The aim of this research area is to be an interdisciplinary platform for discussions of the ontological foundations of evolutionary economics in general, and the link between evolutionary economics and the theory of biological evolution in particular. While there is a long history of cross-fertilization between economics and biology, recent debates about the proper conception of 'evolution’ in economics signal a renewed interest in grounding evolutionary economics in an ontology that: (1) acknowledges our biological origins; (2) is realistic about the nature of human behavior; and (3) is capable of addressing the dynamics of economic change. In these debates, evolutionary economics not only re-examines its own Darwinian and Schumpeterian origins, but also begins to link up with a range of other behaviorally oriented disciplines both within and outside economics. Seen in this way, debates about the ontological foundations of evolutionary economics are central to the development of economics as a social science.
There is currently a lively interest in these ontological foundations. Recent contributions range from discussions of the proper behavioral foundations of evolutionary economics (e.g. Dopfer, 2004; Vromen, 2001; Witt, 2001), to a debate about the proper role of the theory of biological evolution in grounding evolutionary economics (Hodgson, 2002; Hodgson and Knudsen, 2007; Witt, 2003, 2004; Vromen, 2004; Stoelhorst, 2005, 2007). The Journal of Economic Methodology (Klaes, 2004) and the Journal of Evolutionary Economics (Witt, 2006) have published special issues on the topic, and the debate continues.
There are three issues at stake in these debates (Vromen, 2004; Stoelhorst and Hensgens, 2007). The first issue concerns the role of the theory of biological evolution in building economic theory. Here the main positions are (1) the claim that all evolutionary processes are ontologically similar (Hodgson 2002, 2003; Hodgson and Knudsen 2005), and (2) the claim that there is ontological continuity in all evolution, but that cultural, and hence economic, change cannot be captured in Darwinian terms (Buenstorf, 2006; Cordes, 2006; Witt, 2003; 2004). The corollary of ontological similarity is that the proper starting point of the development of theories of economic evolution is a generalized version of Darwinism. The corollary of ontological continuity is that the genetic foundations of human behavior are the starting point for the development of a theory of economic change that focuses on the generation and dissemination of novelty.
While this first issue has so far largely been debated among evolutionary economists, it does immediately point to a second issue: the proper relationship of evolutionary economics to theory development in other disciplines. The notion of ontological similarity suggests that evolutionary economics could fruitfully link up with evolutionary biologists and philosophers of biology. The notion of ontological continuity suggests fruitful links with evolutionary psychologists, behavioral and experimental economists, and economic historians. In addition, both ontological similarity and ontological continuity suggest the possibility of fruitful links with those interested in developing theories of cultural evolution (e.g. Richerson and Boyd 2005).
Establishing links to evolutionary theory in other disciplines raises a third issue. The establishment of fruitful links calls for a specification of a layered ontology (Dopfer, Foster and Potts 2004; Vromen 2004; Stoelhorst 2007) that maps out the interrelationships between the typical units of analysis in biology (genes, individual organisms and species), economics (markets, firms, institutions and technologies), and the social sciences at large (individuals, groups, and societies). Mapping out such interrelationships in turn raises questions about how they are causally related, and if such concepts as multi-level selection theory (Sober and Wilson 1998) can help establish explanatory links between the different layers in the ontology.
To the degree that evolutionary economics is defined as the effort to develop theories that are both more realistic than the neoclassical worldview and better able to capture the dynamics of economic change, these discussions are central to the further development of evolutionary economics as a social science. As such they deserve an explicit platform. Moreover, these discussions can arguably be seen as signaling a third wave of theory development in evolutionary economics. If Nelson and Winter’s ‘An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change’ is the landmark of a second wave of theory development in which the Darwinian themes embraced by Veblen were linked to the Schumpeterian focus on technological change, the current debates can be seen as an effort to move beyond the legacy of Nelson and Winter by reexamining the philosophical foundations of the term ‘evolutionary’ in evolutionary economics.
The purpose of this research area is to be a platform for the debates that are shaping this new wave of theory development. The research area aims to stimulate discussions on such questions as:
In addition to serving as an explicit platform for continuing the recent discussion within evolutionary economics, the research area also aims to build bridges between evolutionary economics and adjacent disciplines like the philosophy of science (most notably the philosophy of biology), evolutionary psychology, and other (heterodox) fields in economics (most notably behavioral and experimental economics). Moreover, ontological discussions have implications for our understanding of the evolution of firms and institutions, innovation and technological change, and socio-cultural evolution in general. As such the research area could also be instrumental in building (institutional) bridges to organizational and institutional economics, management, and technology studies. An especially fruitful link might be with the management field, where evolutionary themes are beginning to make inroads in the mainstream of fields like strategy and organization studies.