Friday, November 21, 2014

Humans And Other Animals

Figure 1: Chapuchin Monkeys, Our Cousins

What do we think about generalizations, validated partly with experiments with non-human animals, for economics?

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen is an economist widely admired by heterodox economists. He quit the American Economic Association in response to their flagship publication, the American Economic Review, publishing articles on, if I recall correctly, pigeons. Researchers were trying to demonstrate that properly trained pigeons had downward-sloping demand curves. I gather they wanted to show income effects and substitution effects, as well, with these laboratory experiments.

On the other hand, are we not supportive of behavioral economists undermining utility theory? I am thinking of controlled experiments that demonstrate people do not conform to the axioms of preference theory. And some of these experiments, as illustrated in the YouTube video linked above, extend beyond humans.

I have a suggestion to resolve such a tension. One might want to treat investigations of humans as a naturalistic enterprise. If so, one would not want to impose an a priori boundary on the different constituents of minds. Whether some species of animals has some sense of self, expectations of the future, primitive languages, or what not should be found by empirical investigation. On the other hand, activities that depend on the existence of social institutions cannot be expected to be found in animals not embedded in any society. And demand curves, if they were to exist, would only arise in specific market institutions.

  • Philip Mirowski (1994). The realms of the Natural, in Natural Images in Economic Thought (ed. by P. Mirowski), Cambridge University Press.

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