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David Sloan Wilson on economics and new developments in evolutionary theory

David Sloan Wilson has an interesting blogpost about modern evolutionary theory and economics in which he compares the ideas in a highly intelligent 1996 speech about this by Paul Krugman with subsequent developments in evolutionary theory. It reminds me a little of the early twentieth century ideas of Kropotkin (see this post on this blog): “Kropotkin … noticed that groupings of species thrived through cooperation. Researching human settlements in Siberia, Kropotkin likewise noted cooperation and mutual aid as the foundation for dealing with the larger struggle for survival against natural challenges.”

david_sloan_wilson_biologist-e1443053817256-175x175  Wilson:

Let’s revisit Krugman’s four components of economics in the light of these developments in evolutionary theory.

1) It’s about what individuals do. “Methodological individualism is of the essence”. Not any more. The late social psychologist Donald Campbell, an early pioneer of the current developments, said this about methodological individualism in 19942: “Methodological individualism dominates our neighboring field of economics, much of sociology, and all of psychology’s excursions into organizational theory. This is the dogma that all human social group processes are to be explained by laws of individual behavior—that groups and social organizations have no ontological reality—that where used, references to organizations, etc. are but convenient summaries of individual behavior.” This dogma might be theoretically justified in cases where selection takes place entirely within groups (in which case group-level effects are coincidental byproducts), but not when groups are the unit of selection. Or, if you prefer, groups become the individuals when selection operates at the group level.

2) The individuals are self-interested. Not any more, at least not entirely. In my newest book, Does Altruism Exist?, I stress that altruism must defined separately in terms of action vs. thoughts and feelings and that a complex relationship exists between the two. When altruism is defined in terms of action and in terms of relative fitness within and among groups, humans are altruistic much of the time.

3) The individuals are intelligent and maximize their self-interested utilities. Krugman already identified a gap between economic and evolutionary theory for this component in 1996. On the economic side, behavioral economists have been closing the gap by calling attention to the many ways that people depart from the assumptions of Homo economicus, although most behavioral economists do not use evolution as a guide to understand the nature of Homo sapiens, as I stressed in my previous essay.

4) Economists are concerned with the interaction of such individuals, especially the invisible hand conjecture that the intelligent pursuit of self-interest benefits the common good. Ironically, and in contrast to mainstream evolutionary theory in 1996, the new developments provide theoretical justification for the concept of the invisible hand, although different than the received economic version. The two criteria of the invisible hand concept are: 1) A society functions well as a unit; and 2) members of the society do not have its welfare in mind. Multi-cellular organisms and social insect colonies offer spectacular examples of the invisible hand concept in nature. They function well as units and their members—cells in the case of multi-cellular organisms and single insects in the case of social insect colonies—don’t even have minds in the human sense of the word. Instead, they behave in ways that have been winnowed by higher-level selection to be good for their group. Put another way, higher-level selection is the invisible hand and if it doesn’t operate, there’s no theoretical warrant for expecting groups to function well as units. The economist John Gowdy and I develop this theme in an academic article3 titled “Human Ultrasociality and the Invisible Hand: Foundational Developments in Evolutionary Science alter a Foundational Concept in Economics”.

In short, all of the components of economic theory that made Krugman regard evolutionary theory as a “sister field” in 1996 require foundational changes.

  1. January 23, 2016 at 11:47 pm

    i once stayed the night at david sloan wilson’s house up in in binghampton ny. they had only 1 graduate student spot and someone else said they could derive all of population genetics . i didnt think that was true. i met lee dugatkin too (his grad student I—-studied guppies (fish) —then worked at university of louiville kentucky, has some books. ) i decided to spend my graduate application fee on myself and go back to west virginia. d s wilson told me my job would be to run his computer—-i had already seen all that (eg joel cohen of rocklfellor u had similar stuff). https://bigthink.com/experts/joelcohen gowdy is just a popular science writer. also, boyd and richerson have to be read besdies dsw and eow

  2. January 24, 2016 at 1:24 am

    There is a problem with #4 interpretation, though I am open to input.

    As I understand the invisible hand, it is connected to an imaginary moral observer (not God). If one is a piratical capitalist transgressor against life and Earth, then one will encounter freely offered moral advice and judgement from surprising directions until one’s last breath.

  3. January 24, 2016 at 11:45 am

    I agree with David Sloan Wilson’s critics, but not with you, Merijn, when you say that Krugman’s speech (1996) was “highly intelligent”. He defends a very narrow minded reductionist point of vue and say that economists and biologists have one point in common : they have to fight against a charlatan : J.K.Galbraith (for economists) and S.J. Gould (biologists). Do you agree with him ?

