What Happened to Boulding's Evolutionary Economics?

By Waters, Robert | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2006 | Go to article overview

What Happened to Boulding's Evolutionary Economics?


Waters, Robert, Journal of Economic Issues


In the view of the author and others, Kenneth E. Boulding was one of the greatest social scientists of the twentieth century. His output was prodigious: over 30 books and 150 papers. He died in 1993, and Robert Solo, Kurt Dopfer, L. Randall Wray, and E. Ray Canterbery reviewed his work in the December 1994 issue of the Journal of Economic Issues. The editor noted, "The late Kenneth Boulding was a controversial economist even among the heterodox." However, Solo indicated Boulding "to be the most creative social scientist of our time." Since then, Boulding's influence apparently has receded from the literature. An electronic search of the literature seeking post-1994 comments on or evaluations of Boulding's views found two articles, Khalil 1996 and Joseph 2003.

Boulding's major work presenting his evolutionary perspective was Ecodynamics (1978). The more specific application of his theory to economics was contained in Evolutionary Economics, published in 1981. He followed with two other books, The World as a Total System (1985) and Three Faces of Power (1989), which presented other aspects of his general system theory. In his last book, Towards a New Economics (1992), he reviewed his intellectual development and identified his total publications of articles, books, book reviews, monographs, and pamphlets through 1988 at 1,019. The book contained a sample of his articles, written in the 1980s, on economics, "the grants economy," international relations, and ecology.

The first section of this paper outlines the evolutionary perspective or system developed by Boulding. He applied the theory to physical, biological, and societal evolution. In his general model, the action takes place in an ecosystem, which is an open system of interacting populations of different species, each of which has its own niche, with each species subject to processes of mutation (or more broadly, Darwinian variation), selection, and, by inference, replication (1987, 326). (1) The theory asserts that evolution is based on the accumulation of knowledge or know-how (2) in genetic structure (egg, plan, or design). He wrote, "Evolution is not a determinate system like celestial mechanics because it is not an equilibrium system. It involves an inherently unpredictable change of parameters because of long-run importance of improbable events" (1981, 69). The second major section of the paper speculates as to some reasons for the lack of interest in his work.

Boulding's Evolutionary Model

The driving force of Boulding's systems perspective is that evolution is primarily a process of change in genetic structure, generally leading to increasing complexity. He believed the basic evolutionary process is the accumulation of knowledge, in other words, changes in genetic structure of species. (Throughout his writings, with respect to genetic structure, Boulding used the terms "knowledge," "know-how," and "information," which I assume to mean the same concept. Also, he used the terms "phenotype," "species," and "artifacts" to be the output from genetically driven production processes.) By genetic structure, he meant any egg, design, or plan that contains the instructions for producing a phenotype such as a chicken, a university, or a building. An ecosystem has innumerable niches for different kinds of creatures and behaviors (and, by implication, memes). A niche is the potential equilibrium population of a species (Boulding 1981, 31).

In Boulding's view, biological and societal evolution consisted mainly in filling of empty niches in the course of mutation and selection. Since the environment is composed of many niches, some of which are competitive and some of which are complementary, the interaction among them determines the potential size of each niche. At any point in time or space, there will be an ecosystem, with a given set of parameters that will move to equilibrium where the rate of growth is zero and all niches are filled. …

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