Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


The Economy of Nature: A Brief Introduction

all organic beings are striving to seize on each place in the economy of nature
(Darwin, [1859] 2003, p. 90)

Needless to say, Darwin’s theory of descent with modification was a true conceptual revolution[1]. It provides a general mechanism that explains the diversity and adaptivity of living beings—natural selection—and a guiding principle for organizing the mass of facts about them, the tree of life [2]. In recalling how this idea had come to his mind, Darwin wrote that he was trying to solve one problem: how is it that plants and animals sharing a common ancestry end up to be so different?
“The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature”[3].
Darwin repeatedly uses the expression “economy of nature” in The Origin of Species and other writings. He was not the first to conceive nature as an economy, although he was among the first to suggest an explicit similarity between natural and political economy. Before Darwin, the idea of nature as an economy had no particular ramification with human economic practices. In The Sacred Theory of the Earth, theologian Thomas Burnet referred to the “Oeconomy of nature” as the “well ordering of the great Family of living Creatures”[4] an order of divine origin. Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, in his Specimen Academicum de Oeconomia Naturae, construed this divine order has being self-organized, exhibiting a balance of births and deaths, a complementarity between the function and purpose of life forms[5]. Adam Smith recognized the unity of this economy, where all living forms strive for “self-preservation, and the propagation of the species” but are limited in their problem-solving capacities, and hence must often rely on intuition instead of reasoning[6]. Lyell, in his Principle of Geology, describes how the involuntary agency of human and other animals “
contribute to extend or limit the geographical range and numbers of certain species, in obedience to general rules in the economy of nature, which are for most the part out of our control”[7].
Where Linnaeus saw a clockwork organization, Lyell’s representation of the world was more that of a dynamic equilibrium.

Thus, from natural theology to geology, the economy of nature referred to the complex organization of the universe[8]. What was new with Darwin is that the economy of nature began to be understood with conceptual tools borrowed from political economy. The division of labor, competition (“struggle” in Darwin’s words), trading, cost, the accumulation of innovations, the emergence of complex order from unintentional individual actions, the scarcity of resources and the geometric growth of populations are ideas borrowed from Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Hume and other founders of modern economics. Thus, the “economy of nature” ceased to be an abstract representation of the universe and became a depiction of the complex web of interactions between biological individuals, species and their environment. The beginning of evolutionary biology coincided also with the beginning of ecology. The founder of ecology, Ernst Haeckel, defined this science as
“the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature (…) the study of all those complex interrelationships referred to by Darwin as the condition of the struggle for existence”[9].
Consequently, Darwin’s main contributions are its transforming biology into a historical science (like geology) and an economic science[10]. From evolutionary game theory to biological markets, this approach is now flourishing.

Notes and References

[1] (Charles Darwin, 1859)
[2] (see Dennett, 1995; Gayon, 2003; Thagard, 1992, chapter 6)
[3] (C. Darwin, 1887, p. 84)
[4] (Burnet, [ca. 1692]1965, II, x),
[5] (Hestmark, 2000; Linnaeus, 1751).
[6] (Smith, [1759] 2002, p. 90)
[7] (Lyell, [1830-33]1853, p. 664)
[8] (Bowler, 1976; Ghiselin, 1978, 1995, 1999; Hammerstein & Hagen, 2005; Hodgson, 2001; Schabas, 2005)
[9] in “Morphology of Organisms” (1866); see (Stauffer, 1960).
[10] (Ghiselin, 1999, p. 7).

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