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Why Were Biological Analogies in Economics "A Bad Thing"? : Edith Penrose's Battles against Social Darwinism and McCarthyism

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Levallois, Clément

The heuristic value of evolutionary biology for economics is still much under debate. We suggest that in addition to analytical considerations, socio-cultural values can well be at stake in this issue. To demonstrate it, we use a historical case and focus on the criticism of biological analogies in the theory of the firm formulated by economist Edith Penrose in postwar United States. We find that in addition to the analytical arguments developed in her paper, she perceived that biological analogies were suspect of a conservative bias – as in social Darwinism. We explain this perception by documenting the broader context of Edith Penrose's personal and professional evolution, from her student days at Berkeley to her defense of Owen Lattimore against McCarthyism. We conclude that in the case under study at least, science and values were certainly intertwined in accounting for her skepticism towards biological analogies – insight we develop in the conclusion about today's relationships between biology and economics.

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