Economics and evolutionary biology reading list

Below is a suggested reading list for someone interested in the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology. If you have any recommendations for additions, please let me know.

1. Books at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology

Gregory Clark’s (2008) A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World: The Industrial Revolution was triggered by the reproductive success of the rich, as their traits spread downward through society.
Gregory Clark’s (2013) The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility: Social mobility is low across countries and time because there is a genetic component to social status.
John Coates’s (2012)  The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust: How our hormones affect decision making in finance – the idea that traders are rational calculating machines driven by their brains is torn apart.
Arthur Gandolfi, Anna Sachko Gandolfi and David P. Barash’s (2002) Economics as an Evolutionary Science: From Utility to Fitness: The title captures the book’s core focus on translating the economic concept of utility into the biological concept of fitness.
Oded Galor’s (2011) Unified Growth Theory: A fine summary of the most serious attempt to accommodate human evolution into theories of economic growth. Highly technical and not an easy read.
Haim Ofek’s (2001) Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution: Ofek’s core argument is that humans were selected for exchange. The book has many novel arguments on how economic factors affected human evolution – although I read it so long ago that I need to re-read it in the light of what I have learnt since.
Paul Rubin’s (2002) Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom: Humans naturally seek political freedom and Modern Western societies do the best job of meeting these needs.
Paul Seabright’s (2010) The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life: An evolutionary examination of the complex web of interactions with strangers that underlie today’s economic institutions.

2. While not directly at the intersection, other books containing core ideas relating to my thinking on evolution and economics

Bryan Caplan’s (2011) Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Parents can relax as there is not much they can do to change their children. And since they’re easier than you think, why don’t you have more?
Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending’s (2010) The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution: Human evolution is getting faster.
Jared Diamond’s (2005) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies: Jared Diamond gets a lot of flack for his strong support of environmental causation, but I believe the thesis in Guns, Germs and Steel is basically right – you just need to add in some evolutionary feedback with the environment.
Robert Franks’s (1988) Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions: A fantastic game theoretic approach to the role of the emotions.
Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd and the ABC Research Group’s (1999) Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart: As the title suggests, simple heuristics allow us to make smart choices. I could have put any number of Gigerenzer books here, but this is possibly the best.
Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion: A brilliant analysis of why people are divided by politics and religion. Just don’t buy his arguments on group selection.
Tim Harford’s (2011) Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure: Harford applies evolutionary thinking to business, war, accidents and other human pursuits. Excellent.
Judith Rich Harris’s (2009) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated: Beyond the package of genes, parents have limited influence on their children.
Joe Henrich’s (2015) The Secret of Our Success: An excellent examination of cultural evolution, although plenty to question.
Daniel Kahneman’s (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow: While the field of behavioural economics has not yet made the step into evolutionary biology, this overview is the best. My thoughts on a second reading are here.
Geoffrey Miller’s (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature: This might be the best modern exposition of sexual selection there is, and the argument that sexual selection shaped the human mind is compelling.
Geoffrey Miller’s (2009) Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior: Evolution shaped our consumer preferences but they do not always work perfectly in a modern environment.
Matt Ridley’s (2003) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature: The book that triggered my interest in evolutionary biology and convinced me that it was relevant to human affairs.
Gad Saad’s (2007) The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption: This book has more material taking on the Standard Social Science Model approach to consumption than is fun to wade through, but Saad’s book is still the go to source for material on the evolutionary psychology approach to consumption.
Amotz Zahavi and Avishag Zahavi’s (1999) The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle: It’s all about honest signalling. Alan Grafen’s twin papers providing the mathematical basis for this signalling is also important (they are here and here).

3. Books on evolutionary economics and complexity theory

Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter’s (1985) An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change: The seminal book that established evolutionary economics as a serious field.
Eric Beinhocker’s (2006) Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics: The best readable discussion of the field of “evolutionary economics” and the application of complexity theory to economics.

4. Articles at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology (generally technical economic papers)

4A. The evolution of preferences

Becker, Gary (1976) Altruism, Egoism and Genetic Fitness: Economics and Sociobiology, Journal of Economic Literature 14(3), pp.817-826: One of the earliest calls for biology to be used in economics.

De Fraja, Gianni (2009) The origin of utility: Sexual selection and conspicuous consumptionJournal of Economic Behavior & Organization 72(1), pp.52-69: The desire for conspicuous consumption was shaped by sexual selection and is consistent with a utility maximising economic framework.

Hansson, Ingemar and Charles Stuart (1990) Malthusian Selection of Preferences American Economic Review 80(3), pp.529-544: The earliest article I am aware of that explicitly examines the evolution of an economic preference.

Hirshleifer, Jack (1977) Economics from a Biological Viewpoint Journal of Law of Economics 20(1), pp.1-52: Another of the earliest calls for biology to be used in economics.

Rayo, Luis and Gary Becker (2007) Evolutionary Efficiency and Happiness Journal of Political Economy 155(2), pp.302-337: An argument that if happiness is a tool through which human choices are directed to evolutionary goals, constraints on our feelings may lead to relative preferences and habit formation.

