I mean, they're all just competing for resources, right?
May 16, 2012 2:33 PM   Subscribe

What is the current state of interdisciplinary research between biology and economics?

In an earlier question, I asked about an experiment in which a slime mold colony could be made into a network that resembled in some important particulars the design of the Tokyo railway system. That was fascinating, in part because then I went and learned about slime molds.

Anyway it got me thinking that for all that we talk about the operation of economic markets in evolutionary terms (e.g., "social darwinism", "fitness") I don't actually hear very much about how biology -- particularly the study of organisms or populations responding to conditions of scarcity or predation -- informs economics as a science. I should think that the similarities would be a fecund area of research. Specifically, I'm looking for research which explores the behavior or economic organizations (firms) by reference to the behavior of organisms or populations of organisms.

I am looking for books or articles which explore this concept. Ideally I'm looking for sources that are accessible to non-scientists and non-economists, although a certain learning curve would be fine. Ideally articles would be not-paywalled but my public library has decent database access: really I'm eager for whatever you can share. Thanks!
posted by gauche to Science & Nature (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Some starting points:

Nepson and Winter

Evolutionary and Institutional Economics Review (professional journal)

"On economic applications of economic game theory"
posted by cromagnon at 5:03 PM on May 16, 2012

Good grief I'm tired. First link should read "Nelson" and the third "evolutionary game theory".

posted by cromagnon at 5:05 PM on May 16, 2012

Best answer: Here's the rub: in terms of policy making, traditional economics dominates. It shouldn't - but it does. With the GFC and accusations of "why didn't they see it coming" flying, there has been a new push both in and out of the economics profession to move away from theoretical "thermodynamic" / "equilibrium" systems, based on 19th century physics.

Essentially, this takes a top-down imposed view of an economy or market, that is always efficient and always tends to an "equilibrium" and doesn't account for individual actors influencing each other (think: crisis of confidence, where panic leads to asset sales, which sets off even more assets sales, and so on...). What you have is an equation that is simple and easy to model and graph (think: demand and supply diagrams! Utility curves!) - all things that are visually and mathematically beautiful, but have little real-world applicability.

So the emerging interdisciplinary field of complexity economics has come to the fore recently. It attempts to answer things by going beyond these simple models, and, in particular, looks to draw together principles from a lot of fields, including biology - such as:

- emergence (a "structure" emerging from simple decision rules - for example, birds flying in a V formation - which is not apparent from studying the individual unit)
- non-linear dynamics (things don't often scale linearly, like traditional economics, and often have stable plateaus, and can reach "tipping points" - such as when a cell line's growth becomes exponential and turns cancerous, "tipping" from non-malignant to dangerous)
- self-organisation (organisms form a greater whole, without direction - like that slime mold you mentioned that "moves", but is a combination of smaller parts that all act independently)

Importantly, complexity economics, drawing upon newer forms of modelling (such as agent based modelling) can also can also take in natural selection and fitness criteria. Models can be built around computer based simulations of actors responding to other actors and responding to the environment.

An excellent article in The Atlantic a few years back - Seeing Around Corners, by Jonathan Rauch - will give you a fantastic insight into this area, and explain it a lot better than I can!

If you want to go a bit deeper, I think a journal article on "The Need to Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics", will be particularly useful for you, too.

And going deeper again, there's also a lot of scholarly work being published in this field, especially in the last few years. I'd check out the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), which promotes some great interdisciplinary economics and biology work in the area of complexity, such as on evolution and emergence. This work is being regularly applied in the economics field - but not often in the major journals, as it's still a bastard child of the economic orthodoxy.
posted by mrme at 10:28 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you both! This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for.
posted by gauche at 1:34 PM on June 16, 2012

« Older On-line subscription contracts   |   Where can I get a new patient appointment in San... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.