Sunday, December 14, 2014

Economics, Evolution and Epiphytes

My recent post on my other blog contains quite a bit of explicit economic content... Herclivation (a theory that considers the possibility of facilitating the adaptive radiation of epiphytic orchids via translocation and/or hybridization).  And by "explicit" I mean that I debunk John Nash's theory that we all prefer blondes equally.

Is it possible for somebody to be fascinated by economics but bored by evolution or vice versa?  Do economists have a better grasp of evolution than biologists have of economics?  That would be a fun study.  Consider these two examples...
It is sufficient if all firms are slightly different so that in the new environmental situation those who have their fixed internal conditions closer to the new, but unknown, optimum position now have a greater probability of survival and growth.  They will grow relative to other firms and become the prevailing type, since survival conditions may push the observed characteristics of the set of survivors toward the unknowable optimum by either (1) repeated trials or (2) survival of more of those who happened to be near the optimum - determined ex post.  If these new conditions last "very long," the dominant firms will be different ones from those which prevailed or would have prevailed under other conditions. - Armen Alchian, Uncertainty, Evolution, and Economic Theory
Economists employ tools that can also be used to analyze the growth and body form of organisms in terms of evolution and ecology.  According to this approach, plants resemble factories because they also acquire raw materials, in this case CO2, water, light and essential ions, to fabricate value-added 'products', specifically progeny.  Like any enterprise using the same materials that other factories require to manufacture the same products, co-occurring plants compete.  Just how severely they interfere with one another depends in large part on the distinctness of the strategies used to obtain mutually required resources. - David Benzing,  Bromeliaceae: Profile of an Adaptive Radiation
These examples are kind of like different varieties of economic imperialism.  For an example of economic imperialism check out this blog entry...Can Economics Explain Human Sacrifice?

Is there a biological equivalent of economic imperialism?  Or maybe there aren't any biologists that have used the tools of biology to analyze topics in different fields?  I guess I wouldn't be surprised if biology and related fields weren't lucky enough to have their own version of Gary Becker.   Well...what about this...biological imperialism?  Does that count as an example of the biological equivalent of economic imperialism?

The stupid Wikipedia entry for economic imperialism doesn't even mention "opportunity cost"...
A corollary of maximization is that on the margin, there are always tradeoffs.  The notion that there is no free lunch is central to economics.  The simple, but crucial concept of opportunity cost lies behind much of the ability of economics to extend into other areas.  Sometimes the tradeoffs are subtle.  Prices and costs are not necessarily parameters that are observed in market data, but they affect behavior nonetheless.  Other social sciences do not place the same weight on explicit recognition of the tension between costs and benefits, which reduces the ability of these fields to grapple systematically with social phenomena.  Thinking about tradeoffs gives rise to related thoughts on substitutability.  Economists place emphasis on choice.  Things are not technologically determined.  This is true for consumers and producers alike.  There is no fixed number of jobs.  Firms can trade off between employing labor and capital and workers can choose between labor and leisure. - Edward Lazear, Economic Imperialism  
As I've mentioned before elsewhere, the opportunity cost of the minute size of the wind-disseminated orchid seeds is that they lack the nutrients that they need to germinate on their own.  They depend on certain types of fungus to supply them with adequate nutrients.  On one hand, there's no guarantee that the fungus is going to be present wherever the orchid seeds land.  But on the other hand, the seeds are so light that they can really "extend into other areas".  Evidently sacrificing the weight of nutrients for greater dispersal distance is not a bad trade-off for orchids...given that they are the most successful plant family.

I think, perhaps, generally speaking...the problem solvers (scientists, economists, etc.) who are able to borrow and effectively use tools from other fields will make a lot more progress than problem solvers who only use their own tools.

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