It’s hard not to notice how evolutionary thinking and economics go together. I was doing research on the economics of families when a friend recommended Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. It was my first encounter with evolutionary thinking. I was struck by the parallels between human and bird families. Courtship, parenting, bonding, affairs, an avian parallel universe. Knowledge for the taking, for doing economics better.

Maybe you’ve encountered a similar connection: the evolutionary logic of antibiotic resistance and the economics of health care or gender differences in investment behavior, conflict resolution in the workplace, or one of hundreds of other possibilities.

Despite exciting synergies between evolution and economics, the disciplines interact less than they should. How can students blend these two fields?

Take an evolutionary minor. Many schools offer minors in subjects like human behavioral ecology, evolutionary anthropology or psychology, evolutionary biology or medicine, and several others. If your school offers a minor it’s probably worth taking—you get courses you care about in an organized format, leading to a well-defined credential.

A curriculum of your own. Many schools (like my own, Boston College) don’t have an evolution-themed minor but nevertheless, have plenty of courses for designing an informal minor. In biology, there is ecology and evolutionary biology, genomics, and a course on viruses, genes, and evolution. Earth sciences offers a course on the origin and evolution of life. In sociology, there’s a course on the motivation for human cooperation. Psychology offers a variety of neuroscience courses and is home to an evolutionary anthropologist and an emeritus professor on the board of the Evolution Institute.

Either way, you can get what you need.  If your school offers evolutionary courses but not a minor, it’s not a big deal. The only difference is that a minor provides some recognition on your transcript and some convenience in organizing courses. But even with no official minor, people will notice the concentration of evolutionary courses on your transcript.

It’s learning that matters.  Students often exaggerate the value of credentials like majors, minors, and grades. Credentials probably do matter early on (they help employers match graduates with jobs, for example) but their impact is dwarfed by genuine, honest-to-goodness learning. 

Further, credentials and learning don’t necessarily work in the same direction; sometimes they conflict. A few years back, a brilliant economics student failed to get accepted into Phi Beta Kappa because his physics courses hurt his GPA. When faculty got wind of this he was lauded as a hero and a legend for choosing learning over resume building.

You will likely have to make a similar choice. Imagine, say, a genomics course with student ratings like “learned a ton, but impossible to get an A and the workload left me with less time for getting good grades in other classes. I look at the world differently after genomics, but my GPA definitely suffered.”  Again, the tradeoff between credentials and learning.   

Dalton Conley, a Ph.D. sociologist, got interested in behavioral genetics and got a second Ph.D. in genomics. Two Ph.D.’s makes for an over-the-top resume but that wasn’t Conley’s aim—he wanted to learn genomics, which he did, and he’s now making a large impact on the field.

At some point, you might have to choose between learning and GPA. It’s a dilemma. Students work hard for their grades, and credentials are a salient barometer. I recommend getting advice from friends and relatives, particularly those 5 or 10 years past graduation. Ask whether it was credentials or learning that mattered in the long run. I expect learning will dominate.

Wander freely. Every school has amazing professors, and most of them won’t be teaching either evolutionary subjects or economics. Take them anyway, even if their courses don’t obviously mesh with your interests. An amazing class will spark new interests and maybe even connections with evolutionary thought.  That class might be art history, for instance. You might think, this has nothing to do with my econ/evolution “brand.” Likely not true. Consider: everything has to do with everything else. In fact, this is a key takeaway of evolutionary thought. (For the connection between art and economics, see the work of David Galenson. For art and evolution, see, e.g. Geoffrey Miller.)  

Learning requires both specialization (to ride the learning curve) and breadth (venturing into the unknown). The latter just about guarantees progress, since you’re starting from ignorance.

Transition from foundational classes to research as soon as you can. Foundational classes, with their syllabus and text, tend to be regimented and circumscribed. Everything you need to know is in the readings and notes.  

The focus on fundamentals is essential for beginners. But these classes are easily hacked; you’ll find you’re getting better and better with less and less work. It’s a comfortable groove but not the best way to learn. It’s time to move on.

Research. Transitioning from foundational learning to research is a watershed moment. Everything changes. Rather than focus on what’s known, you obsess about what’s not known. No longer are your profs the know-it-alls. You’ll come to know more than them about your subject—maybe, eventually, more than just about everyone. 

There’s no more tidy syllabus to guide you. Instead, you must rummage around messy data. You are used to a step-by-step approach—now you’re flailing randomly in search of resources that you’re not even sure will help. It’s not clear how much faculty can help you.  Your best bet for solving a problem might be your computer scientist cousin who just started a new job in Norway. 

In short, research is great. It’s much closer to real-world work. You are no longer watching from the bleachers, you’re playing in a real game.  

Economics that goes well with evolutionary thought. Game theory tops the list, especially evolutionary games, which were invented by biologists, adapted by economists, and have become a joint effort in the past 30 years. Econometrics is a must for learning how to use data and conduct research.

