My evolutionary epiphany came in 1993 in a graduate microeconomics class taught by Harvard Professor Stephen Marglin. After a year of standard graduate microeconomics, Professor Marglin was discussing the origin of preferences, the bedrock of economic theory. 

I was so excited by this idea of examining the foundation of economics, that I went to office hours that afternoon. Professor Marglin argued that preferences were socially constructed, and even a desire to stay alive was created by culture. I countered that surely some aspects of human nature, such as drives for food, sex, resources, and life itself, must be the product of evolution by natural selection. 

Professor Marglin and I agreed to disagree on the nature of human nature. 

After this epiphany, the idea of endogenizing economic preferences within a biological framework was lodged in my brain and remains at the center of my academic work. My first biological economic manifesto was a dense single-spaced document that began with this cartoon:

I printed the manifesto and hand-delivered it to the offices (and hands) of famous professors at The Harvard Business School and Harvard University. I did not have a cell phone at the time, and knowing that the world was going to want to talk with me — and very soon — I raced home on my bike to answer the landline. 

27 years later, the treatise remains unread (and lost). 

In 1997, I spent some weeks in Uganda observing wild chimpanzees at the research site of Richard Wrangham. Before my departure for Africa, I told a fellow graduate student, who is now a famous tenured professor in an elite university, of my upcoming time with these great apes. He asked why I wanted to observe chimpanzees. I said, “to understand human preferences.” He retorted, in a French accent, laden with ridicule, “Do zee chimpanzees have zee credit cards?” 

I suffered many embarrassing and humiliating moments. Here is one of the more humorous. I was hired by a future Nobel Prize winner in economics to teach math to incoming graduate students. Meeting privately, he said, “Let me be clear Terry, I am hiring you because I think you are a good teacher, not because I think you are a good economist.” 

At this point, you are expecting the happy ending. I persevered and the world discovered biological economics. 

That has not happened. I have been invited to give three talks to economics or finance departments in my life, a rate of one per decade. After almost 30 years of obscurity, I believe that any Kuhnian paradigm shift within economics will arrive after my death (or never). 

Fairly good at woodwork 

Joe Lamoureux writes, “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!” 

I agree with you Joe, and I am willing to endorse the statement with two exclamation points!! And therein lies the problem. 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.  

WD Hamilton, the famous biologist, recounts his troubled start as an academic. He faced a similar problem in that he was only interested in the ‘problem’ of altruism, and not a single other person shared his perspective. Here is a bit of WD Hamilton’s story (see a related story about Albert Einstein here: http://www.terryburnham.com/2015/12/fruit-flies-to-save-adam-smith.html

As a graduate student, Hamilton was interested in the genetic basis of behavior. Hamilton reports that his advisor saw a ‘eugenical spectre’ in his work. Because Hamilton was in disfavor he, unlike all other students, was never given a desk at his university nor asked to present his work.  

Without a desk, Hamilton suffered “3 years of alienation” writing, “most of the time I was extremely lonely … I would go to Waterloo Station, where I continued reading or trying to write out a model sitting on the benches among waiting passengers.” 

“At times I was sure I saw something that others had not seen … At others I felt equally certain that I must be a crank. How could it be that respected academics … would not see the interest of studying altruism along my lines unless it were true that my enterprise was bogus in some way that was obvious to them”? 

Hamilton assumed he would never become a professor. He writes that he was not that sad as “I knew I was fairly good at woodwork.”  WD Hamilton eventually did obtain an academic job. When he asked why he was selected to be hired, his new boss replied that Hamilton was the only applicant. 

In 1964, WD Hamilton published two papers, “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour. I & II.” 

These papers became among the most important and cited scientific papers of the 20th century. One obituary described Hamilton as, “the primary theoretical innovator in modern Darwinian biology.” 

Evolutionary economists face the Hamiltonian graduate-student-loneliness scenario without any guarantee of success. There are far more cranks who fail than there are iconoclasts who become WD Hamilton or Albert Einstein. To paraphrase Catch-22, just because you are different, does not mean that you are brilliant. 

Apply to dental school 

David Sloan Wilson asks, “If you are a professor in an economics department, how well does it teach Evonomics? Are there any economics departments that are exemplary in this regard? 

What can an aspiring economist do to acquire an education in Evonomics on their own?” 

My answers to these questions are that my department does not teach biological or evolutionary economics, and I am not aware of any schools that do an exemplary job. As far as I can tell, economists, both neoclassical and behavioral, are uninterested in any serious application of biology to economics. As Joe notes, Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler is extremely uninterested. 

Is there any good news? Perhaps. There are more papers and books that are relevant to economics within the natural sciences. I believe it is possible to educate oneself. I am currently the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Bioeconomics, which is as good a place to start reading as any other (https://www.springer.com/journal/10818). 

What advice do I have for young people? The most trite and unhelpful career advice is to “follow your passions.” Steven Jobs’ famous Stanford 2005 graduation speech may be the best version of this harmful idea, 

“Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary… Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish” 

Watch the full Steve Jobs speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc Steven Jobs would tell a young economist to stay hungry and commit to evolutionary approaches. 

I disagree with the late, great Steve Jobs. My advice is to follow an evolutionary economic path only if you cannot become a dentist. 

Find a job that you love and you will never work again.

Let me end on a hopeful note. In 2012, I spent 6 months writing a biological economics paper. I recall devoting an entire week to one paragraph. The paper was eventually accepted, but the reviewers’ comments revealed that they had not read the entire manuscript. Nevertheless, I was happy to have the (unread) paper published. 

A few years later, I learned that my paper was only electronically published and that it had never been printed in the journal. The journal charged for access to electronic articles and kept a count of the number of people who had paid to download my article. The number of downloads was zero. 

Thus, my six months of writing were spent crafting a document never read by anyone other than myself. At the moment when I learned that not a single human being had ever read my paper, and looking back on the effort invested in writing, I felt the time had been well spent. During the article’s creation, I felt joy from learning, manipulating, and expressing the ideas. I had received full payment for my labors. 

“To all who follow, good luck.” This is a paraphrase of a line in The Escape by JD Stamper. Here is my advice to young economists. 

Become a biological/evolutionary economist only if you have no choice. By that, I mean if you are so compelled by these ideas that other careers are impossible. Expect to die penniless and unknown. If you can accept failure and poverty, then, like the protagonist in The Escape, your outcome will not disappoint.

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: December 14, 2020

Terence Burnham

Terence Burnham

Terry Burnham is an economist who studies the biological and evolutionary basis of human behavior. He is Associate Professor at Chapman University. He has a Ph.D. in Business Economics from Harvard University, a Masters from the MIT Sloan School with a concentration in finance. HIs undergraduate degree is in biophysics from the University of Michigan.Terry was a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, the University of Michigan, and the Harvard Business School. His non-academic experiences include working for Goldman, Sachs & Co., being the chief financial officer for Progenics Pharmaceuticals and being the director of Portfolio Management for Acadian Asset Management, a quantitative equity manager. Visit his blog.

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