Public Domain. Source: Maxpixel.net.
I used to do both. I could watch the ants toiling away for hours. I’d put a bread crumb nearby and see how the worked together to transport it down into their colony. I wondered where they would store it, and how they knew how to find it again. But blocks are fascinating, too, with all their potential. My brothers and I used to see who could build the highest free-standing tower. No fair pushing!
I realized later that staring at nature or building from nature are two different ways of seeing the world. A scientist looks at a river or mountain or forest and says, “What a fascinating community. How do all the creatures and systems interact?” An engineer sees the same vista and thinks, “We can build a bridge here. We could improve the river’s flow, or make the conditions less harsh.” Engineering and ecology aren’t so much opposed; they just look at the world in totally different ways.
Railway bridge in Minnesota. Public Domain. Source: Goodfreephotos
Our country was built by engineers, by men and women who saw a vast, undeveloped landscape with seemingly infinite potential. Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” (Common Sense, 1776). Farmers engineered prairies into wheat-fields; loggers engineered forests into lumber; we build roads and bridges and dams and sent electricity to every corner of the country.
But North America was first explored by scientists who wanted to discover and categorize and know how everything fit together. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a publicly-funded scientific study as well as an attempt to find a land route for settlers to travel to the Pacific coast. Scientists try to understand how systems work and grow and and fit together.
In economics we have scientists and engineers, too: folks who want to study the banking system or market structure or transportation networks to facilitate economic growth, and engineers who see market failure or predatory pricing or asymmetric information and want fix these flaws to help markets work better. My family is filled with engineers, but I studied ecology. Sometimes we tend to over-engineer things. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that if you don’t understand why a fence is in a particular place, it’s probably not a good idea to pull it down.
The markets are deeply complex, emergent systems, with participants all transacting to get their jobs done. We all interact with the market in different ways. But it’s not enough just to understand how things work. We need to fix them when they’re broken. If we can’t find a a way, we’ll make one.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”