I have been having an email conversation with a young man named Joseph Lamoureux, who aspires to be an economist. He acquired his interest in stages. First, he was introduced to the topic as part of his International Baccalaureate (IB) program in high school. Second, he read the best-selling Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Third, he chose economics as the topic of his original research paper required to complete the IB program, where he delved into the behavioral economics literature. By now he was hooked and chose Boston College as one with a strong and progressive economics major for undergraduate students.

Despite all of this preparation, when I started to feed Joe material on economics from an evolutionary (and complex systems) perspective, it seemed to go beyond what he had read and was encountering during his first year at Boston College. He wrote me an email that included the following passage:

I have concluded that I am very interested in further exploring how evolution can reshape our understanding of economics. So much so, that I hope to focus my career on it. Unfortunately, after talking with my academic advisor I am unable to design my own major/minor in the area, but I have been in contact with the one evolutionary economics professor at Boston College and we intend to create a course path that mixes classes in biology, sociology, psychology, and economics so that I learn material as close to evolutionary economics as possible. In concert with this goal, I thought I’d reach out to you as well.

While thinking about how to advise Joe, it struck me that his situation was a teachable moment for the entire economics profession. What is it about “Evonomics” that goes beyond Freakonomics, behavioral economics, and the undergraduate curriculum of a progressive economics department? Joe’s reply, when I put this question to him, is worth quoting in full:

The major difference between what I was seeing in evolutionary economics and the traditional economics education I was receiving at Boston College was the coherence of the theoretical framework and the involvement of the question ‘why?’.

Since I knew a little behavioral economics before entering my first year at BC, I noticed traditional economics and the rational actor model failing on multiple facets. Previously, I saw behavioral economics as the answer to these issues. Now, however, I feel that behavioral economics is more interested in identifying issues with the rational actor model than redefining the model entirely. To me, this raises the question: How many exceptions can be made to the rule before it ceases to be a rule at all? I think behavioral economics has done a fantastic job of poking holes in traditional economics and I am still enamored with the anomalies it points out, but I just don’t think it goes far enough. It still supports the rational actor as a theoretical framework even as it continues to diminish its authority. Evolutionary economics, on the other hand, offers a replacement to the rational actor model based on the simplest, yet most comprehensive theory there is: Evolution! Evolution is an empirically developed theory that is known to be fact, unlike the rational actor model. Moreover, it is such a powerful idea that it opens the door to entirely new theories based upon it, similarly to how traditional economists currently theorize around the rational actor model. The impact a foundational theory has makes choosing the right theoretical lens of paramount importance. Therefore, economics, and all fields of study, should undergo a Descartes style review, which begins with the methodological doubt of the foundation. Economics must be based on an indubitable principle, and evolution ought to be it.

In addition, evolutionary economics seems to delve into the why behind the theories. Rather than just explain a phenomenon, evolutionary economics helps explain why that behavior exists. If we are able to understand why we behave as we do, why wouldn’t we? Traditional and behavioral economics have no interest in explaining why we behave as we do, they simply want to explain how we behave. In my opinion, it makes much more sense to do both. Too often while learning [behavioral] economics, I wonder why we act as we do and presenting how we behave in tandem with why alleviates this curiosity. In addition, I think squaring ‘the how’ with evolution through ‘the why’ acts as a first check on the legitimacy of a theory. If a widespread behavior cannot be explained in terms of evolution, then it seems likely to me that something has gone wrong in the research. In his book Misbehaving, Richard Thaler, one of the founders of behavioral economics, even agrees, “There was no doubt that many of the aspects of human behavior that we were talking about had evolutionary roots” (261). Oddly, though, he finds no reason to bring evolution into economics. I, however, believe evolutionary economics is the logical next step in the progression of the social science that I love.

Every teacher dreams of having a student like Joe! As Editor-in-Chief of This View of Life, I decided that the very best way to help him out was to invite economists who appreciate the relevance of evolutionary theory to provide their own advice to an aspiring economist in the form of a short essay. Not just Joe, but someone like Joe entering their department or any other economics department in the country and the world. Are there any economics departments that offer what Joe is looking for? For students in departments that fall short, what can they do to supplement their education? And what can be done to bring the departments up to date?

To help with the work of assembling the essays, I invited Joe and Andrew Brady, a friend and colleague who champions evolutionary thinking in the business world, to join me as co-editors. All three of us will offer our thoughts at the conclusion of the series.  

Cultural evolution might be fast compared to genetic evolution, but it is still often too slow to adapt to rapid environmental change and this is especially the case for academic cultural evolution. We intend this series of essays as a catalyst for change in the economics profession and how it is taught to the next generation of economists. The problems of the world that the economics profession exists to solve will not wait.

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: November 23, 2020

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

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