Nature: An Economic History

Nature: An Economic History

Nature: An Economic History

Nature: An Economic History


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 History shows that the human institutions most likely to preserve opportunity and adaptability are, after all, built like successful living things.


It is a lucky accident of personal history that I came to Panama early in my career. On this twisted isthmus, where the Atlantic Ocean almost meets the Pacific, and where lush forest grows alongside the Panama Canal—a geographic symbol of the enormous economic power of the human species—one can experience in a single day the works of nature in undiminished glory and the works of human enterprise on a grand scale. and there is history, too. Fossils tell of a time when there was no isthmus, when the economy of marine nature was different from the contrasting relationships we see on the two coasts of Central America today.

My first exposure to this extraordinary place came while I was a graduate student in 1969. There was talk of building a canal that would connect the two great oceans at sea level and that, unlike the present freshwater thoroughfare, would be filled with seawater. the politicians and engineers who built the original canal early in the twentieth century never gave the biological consequences of this waterway a thought, but in the late 1960s biologists were beginning to worry about how a marine connection would affect the rich biotas of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of tropical America. Although this matter was not the focus of my first visit, it gnawed at me as I glimpsed the distinctive marine faunas firsthand. a year earlier, I had noticed that Caribbean snails from Curaçao have shells less well endowed with features of armor—a narrow impenetrable opening, thick ribs and tubercles, and a compact build with few protruding parts—than their counterparts on the wildly exotic shores of Hawaii and Guam in the tropical central and western Pacific. I now observed the same contrast, albeit a less dramatic one, between the snails of Caribbean Panama and the more armored versions on the Pacific coasts of Panama and Ecuador.

These shells posed an intriguing puzzle. Why were shells from the various tropical faunas of the world so differently endowed with what I came to understand to be resistance defenses against predators? Would the fortified Pacific snails have an advantage in survival over their Atlantic counterparts once they encountered each other if an interoceanic seaway were reestablished in Central America? Physical differences between the coasts—a greater tidal range in the Pacific, less seasonality on the Caribbean side—seemed inadequate to explain the architectural contrasts. Life itself—the complex interactions between predators and prey—must play a key role in setting the rules for what works and what doesn't work in nature, and for how living things choose among mates and repel their rivals.

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