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Myths in the foundations of economics and ecology
Rapport, D.J. (1991). Myths in the foundations of economics and ecology. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 44(3): 185-202
In: Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. Academic Press: London; New York. ISSN 0024-4066, more
Peer reviewed article  

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Author keywords
    Ecology; economics; myths; optimality; adaptation; optimal foraging theory

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  • Rapport, D.J.

Abstract
    Adopting a comparative approach to the study of economic and ecological models of resource allocation behaviour it is evident that both fields have not only analogous theories but that these theories rest on similar but tenuous grounds. Application of optimality models to these areas now appears far too simplistic a reading of evolutionary and cultural history. There are strong reasons why such models, rather than offering new insight, lead to a dead end. First, it is difficult to justify the underlying assumptions and to find quantitative measures for the supposed objective function in decision making, for example, psychic satisfaction in economics; fitness in ecology. Second, given evolutionary and behavioural lags to changing environments, optimality arguments are difficult to test. Third, experimental work, while often elegant in its construction, has lacked sufficient realism to give confidence that its findings are applicable in nature. Finally, the results that have been obtained, even evaluated on their own grounds provide much in the way of counter-examples to the principles of optimization in complex environments. It may be necessary to forego some of the elegance of the mathematical constructs to obtain descriptions of resource allocation behaviour that are better grounded in the real world.

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