Other courses?  Three colleagues in my department are world-class experts in mechanism design, a subdiscipline at the crossroads of economics, game theory, and engineering. It would be great if you could learn how to run an experiment. Most economics departments, mine included lack an experimental economist.  But you could pick up these skills from the psychology department.

What next?  Imagine you’ve built up knowledge in economics and evolution. How to make use of what you’ve learned?  You might consider yourself an evolutionary goodwill ambassador to your economics community. Collaborate with an interested econ major, who maybe has skills you lack so that you can trade ideas. Spread the word! You might just have a big impact on your colleague’s thinking.

Good academic diplomacy requires being attuned to the possibility that your colleague might harbor misconceptions about evolutionary thinking. Even some of the best economists only have a hazy idea of how evolution works. That’s OK, it’s hard to know everything. The principles of evolution are easy to learn and the style of thinking is similar to economics. There are a couple of issues worth settling from the start so as to put your colleague on a productive path.

First, just because something is “natural” does not make it good or even acceptable. For instance, males in countless species, including our own, are outfitted for competition, dominance, and violence. A man setting out to compete for a mate likely experiences a confluence of hormonal changes, including a surge in testosterone, which could lead to, say, a bar fight. Acknowledging biological roots of violence does not excuse it. What is natural is not necessarily inevitable or desirable.  The word natural (as in yogurt with all-natural ingredients) tends to be associated with good, and that what happens naturally ought to be happening. 

Such fatalism is inappropriate and absurd. Policy should discourage violent behavior, hormones or no hormones.

Second, genes are sometimes wrongly viewed as autonomous juggernauts. There’s practically no such thing as “genetic determinism.” There exist genetic time bombs that seal a person’s biological fate, such as the genetic code associated with debilitating Huntington’s chorea. But this kind of “genetic determinism” is rare.  For the most part, genes aren’t destiny. Language ability, for example, is too complex to be pinned down to a few genes.

The once-popular catchphrase “nature versus nurture” is rapidly becoming supplanted by “nature via nurture.” To see why, consider language. An “instinct” for it might exist, but it can’t be expressed without a chance to listen and imitate.  Genes and environment are complements, not substitutes. 

Once you get a dialog going with an economist friend, you’ll find that evolution can take you to interesting places. On the first day of class, I ask my students what they were thinking the moment they got dropped off and school and their family departed. Everyone says the same thing—“Who will be my friends?”  

No surprise there, but consider. Even the most generic version of the utility function in economics, the foundation of consumer psychology, makes little reference to friends. At that point, I explain the purpose of the class—to use evolutionary thinking to get a more accurate and refined concept of the utility function.

Economics can contribute to evolutionary thought as well.  Consider the idea of group selection whereby natural selection acts not upon individual honeybees but the colony. Group selection remains a controversial idea in some quarters, but empirical work has barely scratched the surface.  

Yet, arguably, group selection has been happening for hundreds of years in the form of competition among firms in the economy. Which firms prevail and which die out? How do the internal workings of a firm, such as cooperation, affect its fate? Reams of data and economic/management theory could be harnessed to address this question.

Just one more piece of advice—always keep a good evolution book going. Evolutionary thought keeps up a great tradition of superb writing, which makes it all the easier to learn.  Here’s a shortlist of some favorites (though I could name dozens more).

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct

Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man 

It’s a great time to be combining economics and evolution.  Best of luck with your studies and keep me posted.

Read the entire Advice to an Aspiring Economist series:

1. Introduction by David Sloan Wilson

2. Some Pessimistic Advice to an Aspiring Economist by Geoffrey Hodgson

3. The Invisible Hand is a Wishful Invention by Alan Kirman

4. The Case for Adding Darwin to Behavioral Economics by Robert Frank

5. A War Between the Economy and Earth by Lisi Krall

6. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Truths of Being an Economist by John Gowdy

7. Do zee Chimpanzees Have zee Credit Card? by Terrance Burnham

8. Evolution is No Self-Seller in Economics. What Do We Do About That? by Ulrich Witt

9. Bringing Evolutionary Thinking Into Economics and Finance by David Hirshleifer

10. Placing Economics into the Cooperative Frame by Andreas Duus Pape

11. A Copernican Revolution in Economics by Dennis Snower

12. Advice for Evolutionary-Minded Economics Students by Donald Cox

13. Economics Will Never Move If We Try To Change It Incrementally by Blair Fix

14. My Advice to an Aspiring Economist: Don’t Be an Economist by David Bollier

Published On: January 5, 2021

Donald Cox

Donald Cox

Donald Cox is Professor of Economics at Boston College. His current research focuses on intergenerational transfers of money and time, in both developing and developed countries.  His latest paper deals with the evolutionary origins of paternal care. His research and teaching incorporate ideas from biology, psychology, and anthropology into economic models. He has published widely on these issues and presented his work at numerous conferences and seminars. Before joining Boston College in 1987, he served as an Assistant Professor at Washington University for six years and as an economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution for two years. He also spent two years as an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Professor Cox has also served as a consultant for The World Bank and a study section member at the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Cox received his B.S. from Boston College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Brown University.



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