Evolution for Everyone

This is the final installment of my “Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms” series. The series reflects what I have learned as president of the Evolution Institute, working with literally scores of people who know a lot more. A partnership with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) has funded the effort, starting with a conference titled “The Nature of Regulation” held in November 2009 and continuing with smaller working groups that will be meeting over the next two years. The people who meet are nested within a larger advisory group that is a veritable melting pot of disciplines, in stark contrast to the aloofness of economics as a discipline in the past.

One product of this collaboration is a white paper that we just submitted to the National Science Foundation, in response to their “Dear Colleague” letter for future research in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences. This initiative on the part of NSF signals their awareness that current economic theory is not working, requiring an influx of fresh ideas. In our white paper, we agree with their assessment but also point out the profound lack of integration among the many disciplines comprising the SBE sciences. Future research must avoid both problems, which requires speaking a common language. Evolutionary theory can provide the common language for the SBE sciences, as it is already doing in the biological sciences. The white paper has over 60 signatories, representing a community that is already speaking with a single voice.

Another product is an anthology with original essays introducing each section titled Evonomics: Evolutionary Science as a New Foundation for Economic Theory and Public Policy, which will be published by University of Chicago Press in 2012. My co-editor is Geoffrey Hodgson, one of the foremost authorities on economics in relation to evolutionary theory. Thanks to the involvement of people like Geoff, we can make an insider’s case for the paradoxical fact that evolutionary science currently plays virtually no role in current economic theory and public policy, even though economic and evolutionary theory have been entwined throughout their histories. The University of Chicago Press was eager to publish this volume, which is significant given the University of Chicago’s role in the history of economic thought.

In our ongoing discussions, we have decided to adopt a case study approach to demonstrating the advantages of the evolutionary paradigm. Abstract considerations, such as those that I have discussed in this series, have their place, but the beauty is in the details. We intend to roll up our sleeves and get to work on specific policy issues such as obesity, managing common resources, monetary systems, and the complex relationship between individual and corporate interest and the common good. In the process, we’ll document the many different ways that the evolutionary paradigm guides scientific inquiry and policy formulation, in comparison with paradigms that are not explicitly evolutionary. May the best paradigm win.


  1. #1 Michael Blume
    October 17, 2010

    Thanks for that post & the very best wishes to your shared efforts! Personally, I was more than struck by the works of nobel prize winner Friedrich August von Hayek who combined evolutionary theory and economics into a new framework of thought and studies, finally leading him into the scientific study of religion(s). I do agree that evolutionary studies do have the potential to integrate the far too fragmented disciplines of science.

  2. #2 daedalus2u
    October 17, 2010

    This is interesting. I have used the discount rate idea of economics to explain why the deterrence of punishment can never work to deter the use of stimulant drugs of abuse. The gist of the idea is that during extreme metabolic stress, when “running from a bear”, where to be caught is certain death, physiology induces euphoria, so that organisms can continue to try and escape until they drop dead from exhaustion. Any injury is worth escape because being caught is certain death.

    In effect the “discount rate” (the value of a molecule of ATP this instant) becomes infinite and so all ATP is diverted from “long term investment” (repair, healing, maintenance, growth, reproduction) to immediate consumption (ATP to activate muscle cells to “run from the bear”). Physiology does this by inducing euphoria and the delusion that one can run forever. One actually can’t run forever, only until the bear is escaped from, or you drop dead from exhaustion, which are both the same as “forever”.

    The stimulant drugs of abuse induce the same euphoria, and cause the same diversion of ATP from maintenance to immediate consumption. This is done by turning off the long term pathways, and is why stimulant drug abuse leads to rapid deterioration of health.

    This is why “crack-whores” are willing to do anything to get the next dose of crack and why addicts willingly use needles they know are infected with HIV. Their time horizon has been reduced to the next few minutes and so anything longer than that does not matter.

    Any kind of stress tends to do this a little bit too. That is why a common negotiating strategy is to put your opponent under as much stress as you can. They become more willing to trade short term gains for long term losses. Completely rational if your discount rate is very high, not rational if it is what is typically used.

