Nature

Nature: An Economic History

Geerat J. Vermeij
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 464
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rmgd
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    Nature
    Book Description:

    From humans to hermit crabs to deep water plankton, all living things compete for locally limiting resources. This universal truth unites three bodies of thought--economics, evolution, and history--that have developed largely in mutual isolation. Here, Geerat Vermeij undertakes a groundbreaking and provocative exploration of the facts and theories of biology, economics, and geology to show how processes common to all economic systems--competition, cooperation, adaptation, and feedback--govern evolution as surely as they do the human economy, and how historical patterns in both human and nonhuman evolution follow from this principle.

    Using a wealth of examples of evolutionary innovations, Vermeij argues that evolution and economics are one. Powerful consumers and producers exercise disproportionate controls on the characteristics, activities, and distribution of all life forms. Competition-driven demand by consumers, when coupled with supply-side conditions permitting economic growth, leads to adaptation and escalation among organisms. Although disruptions in production halt or reverse these processes temporarily, they amplify escalation in the long run to produce trends in all economic systems toward greater power, higher production rates, and a wider reach for economic systems and their strongest members.

    Despite our unprecedented power to shape our surroundings, we humans are subject to all the economic principles and historical trends that emerged at life's origin more than 3 billion years ago. Engagingly written, brilliantly argued, and sweeping in scope,Nature: An Economic Historyshows that the human institutions most likely to preserve opportunity and adaptability are, after all, built like successful living things.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2649-0
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-xv)
  4. Chapter 1 ECONOMY AND EVOLUTION: A ROAD MAP
    (pp. 1-12)

    We live in a changing world, in an economic context of competition and resources to which we and our forebears have both adapted and contributed. It is impossible to separate us and other life forms from that context, for the context determines our character and we determine its character. If we wish to understand the past and the future, we must discover how the link between life and its context changed in history, to what extent economic change is predictable, and how the principles governing competition-driven demand and resource-driven supply intersect to yield laws of history.

    At its core, this...

  5. Chapter 2 THE EVOLVING ECONOMY
    (pp. 13-37)

    In the world we inhabit—a world of structure—everything consists of parts, and everything is part of something else. The parts interact and thus affect each other as well as the wholes they comprise and the parts they contain. Science endeavors to understand this structure and the interactions imparting that structure in two complementary traditions. The reductionist tradition emphasizes parts and how they work. The whole is dissected, atomized, and broken down into its elementary particles. General laws are expected to emerge because there are just a few kinds of elementary particles and just a few fundamental forces and...

  6. Chapter 3 HUMAN AND NONHUMAN ECONOMIES COMPARED
    (pp. 38-58)

    If we are to learn anything about the relationships between humanity and the world’s resources from natural history, we must look to fundamental similarities between the economic and political structures that have emerged in human societies on the one hand, and the organization of life as it has unfolded over the course of biological evolution on the other. In chapter 2 I cited examples from both the natural and the human economy to illustrate unifying principles, but now the time has come to confront head-on the question of whether the similarities reflect the same underlying processes or a merely superficial...

  7. Chapter 4 THE ECONOMICS OF EVERYDAY: CONSUMPTION AND THE ROLE OF ENEMIES IN NATURE
    (pp. 59-91)

    Economics is all about making a living. It is the business of every day: getting enough to eat, paying for it, competing with neighbors, investing in the future, and, above all, staying alive. We do these things by interacting with other life forms in a world replete with risks, rewards, costs, benefits, opportunities, limitations, and uncertainties. I can’t think of a better way to explore the nature and consequences of economic interactions than to begin with consumption. Every organism is potentially exposed to it, and many life forms engage in it as herbivores, parasites, predators, scavengers, filter-feeders, detritus-feeders, and decomposers....

  8. Chapter 5 THE ECONOMICS OF EVERYDAY: PRODUCTION AND THE ROLE OF RESOURCES
    (pp. 92-120)

    Why is the world green? Nelson Hairston, Frederick Smith, and Lawrence Slobodkin asked this seemingly simple question in a classic paper published in 1960. The most obvious answer is that we humans, and all the other animals and fungi of this planet, wouldn’t be here without the constant toil of green plants and those other, not necessarily green, creatures that make organic matter from inorganic components. Consumption is impossible without production, and if there is too much consumption for the productive machinery to absorb, all the green things will die, along with their overzealous dependents.¹

    Every organism is, of course,...

