From Rumination to Rumelt via Dobzhansky
| Randy Westgren |
I was perusing the website of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery to find the references to last year’s theme: food and morality. Some interesting reads there. I noticed that the Symposium awards the Sophie D(obzhansky) Coe Prize in Food History annually. Dr. Coe was an anthropologist who wrote on pre-Columbian diets and was the daughter of Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of “the Four Horsemen” of the modern synthesis of genetics and evolution (American Philosophical Society). Dobzhansky emigrated from the University of Kiev in 1927 to Columbia University, thence to Caltech, where he and his colleagues bred squillions of generations of fruit flies and provided the empirical basis for the mathematical models of evolution of the other horsemen: Haldane, Fisher, and Wright.
In 1937, Dobzhansky had two publications. One was his landmark book, Genetics and the Origin of Species, which was the siren song that drew Ernst Mayr and other biologists to the field of evolutionary biology. Mayr has often been credited with developing the concept of the isolating mechanism as the basis for speciation. Methinks that Mayr’s long shadow at Harvard fell on Richard Rumelt, who ported the concept to strategic management without much attribution in his 1984 and 1987 pieces. Mahoney and Pandian must be credited with the most complete exposition of the concept.
However, it was Dobzhansky who introduced the concept in the other 1937 publication: “Genetic Nature of Species Differences,” The American Naturalist 71, no. 735 (July-August 1937): 404-20. See page 405. This seminal work and many which followed define isolating mechanisms as the physiological, genetic, and behavioral attributes that prevented similar organisms from interbreeding, thus providing a biological basis for the concept of species. This concept is often called reproductive isolation in recent biological literature, as many find the term mechanism to be limiting. The concept in strategy is a reason, or a set of reasons, why firms’ strategies are specific (wordplay alert!) and irreproducible (again!) by similar firms.
The metaphor works well as long as we do not try to take it too far. Equating firms with species in doing evolutionary economics and industry evolution is problematic. We can attempt to force genes to be routines and morphology to be structure, etc., but it remains that genetics and evolution are defined only as population-level concepts, while strategy is meaningful at the organism level.