Friday, December 04, 2009

Has Geology Anything to Teach Economists?

An interesting item crossed my screen this evening while in pursuit of Googling Professor Larry Neal of the University of Illinois, Urbana:
The Journal of Economic History (2000), 60:2:317-334 Cambridge University Press:

“A Shocking View of Economic History”, with a tantalizing abstract:

Economics, like geology, is an historical science. Geology has made incredible advances by accepting it is an historical, rather than a laboratory science. Economic historians can help economics make similar advances by adopting the research strategies of modern geology. Intensely empirical and global in their range, today’s geologists focus on the historical remains of shocking, usually catastrophic, events in the earth’s past. Already empirical and global, economic historians have ample shocks to study whether their specialty is population, technology, or institutions. A few examples of the possibilities should stimulate us to reinvigorate our parent disciplines of economics and history.”

One of Adam Smith’s close friends was James Hutton, a fellow member of the Scottish Enlightenment, with a special interest in the then early days of geology. Hutton’s fairly quiet challenge to the reigning orthodoxy of the origins and age of the Earth - believed by preachers to be around 6,000 year old, as deduced from the Bible – was quite radical and based on a search for evidence beyond the mythical certainties of the Flood.

Smith took a close interest in all sciences and often walked with Hutton down from Edinburgh to its adjacent Holyrood Park, which played host to an extinct volcano.

Smith listened as Hutton explained its geology. It is not known if he took Smith to Siccar Point about 20 miles down the coast to show him the now famous ‘nonconformity’ of layers of rock, red sandstone and greywacke, which led Hutton to make his famous remark about the Earth’s origins: ‘we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’.

Hence, I found the abstract for Larry Neal’s paper so interesting, prescient and thought provoking.

My search on Google for details of Larry Neal came from finding a typewritten paper authored by him Adam Smith on “Defence and Opulence”, undated, and at the back of a cupboard, unopened since 1998, though possibly kept by me from my time as a defence economist from the 1970s, which I had put in the cupboard on moving into the house I am presently clearing.

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Blogger Unknown said...


I have enjoyed your blog on Adam Smith, and particularly your comments showing the subtlety of his thought and how he has been caricatured. Congratulations on your new book!

I have spent the past two years rewriting The Wealth of Nations from scratch. My purpose is to make this landmark work concise, accessible and engaging for the modern reader. I have endeavored to keep all of his original ideas intact and in the sequence originally presented, while using modern language and examples. I finished drafting it several months ago, and we have now edited half of the book.

My rewrite is 1/3 the length of the original, inclusive of my comments.

Clearly, you understand Smith. I would be honored if you would be one of the first persons to examine and critique my work.

By the way, I attempted to send this letter to you through your website's e-mail, but the inbox was full. Please do not post this, as I am not ready to interact with numerous curious persons.


Jonathan Kolber

PS--You may be curious about my background and credentials. I have an MBA in finance from the Carlson School, and from 2004 - 2008 wrote an investment advisory letter with an international audience. Previously, I worked in technical communications. I have no credentials in economics. However, my special gift is translating abstruse and technical material in a way that makes it clear and compelling for the intelligent lay reader. As Smith wrote for such an audience, it seemed reasonable that his work could be understood by such a person and be rewritten to regain the widespread appeal it originally enjoyed. Time will tell if I have succeeded.

1:57 am  
Blogger Lorenzo said...

I had not realised Hutton was a friend of Smith's. Hutton figures in Norman Cohn's wonderful Noah's Flood: the Genesis Story in Western Thought which I reviewed here.

12:14 pm  

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