are no more predictable than the emergence of giraffes or llamas were when the dinosaurs were wiped out at the end of the Jurassic and mammals got their chance. Contingencies have an enormous role to play in the history of technology, not just in determining between more or less equivalent outcomes (say, the qwerty keyboard as opposed to any other, or the use of Windows operating software), but also in the emergence of techniques without which economies and individuals would look quite different. Evolutionary thinking focuses the attention away from a sole occupation with averages and population distributions, and stresses that what matters to history is that very rare events get amplified and ultimately determine the outcome.6 A small number of individuals – though perhaps rarely one single person – discovered, imagined, and created the new knowledge, then managed to persuade others to accept and “select it.” Robert Hooke wrote in 1666 that the men who created “something of use to themselves or mankind” were much like a “Cortesian army, well-disciplined and regulated, though their numbers be but small.”
Such evolutionary analogies should be tempered. Unlike mutations, new knowledge is not orthogonal to the perceived needs of society. All the same, the correlation is not so strong as to disarm “selection” as a means of direction. This dual mechanism, in much altered form, carries over from a Darwinian world: the emergence of new knowledge and techniques is conceptually governed by one set of forces, their selective retention is governed by another – though at times of course the two blend into one another, as the literature of induced innovation has abundantly shown.7 Institutions, then, are crucial not only in the efficient allocation of resources and the reduction of uncertainty in exchange relations, but also in the emergence of new techniques. Institutions determine the resources allocated to produce new knowledge and the agendas of what is to be explored and what is taboo. But they also determine the selection mechanisms of new techniques. These selection mechanisms are normally blends of market mechanisms and centralized decision making. In a pure laissez faire competitive world, consumer sovereignty in the end determines which techniques “live” (that is, are actually used) and which are abandoned. All economies, in one form or another, constrain such choices for a variety of ethical, social or political reasons.
There is a deeper difference between the evolution of knowledge and that of species. One extreme view argues that science – as opposed to the symbols it uses – is not really socially contexted, but simply discovers what is already there. The analogy is the discovery of the New World in 1492; it
6John Ziman, “Selectionism and Complexity.” in John Ziman, ed., Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process, 2000, pp. 41-51.
7Vernon W. Ruttan, Technology, Growth, and Development: an Induced Innovation Perspective, 2001.