Ever since Darwin drew upon Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith, economic and evolutionary theory have been entwined throughout their histories. Yet modern macroeconomic theory has yet to incorporate developments in evolutionary theory during the last few decades.

We hope this changes, starting with our project for Rebuilding Macroeconomics of introducing Multilevel Selection (MLS) Theory to explain how governance can evolve — or fail to evolve— at any level of a multitier social hierarchy, from small groups to the global village.

Back in 1975, Edward O. Wilson published his classic book ‘Sociobiology’ in which he identified the evolution of altruism, broadly defined as behaviors that benefit others or one’s group at individual expense, as the central theoretical problem in Sociobiology.

For the solution, Ed showcased two theories of social evolution then in vogue. First, inclusive fitness theory, whereby organisms maximize the fitness of their genes in themselves and their relatives. Secondly, reciprocity theory, whereby organisms help others to receive return benefits. Both theories explained altruism as a form of self-interest, an interpretation that would be reinforced by the 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

In 2007 I published an article with Ed titled ‘Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology’ The new foundation we provided was Multilevel Selection (MLS) theory, which originated with Darwin but seemed dead as a doornail in 1975 to all but a handful of heretics.

The central claim of MLS theory is that altruism is not individually advantageous. It declines in frequency within each and every social group where it occurs and can evolve thanks only to the differential fitness of groups in a multi-group population. We closed our article with the simple summary statement that ‘selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.’

When the 2008 Global Financial Crisis struck, I was asked through my role at Evolution Institute what evolutionary theory might have to add. Ever since, I have been immersed in economic theory and practice from an evolutionary perspective. A highpoint was my collaboration with Elinor Ostrom, resulting in a generalization of her work on single groups and polycentric governance from a MLS perspective.

I also learned about the sociological landscape of the economics profession. The day after Elinor was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, the economist and Freakonomics author Steve Levitt wrote this on his New York Times blog:

“If you had done a poll of academic economists yesterday and asked who Elinor Ostrom was, or what she worked on, I doubt that more than one in five economists could have given you an answer. I personally would have failed the test. I had to look her up on Wikipedia, and even after reading the entry, I have no recollection of ever seeing or hearing her name mentioned by an economist…[The] economics profession is going to hate the prize going to Ostrom even more than Republicans hated the Peace prize going to Obama. Economists want this to be an economists’ prize (after all, economists are self-interested). This award demonstrates, in a way that no previous prize has, that the prize is moving toward a Nobel in Social Science, not a Nobel in economics.”

Something that Levitt wrote in his blog points to the contribution that I hope to offer. He wrote that ‘after all, economists are self-interested’ as if it can’t be otherwise. In this respect, the economics profession is not much different from the rest of the social sciences.

In both cases, holistic conceptions of society during the 19th and first half of the 20th century were replaced by various forms of individualism, as if social phenomena aren’t truly understood until reduced to the motives and actions of individuals (or ‘micro-founded’ to use the vernacular). Evolutionary biology’s individualistic swing during the 1960’s and 70’s was part of the same trend—and MLS theory provides the robust alternative for economics and the social sciences, no less than sociobiology in the biological sciences.

I very much hope that I can contribute to this ‘Rebuilding Macroeconomics’ initiative the same way as my article with Ed over a decade ago. The theoretical component will be in collaboration with Dennis Snower, co-leader of the Social Macroeconomics hub which will oversee the project. We hope to lead away from the individualism that has become so pervasive during the last half-century, which is the proverbial ‘water that the fish can’t see’.

My RM project will also have an empirical component. One insight of MLS theory is that governance must be multilevel. Crudely speaking, it must function at the micro (single groups), meso (coordinated collections of groups), and macro (global) scales. Using a practical framework for working with groups called Prosocial.world, I will attempt to enhance multilevel governance in one or more locations within the UK. I am currently reviewing partnering people, organizations, and locations for this part of the project.

This article was originally posted on the Rebuilding Macroeconomics website. The “Managed Evolution: A New Narrative for Macroeconomics” project has been generously funded by Rebuilding Macroeconomics and the Economic and Social Research Council (UK). 

Published On: September 25, 2019

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • Scott Sumner’s work is really where you have to start. The Market Monetarist school, of which he is the doyen, stresses signals and expectations.

