In the first of a series of blog posts by David Sloan Wilson on economics and evolution (which I will blog about in the coming weeks as the posts contain some interesting ideas), Wilson introduced The Evolution Institute, a think tank that seeks to apply evolutionary theory to modern policy problems.
I had not heard of the Institute before, but naturally I consider that integration of evolutionary thinking into any policy framework can bring value. However, I always get a touch nervous when evolutionary biologists stray into economics, as most evolutionary biologists I have met seem to view economics from a left of centre perspective, contrasting to my libertarian biases. From my brief look through the Institute’s website, it does not seem that the Institute has produced any tangible outcomes yet, but there are plenty of statements of intent. It will be interesting to see what actually emerges.
The Institute frames its economics focal topic around the need to have an economics that reflects how humans actually act, with behavioural economics as the immediate focus of integrating evolution into economics. Interestingly, the objective of the topic is not to introduce more behavioural economics findings into mainstream economic theory, but to give a framework to behavioural economics itself. The website states:
There is widespread agreement that economic theory must become based on a more accurate conception of human nature to successfully guide public policy. That is the objective of behavioral economics, which has become prominent within the larger field of economics. However, behavioral economics needs to become more broadly based in the human behavioral sciences, which in turn must be grounded in evolutionary theory. The purpose of our project is to properly ground behavioral economics in evolutionary science, including the study of proximate mechanisms in a more fully rounded sense. We intend to provide the most accurate conception of human nature possible based on current scientific knowledge, oriented toward the formulation of economic theory and public policy.
If a project of this type succeeds, behavioural economics would be much more useful. It might actually extend beyond being a catalogue of paradoxes and biases and offer a framework under which economic decisions might be understood.
Afterthought: I’d like to offer a quick clarification of my statement about the left-leaning tendency of many evolutionary biologists. My point was not that this bias (to the extent my perception is correct) is a prima facie problem. After all, we’re all subject to biases, and I am no exception to that. Rather, my comment reflected a concern that the Institute might be used as a vehicle to push pre-established economic views, as opposed to engage in a genuine exploration about how evolutionary biology might add something to current economic thought.