Path Dependence, its critics, and the quest for ‘historical economics’

The concept of path dependence refers to a property of contingent, non-reversible dynamical processes, including a wide array of biological and social processes that can properly be described as ‘evolutionary’. To dispel existing confusions in the literature, and clarify the meaning and significance of path dependence for economists, the paper formulates definitions that relate the phenomenon to the property of non-ergodicity in stochastic processes; it examines the nature of the relationship between between path dependence and ‘market failure’, and discusses the meaning of ‘lock-in’. Unlike tests for the presence of non-ergodicity, assessments of the economic significance of path dependence are shown to involve difficult issues of counterfactual specification, and the welfare evaluation of alternative dynamic paths rather than terminal states. The policy implications of the existence of path dependence are shown to be more subtle and, as a rule, quite different from those which have been presumed by critics of the concept. A concluding section applies the notion of ‘lock-in’ reflexively to the evolution of economic analysis, suggesting that resistence to historical economics is a manifestation of ‘sunk cost hysteresis’ in the sphere of human cognitive development.

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

This book argues that the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values.

Most scientists long ago abandoned the attempt to understand why nature has so carefully segregated the hemispheres, or how to make coherent the large, and expanding, body of evidence about their differences. In fact to talk about the topic is to invite dismissal. Yet no one who knows anything about the area would dispute for an instant that there are significant differences: it’s just that no-one seems to know why. And we now know that every type of function – including reason, emotion, language and imagery – is subserved not by one hemisphere alone, but by both.

This book argues that the differences lie not, as has been supposed, in the ‘what’ – which skills each hemisphere possesses – but in the ‘how’, the way in which each uses them, and to what end. But, like the brain itself, the relationship between the hemispheres is not symmetrical. The left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an ’emissary’ of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere – the ‘Master’ – cannot itself afford to undertake. However it turns out that the emissary has his own will, and secretly believes himself to be superior to the Master. And he has the means to betray him. What he doesn’t realize is that in doing so he will also betray himself.

The book begins by looking at the structure and function of the brain, and at the differences between the hemispheres, not only in attention and flexibility, but in attitudes to the implicit, the unique, and the personal, as well as the body, time, depth, music, metaphor, empathy, morality, certainty and the self. It suggests that the drive to language was not principally to do with communication or thought, but manipulation, the main aim of the left hemisphere, which manipulates the right hand. It shows the hemispheres as no mere machines with functions, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world. Through an examination of Western philosophy, art and literature, it reveals the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present. It ends by suggesting that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere – at the expense of us all.

The Mysterious Stranger

During the late 16th century, a strange man visits a deeply religious village in Austria and introduces himself as Satan.

The Mind in the Making – The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform

James Harvey Robinson (1863 – 1936) was an American Historian. In his writings he stressed the “new history” – the social, scientific, and intellectual progress of humanity rather than merely political happening. The Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform was published in 1921. In the beginning of the book Robinson states his purpose as follows: “As an old Stoic proverb has it, men are tormented by the opinions they have of things, rather than by the things themselves. This is eminently true of many of our worst problems to-day. We have available knowledge and ingenuity and material resources to make a far fairer world than that in which we find ourselves, but various obstacles prevent our intelligently availing ourselves of them. The object of this book is to substantiate this proposition, to exhibit with entire frankness the tremendous difficulties that stand in the way of such a beneficent change of mind, and to point out as clearly as may be some of the measures to be taken in order to overcome them.” He goes on to say: “I come back, then, to my original point that in this examination of existing facts history, by revealing the origin of many of our current fundamental beliefs, will tend to free our minds so as to permit honest thinking. Also, that the historical facts which I propose to recall would, if permitted to play a constant part in our thinking, automatically eliminate a very considerable portion of the gross stupidity and blindness which characterize our present thought and conduct in public affairs, and would contribute greatly to developing the needed scientific attitude toward human concerns–in other words, to _bringing the mind up to date_.”

Rats, Lice and History

When Rats, Lice and History appeared in 1935, Hans Zinsser was a highly regarded Harvard biologist who had never written about historical events. Although he had published under a pseudonym, virtually all of his previous writings had dealt with infections and immunity and had appeared either in medical and scientific journals or in book format. Today he is best remembered as the author of Rats, Lice, and History, which gone through multiple editions and remains a masterpiece of science writing for a general readership.

To Zinsser, scientific research was high adventure and the investigation of infectious disease, a field of battle. Yet at the same time he maintained a love of literature and philosophy. His goal in Rats, Lice and History was to bring science, philosophy, and literature together to establish the importance of disease, and especially epidemic infectious disease, as a major force in human affairs. Zinsser cast his work as the “biography” of a disease. In his view, infectious disease simply represented an attempt of a living organism to survive. From a human perspective, an invading pathogen was abnormal; from the perspective of the pathogen it was perfectly normal.

This book is devoted to a discussion of the biology of typhus and history of typhus fever in human affairs. Zinsser begins by pointing out that the louse was the constant companion of human beings. Under certain conditions–to wash or to change clothing–lice proliferated. The typhus pathogen was transmitted by rat fleas to human beings, who then transmitted it to other humans and in some strains from human to human.

Rats, Lice and History is a tour de force. It combines Zinsser’s expertise in biology with his broad knowledge of the humanities

On the Origin of Species

The Origin of Species is the magnum opus of natural scientist Charles Darwin. In the book Darwin presents the theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through the process of natural selection. The book goes on to present a body of evidence for the hypothesis that the diversity of life in this way arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution.

Darwin had gathered much of his evidence for the book on the Beagle expedition in the 1830s to among other places the Galápagos Islands.

Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics

Selections from Science and Sanity represents Alfred Korzybski’s authorized abridgement of his magnum opus, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. This second edition, published in response to the recent Korzybski revival, adds new introductory material and a revised index, providing an accessible introduction to Korzybski’s arguments concerning the need for a non-Aristotelian approach to knowledge, thought, perception, and language, to coincide with our non-Newtonian physics and non-Euclidean geometries, to Korzybski’s practical philosophy, applied psychology, pragmatics of human communication, and educational program. Selections from Science and Sanity serves as an excellent introduction to general semantics as a system intended to aid the individual’s adjustment to reality, enhance intellectual and creative activities, and alleviate the many social ills that have plagued humanity throughout our history.

Man and His gods

“The work is a broadly conceived attempt to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations. It relates the impact of these phantasmagorias on human destiny and the causal relationships by which they have come to be crystallized into organized religion. This is a biologist speaking, whose scientific training has disciplined him in a grim objectivity rarely found in the pure historian.” [Albert Einstein].

Looking Backward: 2000–1887

First published in 1888, Looking Backward was one of the most popular novels of its day. Translated into more than 20 languages, its utopian fantasy influenced such thinkers as John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Eugene V. Debs, and Norman Thomas. Writing from a 19th century perspective and poignantly critical of his own time, Bellamy advanced a remarkable vision of the future, including such daring predictions as the existence of radio, television, motion pictures, credit cards, and covered pedestrian malls.

On the surface, the novel is the story of time-traveler Julian West, a young Bostonian who is put into a hypnotic sleep in the late 19th century, and awakens in the year 2000 in a socialist utopia. In conversations with the doctor who awakened him, he discovers a brilliantly realized vision of an ideal future, one that seemed unthinkable in his own century. Crime, war, personal animosity, and want are nonexistent. Equality of the sexes is a fact of life. In short, a messianic state of brotherly love is in effect.
Entertaining, stimulating, and thought-provoking, Looking Backward, with its ingenious plot and appealing socialism, is a provocative study of human society as it is and as it might be.