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Ecology as an Economy

Richard Bambach

Nature: An Economic History. Geerat J. Vermeij. xvi + 445 pp. Princeton University Press, 2004. $35.

Describing the interactions of organisms in nature as an economic system is not new. For example, in 1838 Charles Darwin, making the first mention of the concept that became natural selection, wrote in his notebook that "One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of Nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones." But however common it may be to mention the economy of nature, it is novel to construct a full theory that characterizes the history of life and the evolution of ecosystems as an economic system. In Nature: An Economic History, Geerat Vermeij does just that. The book summarizes economic ideas about ecosystems and evolution that he has been developing for several decades. In his representation, the phenomena that make up the forces and connections responsible for the history of life are economy in action. It is a viewpoint that deserves serious study.

Vermeij is one of the master naturalists of our time, and his command of the subtleties of animal interactions is exceptional. I think anyone can learn a great deal from this book. But it isn't an easy read: It is intense, data-rich and packed with interlocking conceptual models that require concentration to absorb.

The first three chapters give a general overview of Vermeij's theoretical argument. He makes the point that he is not using economy as a metaphor. Vermeij views economy as an organizing theory for analysis of the evolution of the biosphere, a theory capable of providing a full description of natural, as well as human, systems. Although I was initially skeptical, I now regard his main argument as convincing. The difference between human and natural economies is only that people can plan how to manipulate the system—but we, too, must work within the limitations and constraints of supply and demand and must adjust to the feedbacks and modifications generated in an interactive system. There is merit in moving beyond a limited view of nature as simply being so many pathways of energy flow or chemical systems explicable by parsing stoichiometry among the participants. Although there is much to learn from such reductionist perspectives (indeed, energy does flow through ecosystems, and life is a chemical system involving particular ratios of elements), the whole of nature is complex. Full understanding of the relations that govern the biosphere and its changes over time requires a theoretical framework in which all aspects of the interaction of living systems are given a place. Competition, cooperation, trade, performance, energy, adaptation, imperfection, specialization, diversity, feedback, inequality and scale are all concepts that play an economic role, not just supply and demand.

The next four chapters of the book are devoted to consumption and enemies, production and resources, technology and organization, and the environment. This is the most straightforward section, placing many particulars of natural history into the various factors that form the structure of the economic system Vermeij has outlined. Examples are abundant, and Vermeij fully explains his sense of how economic concepts work in natural systems. For instance, in chapter 6 he elaborates on the idea that the best measure of the performance of living things is power (energy or work per unit time), not simply efficiency ("the quantity of output relative to the quantity of input"). He comments that "Power makes for prolific producers and demanding consumers with a wide reach." To make the point that power yield is more important than efficiency, Vermeij observes that highly efficient brachiopods and bryozoans with a low metabolic rate dominated Paleozoic seas, whereas later geologic time saw the rise of active mollusks and arthropods with a high metabolic rate and a greater demand for food, illustrating the tendency for the power of dominant animals to increase over time.

The next three chapters, which summarize and generalize on the preceding material, are devoted respectively to the geographic distribution of power and innovation, with the tropics and tectonic change as the centerpieces; the role of disturbance, with an emphasis on extinction events; and the idea that evolution has had a trajectory of escalating the concentration and reach of power. A chapter on the economic limitations that humankind must eventually face concludes the book.

The concept of nature as economy is a powerful one and is almost surely correct in principle. Many of the specific examples Vermeij cites are clear demonstrations of the idea. By casting natural activities in economic terms he shows, for instance, that high--performance animals (those with greater power) extend their reach and tend to dominate species that are more efficient but less powerful. When resources are limited, efficiency is selected for, but when they are plentiful, it is power that counts. In Vermeij's well-known escalation theory, a natural "arms race" occurs as more powerful predators drive prey organisms to become more powerful so as to resist predation (by burrowing to escape, for example, or secreting a stronger shell than before)—and this in turn requires the predators to become more powerful. Such interaction puts the priority on power, rather than efficiency, something that is not clear if one considers only energy expenditure.

Despite the high quality of thought and scholarship that went into the book, I do have several warnings for the general reader. First, although the principles are reasonable, the book is entirely descriptive. We do not yet know the quantitative balance among the multiple factors of competition, cooperation, trade, performance, specialization, feedbacks, inequalities and other interactive connections that go into any local, much less global, ecology that is described as an economy. Rather than coming up with a full-scale understanding of what the actual controlling influences are on the history of life, Vermeij has instead set an agenda for future quantification.

In the three generalizing chapters, many conclusions seem more to be assertions than deductions from demonstrated phenomena, although Vermeij's claims are often based on logical extrapolation. The problem is, in part, the difficulty of scale, of moving from the local or regional ecosystem to the global level. In the chapter on geography and innovation, Vermeij's view of the significance of the tropics as the locale of enhanced performance seems well supported, but his argument that tectonic activity (mountain building) is ultimately responsible for increases in productivity is a hypothesis that has not been fully tested and is not universally supported in the profession.

A second issue is that in some cases Vermeij depends on the logical pathway he selected and does not always account fully for the range of possibilities that his own theory leaves open. This is most apparent in his discussion of disturbance (extinctions). In this chapter he focuses on "bottom up" disruption and argues that every general extinction event from the largest to more minor ones was probably caused by productivity collapse, and he suggests that most were triggered by a combination of volcanism, extraterrestrial impact and methane release from sequestered methane clathrates in ocean basins. Unfortunately, when the most precise dating of extinction events and other phenomena is available, as in the Cenozoic era, few direct correlations of these phenomena with each other are seen. For many more ancient events (with larger dating errors, too), evidence is often weak or nonexistent. I frankly was puzzled that Vermeij advocates a single causal system for all these disturbance events, because as I see it, his full-scale view of economic structure could accommodate a variety of ways of stressing the system.

I mention the disagreements I have with some of the interpretations Vermeij makes only to warn the general reader that this book is not the final word on cause and effect in the history of life. But I believe that his conceptual viewpoint is of great value and that anyone will profit from learning how the biosphere functions as an economic system.—Richard K. Bambach, Botanical Museum, Harvard University



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