Teaching evolution in economics

At the start of the concluding chapter in Gad Saad’s The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption (review coming soon), Saad quotes Kenrick and Simpson as follows:

Nisbett introduced the series [on evolution and social cognition at the University of Michigan] by saying that he once thought every psychology department would need to hire an evolutionary psychologist, but he had changed his mind. Instead, Nisbett predicted that evolutionary theory will come to play the same role in psychology as it currently assumes in biology: “Not every psychologist will be an evolutionary psychologist, but every psychologist will be aware of the perspective and will have to address its explanations and constraints in his or her own work” (Nisbett, 1995, personal communication).

I have similar thoughts about biology in economics. If, in 20 years time, there is a small but active research field at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology, I will be disappointed. Rather, all economists should have the tools to assess whether evolutionary biology is relevant to their work. A unit or two in biology and evolutionary theory should form the basis of early economics education. Only then will economists have the required tools at their disposal.

9 thoughts on “Teaching evolution in economics

  1. I really like where you are going with this, Jason.  As a graduate student myself, I feel an increasing pressure to specialize in some particularly branch of economics, even though my interests are very broad and span into the other social sciences and philosophy too.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t need specialists, we do, but in my opinion it has become tougher and tougher to be a generalist in the social sciences, which I think directly relates to the problem you are talking about too.  

  2. “A unit or two in biology and evolutionary theory should form the basis of early economics education.” Apropos of this, based on your reading thus far what would you recommend as the best single-volume treatment of the relevant topics for economists or other non-biologists? (I’m not an economist or biologist, but have a general interest in this area.)

    1. I struggle to give a single recommendation – I don’t believe the complete treatment exists yet. However, I am sitting on a draft page of reading recommendations in the area – the major books, papers etc. I’ve been procrastinating, but I’ll put up where I am at over the weekend and link to it here.

      1. I have published the list – just click on the link in the menu at the top of the page. It is a work in progress, so if you have any thoughts, please let me know.

  3. I completely agree, jason. But your post did put me in mind of a quote from Bob Trivers. 

    1970 I was fond of saying, “Twenty years from now you will not be able to walk
    down the hall of any social science department without hearing people say. ‘I
    wonder why natural selection favours that’. It is now thirty years
    later (42 as of this posting) and you can walk down the halls of most social
    science departments without fear you will ever hear the words ‘natural
    I’ve posted my thoughts in response to Jason’s post and the Trivers quote at http://www.robbrooks.net/rob-brooks/1963

  4. A GREAT article for Science or Nature would be a review of the top 20 Economics textbooks used for undergraduate courses, with emphasis on whether biological explanations (evolutionary strategies, hormones, sexual selection, etc.) are used when appropriate.  Economics is a subset of human biology, so it would be a fun article.

    1. I like the idea. My pessimistic instinct is that they will have almost no biological references, except for some evolutionary game theory in the microeconomic texts (I am still stunned at how many economists I have met who think John Maynard Smith was an economist). Still, definitely worth a look.

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