What can evolutionary biology offer economics?

This is my last post on David Sloan Wilson’s series Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms (my earlier three posts are here, here and here). While I consider much of Wilson’s attack on economics to be against a caricature of the discipline, he ties up his series with a few recommendations that are worth noting.

First, he identified the need for behavioural economics to adopt evolutionary thinking to allow it to move from being a list of anomalies and biases to being a coherent framework. There is no argument from me there. Wilson has an underlying aim to this, however, which is that it may give a platform for the overthrow the classical economics assumptions of rationalism.

I am not sure that would be the result. People generally want more (for themselves), they want less as the price rises, they discount costs and benefits in the future, and so on. There are all sorts of specific situations where behavioural economics has shown that this does not apply, but if I want to know the effect of putting a price cap on petrol prices, they are a sound set of assumptions and will give an excellent picture of what will happen. This is the case for many models. Behavioural economics will only see the overthrow of the rational agent when it has a coherent framework and when incorporating the framework into models produces models with higher predictive power.

In Wilson’s last post, he notes a few avenues by which the mission to reconcile economics and evolutionary biology will progress. One of these was a letter submitted to the National Science Foundation. Written by Wilson and John Gowdy, the letter was also signed by 64 other signatories including Elinor Ostrom, Paul Ehrlich and Edward O Wilson. It had four main points on how to integrate economics and evolutionary science.

First, as discussed above, it states that evolutionary theory could help make sense of the findings of behavioural economics.

The second was that:

Evolution can help decision makers understand the large-scale and long-run consequences of economic policies, particularly environmental and social policies

As a headline, I couldn’t agree more. This is, after all, my interest. But when this point is discussed in the letter, it focuses on the use of evolutionary theory to understand where people behave in their own interest at the expense of the larger group. This reflects Wilson’s earlier attacks on the invisible hand.

I agree that evolutionary biology might add something to this area, although as stated before, I generally consider individual actions to have more benign consequences than those imposed by government. But more importantly, the focus of the letter sells the potential contribution of evolutionary theory to economics short. Evolutionary theory can help the understanding of how people act, what objectives they pursue, which people have (or had) higher fitness, what the consequences of policies will be in the long-run (regardless of whether they are benign to a group), and so on. If evolutionary theory is used solely as (another) attack on libertarian arguments, there will not be widespread (or useful) adoption.

The third point in the letter was that the proximate-ultimate distinction is important in economics, as it is in evolutionary theory. This point is a hangover from Wilson’s attack on Milton Friedman and I am not sure that it is important. As I wrote in my previous post, Friedman’s position is milder and the economics profession is less narrow than Wilson suggests.

The last point of the letter is that the non-adaptive products of evolution are best understood from an evolutionary perspective. Again, this seems to sell the opportunity short. What of the adaptive products of evolution, such as intelligence or patience?

Having now worked through Wilson’s posts, I am not overly optimistic that there will be much useful coming out of the Evolution Institute. There are no shortages of coherent attacks on the neo-classical, hyper-rational model of economics and if the Evolution Institute is going to simply join the queue, we will not hear much more interesting out of them. We will see if my pessimism is borne out when the Institute moves from its methodological critique and starts to deliver substantive policy proscriptions.

*My four posts on David Sloan Wilson’s Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms can be found hereherehere and here.


  1. “I generally consider individual actions to have more benign consequences than those imposed by government.”

    Individuals are too self and family centred and short term to provide for the common good.

    Think acid rain, automobile exhausts, ozone layer, species extinction, farmland degradation, deforestation, water pollution, overfishing, monoculture impact on biodiversity, climate change and a thousand other things.

    1. Thanks for your comment Paul. I don’t disagree that individual actions can have significant aggregate costs, and that there could be potential for government to solve them. My support for internalising externalities, such as implementing a carbon price, reflects that.

      However, for many of those issues you list, government action is generally making them worse. Take fossil fuel subsidies, which boost greenhouse emissions far above the size any cuts delivered by existing government programs. Most industrial-scale distant water fishing is conducted by heavily subsidised fishing fleets. Government spends far more time giving largesse to self and family-centred individuals who have political power (e.g. bank bailouts during the financial crisis) than delivering any “common good”.

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