When economists misunderstand biology

By | March 24, 2011

It is difficult to carve out any part of the piece because it is a discussion of a post by Russ Roberts, but let’s try this:

Whenever you hear the term ‘Darwinian’ from anyone other than historians of science, assume the crash position; it’s going to get real ugly. There’s a lot here to correct (but we like helping!). First, evolutionary biologists do predict past states: whenever we reconstruct evolutionary histories (phylogenies), we reconstruct the ancestral past states. And if we have molecular data, we can often attach a rough estimate of time to those states. We certainly can get the order in which events occurred estimated reliably.


But where Roberts goes off the rails is his statement that economists try to predict specifics and that’s impossible to do. I personally wouldn’t blame an economist who didn’t get the timing exactly right on the collapse of Big Shitpile. But what was disturbing was that very few economists–or at least those that interacted with the public–were saying that the combination of rapidly rising housing prices, high personal debt and stagnating wages were a disaster waiting to happen. Contrast that with how evolutionary biologists approached the problem of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Bruce Levin and Frank Stewart published the first population genetics treatment of the evolution of resistance. In 1977.

Read it in full here.

By the way, once a week, Russ Roberts interviews an economist on economic issues, historical and contemporary. The interviews are normally interesting, even if one does not agree with some of the points that are raised. I made my Anthropology of Capitalism students listen to his discussion of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments with Dan Klein, and the class discussion that followed was very interesting.

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