  3. #3 Priyanka Singh
    October 18, 2010




  4. #4 atheis
    October 18, 2010




    the ungrateful bastards full of hubris…


    a bullet for your head, traitor

    And finally, the *only* man in Minnesota who says there is no God has suddenly become an arbiter on mental health…



  5. #5 Macturk
    October 18, 2010

    Priyanka Singh, first, what relevance does your post have to this subject?

    Second, I will say this just once. Man and modern chimps had a common ancestor. A long, long, LONG, time ago, there was a proto-chimp, and some of its children developed into the line that became Homo sapiens(in your case, possibly not so sapiens), while the others developed into the chimp line, currently represented by the Common Chimp(Pan troglodytes) and the Bonobo(Pan paniscus).

    I believe this because;

    a) It fits the observed facts.

    b) There is a wealth of evidence to back it up.

    c) The alternative theories posited so far are basically horseshit.

    Please try to study the topic before you bring up this rubbish.

  6. #6 Kevin
    October 19, 2010


    NO – Seriously?

    @everyone else: Sorry for that.

    Is there any worry that the results of such a study combining economic theory and evolution will just be derided (politically) because of the connection to evolution? People like Priyanka Singh above and more importantly, the many politicians who share her views, might dismiss any conclusions you reach.

  7. #7 Yannis Guerra
    October 23, 2010

    I hope you remind us when the book comes out. 2012 is so far away. I put it in my google calendar, but who knows if google will still be around!
    great series overall.
    And for Priyanka Singh. I call Poe’s Law

  8. #8 Chris Auld
    October 23, 2010

    David, I just read through your essays, and now I sit, thoroughly depressed.

    You are apparently interested enough in economics that you wrote this series of articles, and are continuing in more formal outlets. Yet you offer a ridiculous strawman version of modern economic thought. Even the economists of the 19th century did not believe the simplistic stories you repeatedly insist all modern economists believe. None of your attacks are well-founded, and your essays are littered with deep conceptual errors regarding quite basic economic thought. This is not a constructive attempt to encourage trans-disciplinary research, it’s a hatchet job.

    I am all for multidisciplinary work, and I too hope that in the future the behavioral and life sciences can be wedded under a unifying conceptual framework. I genuinely hope that your research attempting to use evolutionary insights to shed light on phenomena such as risky adolescent behavior is successful. I do wish, however, that you would do your colleagues in other disciplines the courtesy of making an honest effort to, first, learn what they believe, and second, learn why they believe what they believe, even if at first glance it seems odd or wrong to you.

    Chris Auld
    Associate Professor
    Department of Economics
    University of Calgary

  9. #9 Robert
    October 27, 2010

    Does our host say “all modern economists” believe rational choice theory? Does he say they are all behavioral economists? Is Geoffrey Hodgson a “modern economist”? Poor Chris Auld’s assertions in his non-argument make no sense. But don’t mind. Poor Chris Auld has been lying about what others write for more than a decade.

  10. #10 daedalus2u
    October 30, 2010

    The problem of “rational choice” in economic decisions hinges on the definition of what is a “rational choice”. This is of course exceedingly difficult to define and can change from moment to moment even with perfect knowledge.

    The advantage of an evolutionary perspective is that it provides “goals” (continued life, increased number of descendants, more genes in the gene pool, etc.) that can be analyzed with less anthropomorphic interference and psychological projection. Knowing that achievement of this “goal” is the driving force for evolution allows us to understand that when observed evolved features and behaviors are common, they are likely common because they actually do further the “goals” of evolution.

    It is trivially easy to denigrate choices as being irrational when they lead to bad outcomes or when choices are made by “the other”, humans who perceived to be sufficiently different that they do not exhibit “human” traits (such as rational economic behavior). The idea of blaming people who are destitute for their poverty as the natural consequence of their making “bad choices” is a natural inclination that is commonly practiced by those who consider them to be not like “them”. In hindsight it is always trivial to find “bad choices” in any path that leads to a bad outcome. Each of Madoff’s victims made bad choices because they ended up with a bad outcome.

    It is trivially easy to pathologize behaviors that are “different”, or that are exhibited by people who are “the other”. I have a hypothesis as to why this is which I discuss in this blog post.


    Very briefly I think it relates to human communication requiring a “theory of mind” which is used to translate mental concepts into language and to then translate the data stream of language back into mental concepts. The only things that can be communicated are mental concepts, and then only if the two brains that are trying to communicate those mental concepts are able to instantiate those mental concepts and translate them into and back out of the language they are using to communicate with.