  9. Chapter 6 THE INGREDIENTS OF POWER AND OPPORTUNITY: TECHNOLOGY AND ORGANIZATION
    (pp. 121-144)

    Standing on a springy carpet of fallen twigs and needles on the forest floor of a redwood grove in coastal northern California, I strain to hear the haunting, minor-key song of a lone hermit thrush. Against a constant background of the low, restful sound of the wind blowing through branches a hundred meters over my head, the song emanates from somewhere so high that I am unable to discern the acoustic boundary between forest and sky. The day above is bright and sunny, but here among the massive trunks and the still blooming rhododendrons and the sparse ground cover of...

  10. Chapter 7 THE INGREDIENTS OF POWER AND OPPORTUNITY: THE ENVIRONMENT
    (pp. 145-168)

    Economic power derives not just from the technology and organization of the players, but also from the environment. In chapter 6, I emphasized the properties of the participants in an economy; here I delve into the characteristics of the environment that provide opportunity and impose constraint.

    ByopportunityI mean the potential for improvement in the performance of economic tasks. When an economic unit expands by growing in size or increasing in numbers, resources must be sufficiently plentiful for it to maintain itself and for a surplus devoted to the additional spending necessary to support that growth. Expansion implies that...

  11. Chapter 8 THE GEOGRAPHY OF POWER AND INNOVATION
    (pp. 169-203)

    The world is a thrillingly varied place. Some of that pleasing variation resides purely in the realm of physics and chemistry—the topography of landscapes, patterns of rainfall and temperature, saltiness of the water, composition of soil and sediment, power of waves and currents, sizes and locations of land and water masses—but a great deal of it is the product of life itself. A tropical rain forest in South America has much in common climatically with one in Africa or Asia, but the inhabitants differ in interesting and important ways. Gliding vertebrates—various mammals, lizards, frogs, and snakes—abound...

  12. Chapter 9 BREAKING DOWN AND BUILDING UP: THE ROLE OF DISTURBANCE
    (pp. 204-245)

    Disruption is a fact of life. As long as nothing upsets the status quo or interrupts the flow and regulation of resources, economic entities can continue to thrive. The problem is that no economy, no matter how sophisticated its structure or how powerful its chief architects, is immune from disturbance. Just as a well-adapted genome experiences most genetic mutations as harmful, a smoothly running economy is apt to be disrupted by a change in conditions.

    And yet, disruptions eventually lead to a new order, one in which energetic upstarts from the old regime often give rise to a new hegemony...

  13. Chapter 10 PATTERNS IN HISTORY: TOWARD GREATER REACH AND POWER
    (pp. 246-291)

    Everything in the universe has a history. This would not be so if the universe and everything in it were at equilibrium; but things do change as time proceeds because the universe and everything in it are not at equilibrium. By history I mean a time-ordered sequence of events, entities, environments, interactions, and trends, cascades of causes and effects, things appearing and disappearing, growing and declining or staying the same. If we give the entities life, we get economic history, a sequence in which entities acting autonomously on their own behalf collectively create larger structures and environments that influence subsequent...

  14. Chapter 11 THE FUTURE OF GROWTH AND POWER
    (pp. 292-316)

    If the thesis of this book is correct, economic life on our planet has exhibited a long-term, though occasionally interrupted, trend toward increased power and independence, a trend ultimately caused by competition among economic units for resources and by the disproportionate influence of competitive dominants. Human history recapitulates these same trends over a greatly compressed time span, and the human species falls in line with the larger trend as the historically most powerful species yet to have evolved. The trend continues not only because prolific resources have made it possible, but importantly because powerful economic players have helped to increase...

  15. Appendix 1: ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. 317-318)
  16. Appendix 2: THE GEOLOGICAL TIME SCALE
    (pp. 319-320)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 321-370)
  18. LITERATURE CITED
    (pp. 371-430)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 431-445)