Rogers, Alan (1994) Evolution of Time Preference by Natural Selection American Economic Review 83(3), pp.460-481: One of the first articles to propose an evolutionary basis to time preference.

Robson, Arthur and Larry Samuelson (2009) The Evolution of Time Preference with Aggregate Uncertainty American Economic Review 99(5), pp.1925-1953: A great article on how risk affects the optimal rate of time preference. Arthur Robson is the king of the study of the evolution of preferences, as a scan of the papers on his home page shows.

Robson, Arthur and Larry Samuelson (2009) The Evolutionary Foundations of Preferences in Benhabib, Jess, Alberto Bisin and Matthew O. Jackson, Handbook of Social Economics (ungated working version here): A thorough and excellent review of the literature on the evolution of preferences.

Rubin, Paul and Chris Paul II (1979) An Evolutionary Model of Taste for Risk Economic Inquiry 17(4), pp.585-596: A fantastic example of how an evolutionary framework can yield new results.

4B. Genoeconomics

Beauchamp, Jonathan P. (2011) Molecular Genetics and EconomicsJournal of Economic Perspectives, 25(4), pp.57–82: A good discussion of the potential use of molecular genetics in economics and economic policy (my post here).

Benjamin, Daniel J. et al. (2012) The Promises and Pitfalls of Genoeconomics, Annual Review of Economics, 4(1), pp.627–662 (ungated working paper here): A sound reminder to take a lot of genoeconomics research with a grain of salt.

4C. Evolution and economic dynamics

Clark, Gregory (2008) In defense of the Malthusian interpretation of history, European Review of Economic History, 12(2), pp.175-199 (ungated working paper here): This article is a response to critiques of A Farewell to Alms (critiques hereherehere and here), but it expands on some important points in the book.

Galor, Oded and Omer Moav (2002) Natural Selection and the Origin of Economic Growth, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117(4), pp.1133–1191: The seminal article proposing that evolution affected economic growth through a genetically based preference for quality or quantity of children. With Juerg Weber and Boris Baer, I have simulated and extended this paper.

Spolaore, Enrico and Romain Wacziarg (2013) How Deep Are the Roots of Economic Development?Journal of Economic Literature, 51(2), pp.325–369: An outstanding discussion of the deep roots of economic development and how persistent differences in development are.

4D. Macro-genoeconomics

Ashraf, Quamrul and Oded Galor (2013) The Out of Africa Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development , American Economic Review, 103(1), pp.1-49 (ungated working paper here): Genetic diversity has positive effects on innovation but hampers trade, meaning that moderate levels of genetic diversity gives the right mix (I have written a series of posts on this paper, all of which can be found through this post).

Spolaore, Enrico and Romain Wacziarg (2009) The Diffusion of Development Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(2) pp.469-529 (ungated working paper here): An argument that the genetic distance between populations acts as a barrier to the transfer of technology, leading to income differences between groups (my post here).

5. Articles on evolutionary economics and complexity theory

Alchian (1950) Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory Journal of Political Economy 58(3), pp.211-221: The 1950 proposal that examining the actions of economic agents as trial and error, and adaptive and imitative behaviour may be a better basis for examining economic behaviour than perfectly rational profit maximisation.

33 thoughts on “Economics and evolutionary biology reading list

  1. I would add Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric Beinhocker and (in related books) Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist

    1. I’m in the process of reading Beinhocker’s book, so it may be an addition, although I usually distinguish between recognising that humans are evolved biological organisms (my area of interest) and the use of an evolutionary framework in complexity economics. Maybe I should add a few complexity economics titles – they are certainly influential for my thinking?

      I was considering adding one Ridley book, The Red Queen, although it is so long since I read it I am having trouble benchmarking it against the others. It was important in developing my thinking. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Rational Optimist as I felt Ridley misused the evolutionary metaphor at times. I should write a post of my thoughts on that.

      1. Yes, you certainly should. I–and probably many others–would be very interested in hearing your take on the Rational Optimist.

  2. “Microeconomics: Behaviour, Institutions and Evolution” by Samuel Bowles

    Wonderful book on Microeconomics. Includes real world examples and is particularly interested in
    showing what happens when the assumptions in undergrad Micro are relaxed. In one of the final chapters he shows some quantitative agent based models about the development of Institutions.

    “Not by Genes Alone” by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd

    A great non-mathematical account of an evolutionary based theory of cultural evolution.

    “Culture and the Evolutionary Process” by Boyd and Richerson

    A mathematical account of evolutionary based theory of cultural evolution.

    “Mathematical Models of Social Evolution” by McElreath and Boyd.

    The title is not accurate as this is more a great introduction for people who struggle with maths to the
    maths in biology. Chapters include; Price Equation, Hamilton’s rule, Signalling, Group selection, Sexual selection and Sex ratios etc.

    “Evolutionary Dynamics” by Martin Nowak

    A book that covers loads of mathematical biology, in particular lots on evolutionary game theory and
    evolutionary graph theory.  Has some great mathematical discussions about when altruism can survive in different forms of games.