  4. January 24, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    The three pillars of English philosophy: Individualism, Darwinism, Political Economics
    Comment on ‘David Sloan Wilson on economics and new developments in evolutionary theory’

    Wilson summarizes “In short, all of the components of economic theory that made Krugman regard evolutionary theory as a ‘sister field’ in 1996 require foundational changes.”

    Foundational changes are indeed required in economics (2014). And it is not the first time that the representative economist is inclined to think that — after copying from Newtonian physics did not work — it is a brilliant idea to copy Darwinian/Neo-Darwinian evolution. As a matter of fact, Veblen kicked off heterodox economics with the question “Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?” Not much came from it because Heterodoxy never rose above naive empirical/historical/partial/sociological commonsense analysis and never formulated anything in the way of a general theory of how the monetary economy works.

    The first thing to notice is that Wilson does not introduce a new idea into economics or promotes a ‘foundational change’ but firmly remains within the narrow boundaries of age-old English philosophy.

    This philosophy consists of three tightly interlocked meme*

    (i) Individualism — variation — pluralism — self-interest — egoism — selfishness — greed;

    (ii) Evolution — Darwinism — variation — competition — selection/survival (natural/social) — breeding/eugenics — human progress (Übermensch/super-race);

    (iii) Political economics — utilitarianism — competition — creative destruction — Invisible Hand — equilibrium/optimum — strong/dominant nation state — commonwealth.

    Exemplary interlocks: (iii)/(ii) e.g. Malthus/Darwin; (i)/(ii) e.g. selfish gene/Dawkins; (iii)/(ii) e.g. Keynes as member of the Eugenics Society; (ii)/(iii) e.g. Social Darwinism**; (i)/(ii)/(iii) e.g. Laissez-faire.

    Last, but not least: (i)/(iii) yields the job description for neoclassical economists and a guideline for peer review selectors of what to take in and what to keep out of the economics meme-pool: “It is a touchstone of accepted economics that all explanations must run in terms of the actions and reactions of individuals. Our behavior in judging economic research, in peer review of papers and research, and in promotions, includes the criterion that in principle the behavior we explain and the policies we propose are explicable in terms of individuals, not of other social categories.” (Arrow, 1994, p. 1)

    This program has run against the wall — scientifically and practically. Wall Street as concrete manifestation of neoclassical economics has become the epitome of human alienation/corruption and economic failure. So, methodological individualism is put back into the box of tools and ‘other social categories’ are taken out, viz. multi-cellular organisms, social insect colonies, bee hives, and other biological manifestations of altruism/cooperation.

    Krugman is replaced by Kropotkin! What a turn of events! Why the Russian anarchist Kropotkin*** who found out that in Siberia ‘cooperation and mutual aid is the foundation for dealing with the larger struggle for survival’?

    Neither the sorta-kinda-maximization-and-equilibrium Krugman nor the evolutionary anarchist Kropotkin is needed, dear evolutionary economists, the gussied up classics Malthus/Darwin will do. Tune individualism a little down and tune cooperation a little up, that’s all. But don’t call evonomics/evolutionary economics a foundational change.

    A truly foundational change requires five steps: (i) to throw the obsolete English philosophy out of the window, (ii) to stop copying/invading other sciences, be it physics, biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or what not, (iii) to stop dabbling in politics without sound scientific foundation, (iv) to throw out maximization-and-equilibrium, (v) to make economics a science that stands on its own methodological feet and on entirely new axiomatic foundations.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    Arrow, K. J. (1994). Methodological Individualism and Social Knowledge. American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, 84(2): 1–9. URL
    Kakarot-Handtke, E. (2014). Objective Principles of Economics. SSRN Working Paper Series, 2418851: 1–19. URL http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2418851

    * Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme
    ** Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism
    *** Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Kropotkin

  5. BC
    January 28, 2016 at 2:04 am

    What if small in-group sociopathy is what evolution has self-selected during the once-in-history, peak-Oil Age epoch of the past 150 years and the rest of us are destined to experience per capita the payback (effects of Peak Oil, population overshoot, resource depletion per capita, debt deflation, onerous fiscal constraints, etc.) for the sociopaths’ disproportionate thermodynamic, exergetic, and financial gains?

    If so, growth will be two and three times subordinate to the imperative of systemic resilience, conservation, redistribution, and maintenance of subsistence per capita for the bottom 90-99%.

    This “Limits-to-Growth” meme is utterly absent from the larger discourse because it is antithetical to neo-liberalism, i.e., expansionist, imperial, hyper-financialized rentier-socialism.

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