    When two people are trying to communicate, they exchange data and do pattern recognition to emulate the “theory of mind” of each other to try and communicate. When the error rate is too high, I think that triggers xenophobia. Essentially everyone does a Turing Test to determine if someone is “close enough” to be able to communicate with, and if not, then xenophobia is triggered. I think that happens when the error rate is too high, and the uncanny valley is triggered. Because language is mostly postnatal, xenophobia has to be a consequence of postnatal stuff too.

    Understanding why people make “bad choices” isn’t going to come from economists. It is going to come from scientists. It is going to come from understanding the physiology of economic decision making. It will only come from understanding the motivations of people as they are making “bad choices” on their terms, terms that make those choices seem the best of a number of perhaps even worse alternatives.

    In my example above (#2), why do drug addicts inject drugs with needles they know are likely infected with HIV? That is obviously a “bad choice”, but the addicts who do it know it is a bad choice even as they are doing it. The addicts who are doing it are not irrational. Depressed people who kill themselves are not irrational. Mothers who kill their infants are not irrational. Those actions can be understood to be perfectly rational adaptations that evolution has configured humans to do under certain circumstances.

    Understanding the conditions that trigger such “bad choices” allows us to protect people from those circumstances. Unfortunately there are many humans who profit by putting “the other” into circumstances where they make “bad choices”.

    If we want to have a good society, then we have to have as many people making “good choices” as is possible.

  11. #11 dmab
    November 10, 2010


    atheists, we’re gonna cut off your heads…


  12. #12 Oyunu oyna
    November 15, 2010


  13. #13 Carmi Turchick
    November 16, 2010

    Professor Wilson, I think you are correct that evolutionary and scientific terms could be used to replace much of the terminology used in the Social Sciences. However, I think that this goal is exceedingly hard to achieve given that the species involved, humans, has an evolved predisposition to distinguish in-group from out-group in cultural ways, including linguistic ones. Each “discipline” in academia is a functional tribal sub-group, often composed of still further sub-groups, most of which work quite hard to establish in-group boundaries by developing novel terminology, and novel definitions of common terminology, which work to exclude the outsider from their intellectual territory.

    This is also helpful in allowing them to parry critiques by claiming that the other simply does not understand their field and so on.

    It is only by consistently making better predictions and helping people make money that evoconomics will be able to win. Victory in the marketplace will bring victory in the marketplace of ideas, when everyone has to understand what evonomics is saying in the language evonomics is saying it in. Right now there are far too many in Evo Psych, in my opinion, who are willing to go off half-baked and pin their notions on Evo Psych for me to be confident in victory. But I would love to be proven wrong.

  14. #14 Griffin Dufoe
    November 18, 2010


    Saw this on Pharyngula; thoughts?

  15. #15 Hank
    November 30, 2010

    I want to thank you for the work you’re doing, and the clear, thorough and enthusiastic ways you present the fascinating topics of human cooperation and group selection. It has been a major influence in directions I have personally taken in my own graduate anthropological research, which will soon take the form of a PhD on the topic of the evolution of human cooperation (I am interested in parochial altruism and contributing to ethnographic studies looking into group favoritism and its implications for group selection with regard to human cooperation).

    If it’s possible to inhale papers without actually lighting them, that’s what I do with yours and your blogs.

  16. #16 Hank
    November 30, 2010

    Do you really believe that white Americans come from Europeans?
    YES: Then why are there still Europeans.
    NO: Than where did they come from?

    The actual answer, Priyanka, is that a lot of Americans share common ancestry with Europeans. This is why Americans exist, and so do Europeans. The former did not spring from the latter: they can be traced back to (loosely, regionally), common origins, so to speak.

    This is the case with humans and modern monkeys as well as Chimps (our closest cousins). We did not come from what you see as modern day monkeys: humans and monkeys share a distant common ancestor together. We are an ape, in the distant past, our ancestors forked, and went off in the direction of chimps, and in another direction towards modern humans.

    Hope it helped.

  17. #17 djahjsfs
    May 23, 2012

    Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more clear from this post. I am very glad to see such wonderful info being shared freely out there.

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