Descendance and Social Genealogies: Toward an Evolutionary Conception of Economic History

By Stahl-Rolf, Silke R. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Descendance and Social Genealogies: Toward an Evolutionary Conception of Economic History


Stahl-Rolf, Silke R., Journal of Economic Issues


In 1898 Thorstein Veblen published his programmatic article "Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?" in which he attacked the proponents of(neo-)classical economics as being "helplessly behind the times" (56). As he put it, these economists still "occupy themselves with repairing a structure and doctrines and maxims resting on natural rights, utilitarianism, and administrative expediency" (57) instead of being evolutionary scientists. Basically, he criticized two crucial elements of mainstream economics as it presented itself during his time: the idea of economic equilibrium as it is incorporated in the notion of a "natural state" of society to which the economy converges and a conception of the individual as hedonistic, self-interested, and rational.

In this paper I use Veblen's fundamental critique to propose a modern interpretation of Veblen's vision of evolutionary thinking in economics, arguing that the use of an evolutionary terminology could bridge the old gap between economic theory and economic history that has caused numerous fundamental disputes about the nature of economics as a discipline caught between the natural sciences and the humanities.

In order to develop a modern interpretation of Veblen's evolutionary paradigm, I first explore different traditions of evolutionary thinking in biology and political philosophy with respect to their impact on contemporary economics. It will become clear that the notion of descendance, especially if compared with the theory of variation and selection, has not found much attention in contemporary economics. However, it appears that Veblen had descendance, or the development of social genealogies, in mind when he proposed his vision of evolutionary economics. In addition, he derived inspiration from the metaphorical use of the notion of descendance as a way to cope with problems of economic development such as cultural and social inertia on the one hand and the explanation of change on the other.

I then outline how the idea of descendance can be translated into a theoretical framework and provide an analytical framework to understand how culture is transmitted from one generation to another and why cultural change can occur in this process. As will become evident, change is a rather rare phenomenon whose frequency depends on social characteristics such as the prevailing level of individualism.

In order to show how such an analytical framework applies to real problems and, even more important, to the framework of a historical approach to economics, the last part of the paper applies the methodological and analytical set of instruments developed in the previous sections to the problem of long-term development in rural Russia and, particularly, the resistance to reforms that occurred during economic transition.

Descendance and Social Genealogies--Key Concepts in Historical Economics?

When Veblen asked "Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?" he implicitly proposed that economics should follow the guidelines of evolutionary thinking and that economic reasoning should be oriented toward the natural science of biology. This proposition gives rise to the impression that the direction of influence should be from biology to economics. However, as the following review of three traditions in evolutionary thinking shows (see also Hodgson 1993; Den Otter 1996, 86), ideas of biological and societal evolution coevolved.

Biological evolutionary theory rested on the philosophical theory of evolution that dominated discourse in the nineteenth century. Herbert Spencer (Bowler 1983; Gray 1996), one of the outstanding proponents of social philosophy based on evolutionary ideas, argued before the background of a more encompassing theory of society that in the long run humans that are not constrained by the will of the state develop under the influence of competition to a "higher stage" of evolution. As a result of societal pressure humans evolve from an undifferentiated mass regulated by external ethical judgments, among them religious rules, to individuals able to regulate their behavior based on their own moral judgments. …

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