  • Vassilios Kokkinias says:

    Excellent Article and of the utmost importance. Certainly, our macroeconomic theory and practice is not in accord with evolutionary theory or the health of life on the planet.
    The last paragraph dealing with governance is of special interest to me. For many years I have been thinking about democratic theory and how contemporary democracy is practiced. I came to the conclusion that the very notion of democracy is hierarchical and it cannot work unless there is democracy at the global level. Without a strong and vibrant global democracy, with corresponding strong democratic institutions at the global level and resulting international law arrived at democratically with the participation of all peoples and nations; national, regional and local democracies will be hampered and at best their performance will be sub-optimal. This is especially true in the case of smaller and/or weaker nations that are depended economically, to a large extent, on stronger, wealthier nations and institutions.
    Please let me know if there is any work, publication or organization that is looking into or working toward the idea of global governance.

  • Another excellent article, thanks David! I also liked your comments, here along the same lines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNYsD2H4L2g (from 2 mins 50 secs to the 6 mins mark)

  • Tim Thornton says:

    Good luck with this venture. This book, based on an earlier article, seems quite relevant to your particular purposes.

    The Microfoundations Delusion: Metaphor and Dogma in the History of Macroeconomics

    In this challenging book, John King makes a sustained and comprehensive attack on the dogma that macroeconomic theory must have ‘rigorous microfoundations’. He draws on both the philosophy of science and the history of economic thought to demonstrate the dangers of foundational metaphors and the defects of micro-reduction as a methodological principle. Strong criticism of the microfoundations dogma is documented in great detail, from some mainstream and many heterodox economists and also from economic methodologists, social theorists and evolutionary biologists. The author argues for the relative autonomy of macroeconomics as a distinct ‘special science’, cooperating with but most definitely not reducible to microeconomics.

    https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/the-microfoundations-delusion?___website=uk_warehouse The Microfoundations Delusion

  • Bryan Atkins says:

    I’ve interviewed E. O. Wilson, Robert Trivers, and other mind studs.
    David Sloan Wilson’s explanation of multilevel selection (MLS) makes sense to me.
    And yes, think it’s absolutely vital to bring an evolutionary perspective to economics.

    Here’s something additional and Fundamental that I think is missing from the discourse on economics, including what I’ve seen from Dr. D. S. Wilson (& yes, maybe I’ve missed it).
    Most economists do not understand code, including monetary code, in a physics, evolution and complexity context. Briefly, code is fundamental, physics generated and physics efficacious relationship infrastructure in bio, cultural & tech networks. Or as Ray Kurzweil wrote, “The story of human intelligence starts with a universe that is capable of encoding information.”
    Nor have I found one economist willing to engage regarding this perspective. I’ve contacted plenty of ‘em, and biz and econ media as well.

    I submit that economists have been lethally wrong for decades (as we all have). Somewhat arbitrarily, let’s say since 1970, when Jacques Cousteau said: “The oceans are in danger of dying.” (American culture responded heroically to Mr. Cousteau in 1976 with… The Love Boat — sold a lot of GDP-augmenting cherry-flavored laxatives to, you know, facilitate the mounting, and everywhere compacting, economists’ fecal matter. Now? It’s raining micro-plastic; oh, and the sky and ocean are being armed with weapons of mass extinction. And can’t resist another data point. We’re bringing “premature and perverted death” to our descendants and 19% of the 2014 GDP was advertising. Sorry, but that’s a jackoff culture.)

    Not only do economists not understand code, they don’t seem to understand that we can’t get away with doing multilevel selection — i.e., generate vast relationship structures in-&-across Geo Eco Bio Cultural & Tech networks, and across Time — with the world’s dominant information processing mechanism or app: Humans deploying monetary code.
    The app’s computation specs are far too weak to measure complex relationship value.
    Submit that: Passing multilevel selection tests is largely a function of processing complex relationship information with sufficient Reach Speed Accuracy Power and Creativity.
    Think of your immune system. If it doesn’t process novel pathogen information with the above criteria, you’re dead.

    Further submit, that the dominant phenomenon of our era is exponentially accelerating complexity, i.e., add ~6 billion people since 1900 and give billions access to exponentially more powerful tech. This yields myriad unprecedented relationships, along with exponential dynamics.

    Complexity increases weaken the efficacy of code, whether genetic, religious, language, legal, software, monetary, etc.
    We aren’t coded — biologically or culturally — to navigate, to process, the emergent environs / relationships we continue to generate by way of our numbers, powers and concomitant reach.
    Verily, if your culture’s relationships with the Sky and Ocean are deadly, your cultural genome sucks.
    That is, it’s non-selectable.

