Economics and evolutionary science

I recommend this Evonomics post about economics post-2008, and the kind of re-evaluation that’s been going on among economists, citing somewhat critically Noah Smith and also Dani Rodrik’s excellent [amazon_link id=”0393246418″ target=”_blank” ]Economics Rules[/amazon_link]. Author David Sloan Wilson complains: “All good, but there is something missing from the internet links that I just provided—any discussion of evolutionary theory.”

[amazon_image id=”0393246418″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science[/amazon_image]

I couldn’t resist preening a little, for my 2007/2010 book [amazon_link id=”B004XCFI2Q” target=”_blank” ]The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters[/amazon_link], has a whole chapter, Murderous Apes and Entrepreneurs, about the importance of the links between economics and evolutionary biology. This also forms one strand of my 2012 Tanner Lectures. In other words, I wholly agree with the argument of the Evonomics post, but thhink there has been a little bit more progress than it acknowledges.

Of course, formal evolutionary theorising is not part of the conventional economics mainstream, although it has some distinguished practitioners; but having said that informally it widely informs much business economics. There are also some leading economists who have been thinking about the overlap between economics and evolution. The ‘murderous apes’ of the chapter title was inspired by Paul Seabright’s brilliant [amazon_link id=”0691146462″ target=”_blank” ]The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life[/amazon_link]; Wilson cites Robert Frank’s [amazon_link id=”0691156689″ target=”_blank” ]The Darwin Economy[/amazon_link]. There is also an active strand of research on complexity theory, which [amazon_link id=”0571197264″ target=”_blank” ]Paul Ormerod[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0415568552″ target=”_blank” ]Alan Kirman[/amazon_link] among others have written about.

[amazon_image id=”B004XCFI2Q” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0691146462″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”B008W4ASGC” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good[/amazon_image]

Economics will have to be consistent with what we learn about human behaviour and decisions from other human sciences, not just the other social sciences, but also evolutionary biology, cognitive science and psychology.

3 thoughts on “Economics and evolutionary science

  1. Thanks for this post and I will read your book and Tanner Lectures with interest. There is a small community of people who “get” the relevance of evolutionary theory for economics & business but they badly need to occupy center stage. provides a guide and many of the articles link to the academic literature. I interviewed Alan Kirman ( ) and we organized a 2015 conference on complexity, evolution, and economics together that will result in a MIT edited volume out next year. ( )

    The number of experts who get it number in the dozens, perhaps even the hundreds. That’s a large number in terms of what they have to offer, but still a tiny fraction of the economics and business community.

  2. Caution, however. DSW himself is considered heterodox within evolutionary biology, being a vocal and triumphalist advocate of group selection and multi-level selection. Mainstream evolutionary biology is still largely individual-selectionist or gene-level selectionist (their equivalent of methodological individualism). So we have a case of a heterodox biologist egging economics on to heterodoxy.

    Paul Krugman, of all people, has an interesting portrait of orthodoxy within evolutionary biology:

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