Darwin, Veblen and the Problem of Causality in Economics

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 23 (3/4):385 - 423 (2001)
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Abstract

This article discusses some of the ways in which Darwinism has influenced a small minority of economists. It is argued that Darwinism involves a philosophical as well as a theoretical doctrine. Despite claims to the contrary, the uses of analogies to Darwinian natural selection theory are highly limited in economics. Exceptions include Thorstein Veblen, Richard Nelson, and Sidney Winter. At the philosophical level, one of the key features of Darwinism is its notion of detailed understanding in terms of chains of cause and effect. This issue is discussed in the context of the problem of causality in social theory. At least in Darwinian terms, the prevailing causal dualism — of intentional and mechanical causality — in the social sciences is found wanting. Once again, Veblen was the first economist to understand the implications for economics of Darwinism at this philosophical level. For Veblen, it was related to his notion of 'cumulative causation'. The article concludes with a discussion of the problems and potential of this Veblenian position

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