Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Flowers that Bloom in Vermeij

Georges Sorel was more an amphibious than an ambiguous figure in intellectual history. When he died both the communists and the fascists sent a delegation to his funeral. He is largely remembered for his insistence on the importance of myth in contemporary life. Sorel claimed that only myth could make the revolution possible, but I’ve believed for some time that it was important to him for a more personal reason. Famous and indeed sometimes lampooned for having read libraries of books, he simply had to figure out ways of withstanding the floods of information he unleashed on himself. Since a true and comprehensive Theory of Everything was unavailable, his synthesis was bound to be synthetic. At least the man had the decency to file his ideas under the rubric of myth.

You could argue with considerable justice that Sorel was responsible for his own shortcomings, but what’s problematic about him was not his ambition, which was honorable enough, but the way his egoism and taste for violence colored the result. After all, anybody who tries to take a synoptic glance at the world faces a similar challenge even if they are highly respectable academics instead of wild-eyed revolutionary hermits. As someone once said (Thomas Kuhn? Steven Jay Gould? Stephen Wolfram?) “Sure learning about modern science is like having a swarm of bees in your head: but there they are.” And that brings me to a recent attempt to make sense of it all—well, of a lot of it—Geerat Vermeij’s Nature: an Economic History.

Vermeij is an evolutionary theorist who is probably best known outside of biology for his engaging memoir, Privileged Hands, which told the story of how a blind man became a world-class scientist. Like Steven Jay Gould, Vermeij began as an expert on molluscs—there’s apparently something about snails that inspires grand theory. He has written a great deal about ecology and biogeography and is associated with the application of the strategic concept of the escalation to the study of predator/prey interactions.

Vermeij’s most recent book argues, “economic principles applicable to humans are the same as those that govern all other forms of life.” As several reviewers have pointed out, Vermeij doesn’t quite pull this off, because what he points out are analogies rather than homologies, instances of suggestive similarities rather than underlying identities. The ability of organisms to store food, for example, is indeed reminiscent of the process of capital formation, but wealth, at least as it is defined in neoclassical economics, simply isn’t measurable in calories. In physics and chemistry, concepts have univocal definitions and mean exactly the same thing whether they are applied to understanding the motive power of steam or the collisions of billiard balls—establishing these identities was the great accomplishment of 19th Century science. No common measures yet unify ecology and economics, however. Economics remains emic, which is technical jargon for a science that accepts the validity of the cultural constructs it studies. Like language, money is a conventional system, which is why economics is more like linguistics than physics. It isn’t obvious that economic analysis can even be usefully applied to the analysis of precapitalist human material culture—a pitched battle has been going on among the anthropologists over this issue for a long time. Applying economics to non-human nature is still more problematic. Indeed, it may be that ideas drawn from population genetics, ethology, ecology, and game theory will do more to make sense out of the foundations of economics than the other way around.

Vermeij’s analogies are often illuminating. He points out, for example, that the adaptive radiations do not immediately follow mass extinction events such as the great Cretaceous die off because adaptive radiations not only require a relaxation of selection pressure in the wake of the disappearance of previously dominant forms but a sufficient mass of energetic resources (think capital) that is not available in the impoverished post-catastrophe environment. Eventually you get a zoo full of new birds and mammals, but for a long time its just ferns and possums. Vermeij also does a good job in making the more general point of the role of predation and parasitism in enriching, enlarging, and diversifying the biosphere over geological time, though the parallels he draws with the creative role of economic inequality in human history are liable to make the reader a little nervous. Vermeij himself doesn’t draw the obvious Social Darwinian conclusions in the last chapter of his book, but it’s hard to escape the impression that he is obsessed with themes of competition and domination.

As has been pointed out in various reviews, many of Vermeij’s substantive conclusions about evolution can be made in terms of the concept of niche construction and coevolution. To some extent, focusing on competition instead of cooperation is a rhetorical or aesthetic decision because the notions are correlative–one cooperates to compete effectively and competes for the sake of collectivities larger than oneself. Vermeij’s emphasis is thus a choice and presumably reflects something beyond the science. The choice involved, however, may not be a simple matter of the author’s psychological proclivities. As the philosopher of science Gerald Holton pointed out some years ago, the specific terms that come to be used to describe scientific discoveries are colored by cultural tendencies. Thus, modern physics is a bunch of differential equations too distant from ordinary human thinking even to be strange. Its public face, all the talk and terminology that emphasizes disconnection, indeterminacy, fission, and relativity, owes more to the Zeitgeist of early 20th Century modernism than anything about its conceptual content. By the same token, the current and sometimes hobbyhorsical fascination with competition evinced by Vermeij and thousands of others is probably also a symptom, specifically, a response to the great fact that the demographic transition is turning this phase of history into a giant game of musical chairs.

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