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.


Read the paper: Gowdy, J., Dollimore, D., Witt, U., & Wilson, D. S. (2013). Economic Cosmology and the Evolutionary Challenge.

Published On: July 6, 2013

John Gowdy

John Gowdy

Dr. Gowdy’s areas of interest include Ecological Economics, Evolutionary Economics, Welfare Theory and Policy, and Behavioral Economics. Within these sub-fields of economics his current work is in the areas of biodiversity valuation, climate change, and sustainable development in South Asia. John is past president of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics and current President of the International Society for Ecological Economics. He has been a Fulbright scholar at the Economic University of Vienna, Leverhulme Professor at Leeds University and a visiting scholar at the Autonomous University in Barcelona, the University of Zurich, the Free University of Amsterdam, the University of Queensland and Tokushima University. He has published more than 150 academic articles and authored or co-authored 10 books. His most recent books are Microeconomic Theory Old and New: A Student’s Guide(Stanford U. Press, Spring 2010, Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature, co-authored with Carl McDaniel, University of California Press, and Frontiers in Ecological Economic Theory and Application, Edward Elgar Press, co-edited with Jon Erickson.

Dr. Gowdy’s contact information can be found on his Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute homepage.


  • johannes amkreutz says:


  • Bryan Atkins says:

    Love it, taking the old assumptions into the alley and smacking them around. Let’s have more of that.
    Btw, not that he needs this from me, but D. S. Wilson, read some of your work of late, “Evolving the Future,” this piece, rebuttals to Dawkins and E. O. Wilson on multilevel selection . . . FINE WORK, good Dr. (Not that I grok it all. And big props to your co-authors, too!)
    Dr. D. S.—> Shouldn’t you hit the horrors . . . the talk show circuit? Maybe you’d rather die . . . understood. But lordy, we need thee!

    Now, regarding the economy, gonna pound out an argument here. My apologies if it doesn’t sufficiently refer to the article, but think per the new knowledge that the article relates, that the structure of our economy, mainly its coding mechanism, is increasingly dysfunctional, and in addition, impedes what seems to be our evolutionary push towards greater eusociality.

    Have you heard of Larry Chang’s new econ app: the Planetary Index? He argues that money is no longer an adequate tech / coding mechanism to measure value. He wants to replace money with a 9-criteria value matrix. Big data from ubiquitous bots placed throughout the geo, eco, bio, cultural, and tech networks/complexity fray is collected and crunched via algorithms per a weighted value matrix to generate a more network-inclusive measure of value.

    It’s still a primitive, incipient app, much to still argue and figure, but I think he’s onto something powerful and that his model is congruent with patterns in evolution. His site: http://netplanetaryvalue.wordpress.com

    One pattern is that the Planetary Index generates a new coding structure that processes complex network relationship information with greater speed, accuracy, and power.

    Code generation seems to be a physics? phenomenon, part of what information-in-relationship does over time, in conjunction with/infrastructure for, increases in complexity.

    Think the essence of survival, of arms races, is processing information with sufficient speed, accuracy, and power. Coding structures facilitate information processing in networks, and in individual aggregate information structures, amoebas, computers, governments, etc.

    I support Mr. Chang’s idea that increasingly, monetary code does not equate with value, by citing exponentially accelerating complexity. I argue that per complexity increases, per our species vast powers and numbers, that money is a woefully complexity inadequate culture app, or cultural coding mechanism. Money can’t generate value numbers that are sufficiently accurate, fast, and powerful per the huge and accelerating changes in network relationships from all the new inputs. Whether the network changes manifest as new quantities of sugar, carbon, people, assault weaponry, or are derived from novel entrants such as invented chemicals, ideas, tech, etc., money can’t adequately measure the value of these network changes, especially their long-term consequences. Think this contributes significantly to the increase in externalities: obesity, climate change, species extinction, etc.

    In addition, I argue at http://postgenetic.com :: To varying degrees, our current cultural coding mechanisms—moral, religious, legal, and monetary codes—are increasingly complexity inadequate.

    Propose the Postgenetic Code Information Processing System, PCIPS, as another new cultural coding mechanism. Short form: people, computers, and/or groups of people write code, bots collect big data (pretty similar to Ray Kurzweil’s digital neocortex concept), big data is crunched via algorithms to see how it interfaces with the code, edit behavior and code, repeat. Gives us more of a handle on “cultural selection.” Think both this system and Chang’s PI give the moral code more weight in decision making than the current set of cultural coding mechanism do, especially with regard to monetary code.

    Think this gives us better tech at the cultural level to address, as cited by Wilson, et al in the article: “the condition that human sociality and morals must set limits to the individual pursuit of self-interest.”

    Infected (nuts?) with this idea, understand I may be wholly wrong . . . Thanks for reading.

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