    Now, physicist David Deutsch, who I love, has said that humans are universal constructors in that we can create knowledge. Think that’s true.
    He’s also said (a few years ago), that we could solve climate change in a year if we wanted to.
    I asked Dr. Deutsch, via Twitter, why haven’t we solved climate change; was he omitting the physics of emotional information processing?
    He responded thusly: “Because we don’t think it merits that level of sacrifice of other things we want.”
    Yes. And in the suite of human information processing, emotion is more fundamental that reason.
    What’s fundamental is survival and philosophically vital because: “Initial conditions rule in complex systems.” Stewart Brand
    As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown, we can’t even make a decision with invoking our emotions.

    And here’s another fundamental, coup-de-gras anvil drop on our hopes:
    Fundamental, selected relationship code, conserved across species, is: Fitness is > Truth. (Part of why the horrors of genocide and war are fundamental human apps for relationship interface, as are deception and self-deception.)
    This fundamental relationship code (reality) is well distilled by the brilliant Donald Hoffman. The following quotes were taken from a 38-minute talk, available on youtube. It’s titled The Death of SpaceTime.
    From Dr. Hoffman:
    “Fitness and truth are utterly different things.”
    “Evolution is quite clear, it’s fitness and not truth that gives you the points you need to win in the evolutionary game.”
    “Organisms that see the truth go extinct when they compete against organisms that don’t see any of the truth at all, literally none of the truth at all, and are just tuned to the fitness function.”
    “Perception is not about seeing truth; it’s about having kids.”

    • Bryan Atkins says:

      Okay, my apologies. I’m using multilevel selection with a different meaning than the Dr. D. S. Wilson. I should have used MultiScale Selection to describe our constructing of vast relationship structures in-&-across Geo Eco Bio Cultural & Tech networks and Time. With that correction, I think the import of the take stands.

    • Rich says:

      The truth function ultimately survives longer. Animals have to deal with reality. It only takes one ignored truth to bring entire populations to extinction regardless of how successful their fantasy bullshit has been so far.

  • Mike Alexander says:

    I am interested in an evolutionary approach to macroeconomics, which I thing is overdue. My own modest offering in this line was published recently in Cliodynamics Journal.


  • Peter van den Engel says:

    Agree multilevel selection is a good definition – and you can appoint dominators to it. Like what prevails under what circumstances (which actually is geometrical understanding of spacetime, which consciousness does)/ but one should also understand human behavioural patterns can be artificially driven by symbolism, which is far less the case in the animal realm. Although the appearance of a body in nature is very close to symbolism as well during mating season or a fight.

    Natural selfishness already occurs for the simple reason observation in spacetime is always individual first/ and collective consciousness is a level higher and further away.
    So its ambiguity is prone to various interpretations/ but the natural groupfunction humans became (animals are not in the same sense), already embodies a higher dominator in spacetime as it physically is including its meaning.
    The behavioral pattern of money as a symbol (it does not mean anything/ although it suggets everything) again emphasizes selfishness because that’s how it rewards (feedback information). Which is not necessarily correct, but a misinterpretation of what it physically does: swapping time cannot be reversed. Although its mathematics suggests it represents natural law (like mechanics), which obviously it does not: it’s a fantasy equation in that sense/ not on other levels.
    Mathematics is a random symmetry system derived from nature/ but not nature itself. Projected it could prove anything and nothing at the same time. To paint the body of what multi selection means. It’s a very relevant but open concept for further investigation.

  • Rich says:

    We are skilled at producing things and moving them around. Instead of having a narrow goal of profiting, we could value all humans and create a global way of life for all without money- not just for narrow minded immature owners. Wilson says we should watch out when people hold things sacred because then they deny the truth. What if altruism benefits both individuals and groups? Isn’t friendship beneficial, aren’t we smart enough to create win-wins?? Isn’t this why we have innate counter-dominance strategies? And why is it so hard for some to imagine a world without money- as if it was some sacred thing that gives us meaning, haha. Our cult-ure is weak and immature. Smart people defend immature selfishness and this has always been the tradition of monarchy. Normal adult development leads to egalitarian manners and most of us admire and are inspired by this behavior, but the fake baboon hierarchies imposed upon humanity since agriculture began have a vested interest in promoting the immature dark side of our nature.

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