Advice to an Aspiring Economist

A Series About New Perspectives and Missed Opportunities

“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.”


Joseph Lamoureux

This email from an undergraduate student at Boston College sparked an exchange that cascaded into the following series of articles on the past (and future) of economics. Evolutionary economics — or “Evonomics” — looks to the big questions behind the theories of economic behavior. Instead of merely explaining a certain behavior as an economic phenomenon, evolutionary economics helps illuminate why that behavior exists in the first place.

Join us as some of the leading thinkers in economics and evolutionary biology offer their advice to an aspiring economist. In the process, they illuminate the flaws in existing economic theory and demonstrate how an evolutionary worldview can enhance our understanding of economic behavior.

Join the Advice to an Aspiring Economist Discussion Group!

Want to dive deeper? Sign-up for the Advice to an Aspiring Economist Discussion Group where you can join David Sloan Wilson, series contributors, and other TVOL readers for weekly virtual conversations about the latest installment in the series.

Series Episodes

Episode One:


Biologist David Sloan Wilson explains the origin of this series and how an email from an aspiring economist with an interest in the evolutionary worldview sparked the following advice from leading economic and evolutionary thinkers.

Episode Two:

Some Pessimistic Advice to an Aspiring Economist

Economics departments typically follow a core assumption, often referred to as the utility-maximizing model. This model assumes that humans are rational actors and that they will spend their money wisely on available goods or services to improve their general position. However, as economist Geoffrey Hodgson points out, this assumption is highly flawed but it can be hard to find anyone in economics departments willing to acknowledge it.

Episode Three:

The Invisible Hand is a Wishful Invention

Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” forms the core of modern economic thought. However, as economist Alan Kirman points out, a better metaphor for economics is that of a giant organism constantly reacting to and also modifying its own environment.

Episode Four:

The Case for Adding Darwin to Behavioral Economics

Traditional economics prioritizes the assumptions of rational choice. However, as Cornell University economist Robert Frank argues, behavioral economics would profit from adopting an even broader interdisciplinary perspective, drawing on the insights not just of economics and psychology, but also those of evolutionary biology.

Episode Five:

A War Between the Economy and Earth

If human economic behavior was rational, we would expect that people would prioritize a healthy environment. That this isn’t the case presents a problem for modern economic thought. This leads economist Lisi Krall to ask: How and why did humans become collectively configured around an economic system that places them at odds with the planetary boundaries of the earth?

Episode Six:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Truths of Being an Economist

There are many good reasons to become an economist. There are also many downsides but these can be overcome with careful, strategic planning about where to study, what subfields to specialize in, and where to work once your degree is in hand. Here, economist John Gowdy offers the good, the bad, and the ugly realities of the field.

Episode Seven:

Do zee Chimpanzees Have zee Credit Cards?

If a scholar is out of step with her or his field, it is hard to change the field, and perhaps harder to change the scholar. Economist Terence Burnham explains the difficulties of bringing knowledge from one field — such as evolutionary biology — into another.

Episode Eight:

Evolution is No Self-Seller in Economics – What Do We Do About That?

Economists are unlikely to adopt an evolutionary worldview unless considering evolution in the context of economics proves to yield new insights on and beyond those of the canonical interpretation. Economist Ulrich Witt highlights what insights evolutionary economics could offer to the field.

Episode Nine:

Bringing Evolutionary Thinking Into Economics and Finance

Academic fields can frequently become rigid in scope and need an outside intervention before there can be any substantial change. David Hirshleifer argues that there is often an extremely high payoff to ideas that are both right and neglected. In the long run, evolutionary thinking will not be denied its due place in economics. For rising scholars, this is an opportunity.

Episode Ten:

The Cooperative Frame

There is hope for changing the field of economics. Andreas Duus Pape writes that an evolutionary approach tells us we can increase the chances of our group’s survival through cooperation. The cooperative frame is a kind of code-switching for mainstream economics. This approach can also make economic work more rigorous, more careful, more precise, more useful to the field, and more persuasive to a larger audience.

Episode Eleven:

A Copernican Revolution in Economics

In the academic discipline of economics, we are currently experiencing a tame analogue to the first throes of the scientific revolution. The punishment for heresy is not execution, but intellectual oblivion. Here, economic advisor to the G20, Dennis Snower, argues that evolution offers the tools for economics to take the next great leap.

Episode Twelve:

Advice for Evolutionary-Minded Economics Students

Being a good student is hard. Being a good student that wants to break the mold is even harder. Donald Cox argues that academic diplomacy requires being attuned to the possibility that your colleagues might harbor misconceptions about evolutionary thinking. Even some of the best economists only have a hazy idea of how evolution works. Preparing yourself with the tools you need to inform them is key.

Episode Thirteen:

Economics Will Never Move If We Try To Change It Incrementally

Mainstream economics treats humans as asocial animals. However, as Blair Fix argues, this asocial model is completely wrong. When looking at human evolution it is clear that we’re not just a social species, we are the most social of all mammals. Economics must therefore undergo a fundamental change in order to accurately explain human behavior.

Episode Fourteen:

My Advice to an Aspiring Economist: Don’t Be an Economist

Economics has failed us. A number of forces — climate change, collapsing ecosystems, savage wealth inequality, tech monopolies and their data-surveillance, the growing precarity of livelihoods – are challenging some foundational assumptions of standard economics. Activist and scholar David Bollier, therefore, argues that the key to transforming the field is to immerse yourself in disciplines and ways of life that lie outside of the prevailing economic paradigm and typical career paths.

Nearly anyone with an interest in positive change will benefit from reading and listening to these episodes.

Join the Advice to an Aspiring Economist Discussion Group!

Want to dive deeper? Sign-up for the Advice to an Aspiring Economist Discussion Group where you can join David Sloan Wilson, series contributors, and other TVOL readers for weekly virtual conversations about the latest installment in the series.