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Against the house-of-mirrors view of interdisciplinarity

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A persistent view of the relationships between economics and biology is that "history repeats itself" again and again. …

A persistent view of the relationships between economics and biology is that "history repeats itself" again and again.
This presentation challenges this view by insisting on the variability of the different episodes of this relationship. And I suggest that when there is indeed similarities, they should be accounted for, not judged as natural.


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  • 1. Clement Levallois
    Collegio Carlo Alberto, Moncalieri
    May 19, 2011
    “Economics reflected in nature, nature reflected in economics”Against the house-of-mirrors view of interdisciplinarity
  • 2.
  • 3. “To put the sketch crudely, Malthus began his essay by comparing people to animals in order to fix his conception of population pressing upon resources.
    “Darwin, as has often been noted, read Malthus and the political economists, and this (by his own testimony) prompted him to see competition and the division of labor in animal Nature.
    “Darwinism quite rapidly reprojected back upon society in the form of social Darwinism. Mix two parts social Darwinism with a dash of simple Marshallian microeconomics and you arrive at E. O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology; opt instead for two parts game theory and you get the new population ecology.” (Mirowski 1994, 15).  
    “The spiral never stops,” continues Mirowski.
  • 4.
  • 5. Lotka, physical biology
    Samuelson, neoclassic economics
    Stanley Jevons, economics
    Glimcher neuroeconomics
  • 6. EconomICS MEETING BIOLOGY
    There are a few basic, classic ingredients which recombine endlessly.
    The manner by which these ingredients combine is unimportant
    Invariably, these combinations are conservative if not reactionary in essence or tone.
  • 7. Instead…
    For each new episode, the ingredients are different and varied
    The manner by which these ingredients combine is important
    Why many of these combinations are conservative (or portrayed as such) is a matter to be investigated, not a settled fact.
  • 8. 1. NEW INGREDIENTS
  • 9. Example one: The variability of social Darwinism
    Source: Hodgson 2004,
    Journal of the History of Sociology
  • 10. Example two: From the gene to the brain
  • 11. 2. The recipe matters
  • 12.
  • 13.
  • 14. 3. A persistent conservative flavor:YES BUT HOW?
  • 15.
  • 16. 1977
    2007
    The “iron cage” of science news reporting? (cf. Davidson 2009)
  • 17. Conclusion
    The traits of the eco – biolo relationship are evolving
    The variability of these traits should be acknowledged, not dismissed
    The persistence of some traits should be explained, not assumed
    Thank you!
  • 18. SELECTED References (1/2)
    BoixMansilla, Verónica. 2006. “Assessing expert interdisciplinary work at the frontier: an empirical exploration.” Research Evaluation 15 (1) (April): 17-29.
    Daston, Lorraine, and Fernando Vidal, eds. 2004. The Moral Authority of Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    Davidson, Roei. 2009. The iron cage transmitted: The role of the business press in homogenizing economic ideas and practices presented at the Workshop “History of Economics as Culture,” ENS de Cachan.
    Glimcher, Paul W. 2003. Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics. MIT Press.
    Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 2004. “Social Darwinism in Anglophone academic journals: A contribution to the history of the term.” Journal of Historical Sociology 17 (4) (December): 428-463.
  • 19. SELECTED References (2/2)
    Levallois, Clement, Ale Smidts, and Paul Wouters. in preparation. Whose field is it? Disciplinary interactions in neuroeconomics. Erasmus University Working Paper.
    Mirowski, Philip. 1994a. Doing What Comes Naturally: Four Metanarratives on What Metaphors Are for. In Natural Images in Economic Thought: Markets Read in Tooth and Claw, ed. Philip Mirowski. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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