes to Kant. The recursive footnotes might explain why philosophy has become increasingly convoluted and obscurely self-referential ever since. This overview is much clearer; the prerequisite biopic is short and situates the origins of Kant’s metaphysics in Enlightenment-era natural philosophy (apparently, his background was in geology), which inspired his distinctive epistemic humility. He combines a scientist’s faith in empirical reality with his skepticism about essentialism—recognizing that nature consists of a state of real objects whose interactions must be discovered through critical rationality. The character of sense data is determined by the combination of the receiving mind and the physical circumstances from which the data is collected, but cognition determines the explicable structure. Thus:
Human knowledge is not the precise mirror of realities and relationships that exist entirely independently of us. Instead, the order of nature must be seen as an order that we, as knowers, create. Our own understanding, Kant says, is the true law-giver of nature… we cognize only “appearances” not “things as they are in themselves”.
This is quite a relativistic interpretation of transcendental idealism, but it fits Wood’s larger picture of Kant as ethicist and aesthete. In denying theoretical knowledge of an essential nature, Kantian philosophy creates an analytical basis for subjective considerations of beauty and morality—they arise from the same process of cognition that generates the human image of reality. Morality and beauty arise as symbols as a direct result of efforts to comprehend the visible, whether in nature or social interactions. A discussion of the categorical imperative follows (a universal claim imposed by our need to maintain dignity), and is summary enough to prohibit summary, as does a standard recounting of the concept of the sublime. Nevertheless, anyone unacquainted with these aspects will find the full article useful.
by Kostas A. Triantis and Thomas J. Matthews | Nature | 19 February 2020
A new study in Nature supports a classic theory of speciation in island ecosystems.
This one is the last, I promise—it just made for such pleasant reading. The famed ecologists E. O. Wilson and R. H. MacArthur developed the theory of island biogeography during the 1960s, contending that species diversity on a particular island was a product of the rates of extinction, colonization, and speciation. These were in turn determined by island size (yielding a larger survey area but easing extinction) and isolation (inhibiting colonization and encouraging separate development). Examining molecular phylogenetic data—concerned with the genetic bases of heredity—for 90 species across 41 archipelagos, the authors (Valente et al) estimated rates of change and compared them with the relevant geographic features of the islands under study. They confirmed that “that extinction rates decline with increasing island area, colonization rates decline with increasing distance from the island to the continent, and speciation rates increase with the area and isolation of islands”—the core principle of biogeographical theory. Both major types of speciation, anagenesis (divergence of colonist group from a mainland type) and cladogenesis (divergence within an extant group), were more prevalent on large, isolated islands. These insights are interesting, but not particularly new; the unique aspects of this paper are the molecular-level dataset and the experimentation with biologically-determined survey regions, both of which could be applied to analyses of land ecosystems.