Evolution beyond biology: examining the evolutionary economics of Nelson and Winter

Biological Theory 6 (4):301-310 (2011)


Nelson and Winter’s An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (1982) was the foundational work of what has become the thriving sub-discipline of evolutionary economics. In attempting to develop an alternative to neoclassical economics, the authors looked to borrow basic ideas from biology, in particular a concept of economic “natural selection.” However, the evolutionary models they construct in their seminal work are in many respects quite different from the models of evolutionary biology. There is no reproduction in any usual sense, “mutation” is directed as opposed to blind, and there is no meaningful distinction between phenotype and genotype. Despite these substantial departures from the conceptions of evolutionary biology, I argue that the “evolutionary” economics of Nelson and Winter is indeed a legitimate extension of Darwinian evolutionary principles to a novel domain, and that the traditional conception of evolution by natural selection must be revised. The novel features of evolutionary economics models reflect the distinctive theoretical requirements faced by economists. I further contend that reproduction, heredity, blind variation, and the genotype/phenotype distinction are all inessential to evolutionary theory, and that their role in evolutionary biology is a domain-specific feature of biological theory.

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Eugene Earnshaw
Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology

Citations of this work

Samir Okasha’s Philosophy.Walter Veit - forthcoming - Lato Sensu: Revue de la Société de Philosophie des Sciences.

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