    An awesome website that has online simulators that can be used to run simulations for evolutionary game
    theory.  Absolutely amazing – hours can be spent on the different games playing around with the settings. 

    “Supercooperators” by Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield

    Really an autobiography of Martin Nowak’s career. Some great non-mathematical discussions about evolutionary game theory and in particular when altruism is likely to do well. Also includes some thoughts on his controversial paper against Hamilton’s rule.

    1. Nice list. Apart from Mathematical Models of Social Evolution, they are all on my reading list – and unread. I should get onto them.

      I like the website link.

      1. I second Microeconomics by Samuel Bowles. I would also add ‘The Bounds of Reason’ by Herbert Gintis to that list. It argues for the methodological unification between social sciences and biology through game theory.

  3. Another excellent book is “Principles of Social Evolution” by Andrew Bourke. 
    It deliberately avoids human social structures but is an amazing discussion of Hamilton’s inclusive fitness. In particular it spends time looking at when “…the history of  life has involved the repeated grouping together of biological units into higher-level units followed by the consolidation of each new higher-level unit into an integrated collective.”  It mentions briefly the Nowak paper. An excellent account of inclusive fitness and its ramifications.

  4. What a first rate blog. I saw the post at GNXP – you should have advertised it more widely earlier. 

  5. The book by Oded Galor, “Unified Growth Theory”. Full extension of the Galor/Moav and Ashraf/Galor articles in your list

  6. With Epigenetics (Lammarck)  and Symbiotics (Margulis) evolutionary theories are “opening up” to additional ways of investigation.

    To the extent “Economic” conditions comprise an environment affecting the human organism (cyclical periods of stravation in Sweden, e.g.) we have definitive interlinks. The micro-biologists seem to be dealing with these effects as “imprinting.”  We will probably learn (slowly and reluctantly) of much more interplay, and then how that interplay affects the constant re-arrangements in social organizations (responses) and the formations or declines of social orders.

  7. Great lists, and great suggestions (and I have a number of them partially read – sigh).  Cool link too from Stephen Oates.

    I’m liking Gad Saad’s books on ev psych and consumption too.  

    1. Agreed on Rubin’s book.

      On The Art Instinct, I’m contemplating adding a few books with evolutionary psychology foundations that shed light on preferences, even though they might not have been written to explore the formation of preferences in the way an economist defines them.

  8. I think the books in category 3 are the most worth reading.  Excellent picks. I would also add The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. The Rational Optimist is also excellent.

    Really?! “The Industrial Revolution was triggered by the reproductive success of
    the rich, as their traits spread downward through society.” REALLY?! LOL. So that’s what it was all about. Not that I have anything against the rich, but don’t give them all the credit…isn’t this like “The Protestant Ethic”, also shown not to be true. I just can’t let that one go.

    You want to  know what made the industrial revolution possible — steam turbines, diesel engines powered by cheap energy in the form of coal and later oil. Don’t underestimate the importance of energy — read anything by Vaclav Smil on this topic (PDF, Natural gas is on deck.

    1. The question you have to ask is why certain places at certain times invented steam and diesel engines or exploited the natural resources under their feet.

      Thanks for the Vaclav Smil link. Would you recommend any particular papers?

      1. Vaclav Smil’s Creating the Twentieth Century is the book you should read for understanding why the world is so rich today.

  9. I think this article also fits in this list:
    * Thurner S., Klimek P., Hamel R., Schumpeterian economic dynamics as a quantifiable minimum model of evolution,

  10. Have you read “Death, Hope, and Sex” by James Chisholm? He argues that individuals’ life history strategies (and therefore, their time-preference, tolerance for risk, and, I’m guessing although he doesn’t get into this, economically productive personality traits) is a function of early childhood development (particularly attachment experiences), which are used as a proxy for how risky an environment the infant will be inhabiting.  I don’t have a good sense of how reliable his arguments are (I know Harpending has done similar work), but it seems like an interesting possibility.  

  11. Jurgen Kluver’s (2002) An Essay Concerning Sociocultural Evolution: Theoretical Principles and Mathematical Models may be of some interest to you.

    I also think David Bohm’s later work is interesting with regards to the relationship between mind and matter.

    1. Thanks for the pointer. I’m just not sure where I’m going to find a reasonably priced copy of Kluver’s book – looks to be $80+ for both ebook and hardcopy. Do some authors wonder why they’re not read?

  12. I’m surprised you don’t have Dawkins’ the selfish gene. It sits very nicely next to the nurture assumption as a flip side to the nature/nurture ‘coin’ that makes us human. The last few chapters on social alturism and its genetic roots I think is particularly pertinent. It also complements geffoery millers mating mind very well by giving a more holistic picture of behavioural/evolutionary motivations regarding consumerism and decision making that are not just related to reproduction of genes but also survival of the organism. Admittedly it doesn’t overly focus on humans, but it doesn’t need to either.

  13. Thanks for compiling this list. Do you have any thoughts on Nature: An Economic History by Vermeij? I’m curious how you think it would compare with the other intersection books you’ve listed.

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