Our paper discusses three very old “cosmologies” in Western thought, how these play out in economic theory, and how evolutionary biology can help evaluate their validity and policy relevance. These cosmologies are: (1) “natural man” as a rational, self-sufficient, egotistical individual, (2) competition among individuals can lead to a well-functioning society, and (3) there exists an ideal optimal state of nature. These cosmologies are reflected in canonical economic theory in the form of the self-interested rational actor assumption, the invisible hand conjecture, and the belief in the existence of a general market equilibrium.
The same cosmologies are reflected in the history of evolutionary biology. Adaptation and natural selection have often been framed in terms of individual self-interest. Higher-level units such as single-species, social groups, and multi-species ecosystems have been assumed to function well, despite the self-interest of their members. And much ecological and evolutionary modeling has assumed the existence of a general equilibrium.
While both economic and evolutionary theory have been influenced by the three cosmologies, evolutionary theory has arguably made more progress in going beyond them during the last thirty years. The individual is no longer regarded as a privileged level of the biological hierarchy. Contrary to the invisible hand metaphor, individual self-interest frequently undermines societal welfare unless special conditions are met. And most ecological and evolutionary systems are in a state of disequilibrium.
This article explores in detail the three cosmologies in relation to economics and evolution. One purpose is to show how both bodies of knowledge have been influenced by ideas that precede them by centuries and even millennia. Another is to use advances in evolutionary theory to help economic theory move beyond the three cosmologies.