A Nobel Prize for biology


Jason Collins


January 2, 2012

At the beginning of a lecture by Robert Trivers at the London School of Economics on his book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Helena Cronin notes the absence of a Nobel prize in biology. The closest substitute, the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences, is awarded once every four years, with the winner chosen by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Academy also participates in deciding the Nobel prizes for Chemistry and Physics and Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Trivers was awarded the Crafoord prize in 2007.

Looking down the list of earlier Crafoord prize winners, I was struck by how many of them were influential to me as an economist. How many of them could be, or should be, candidates for the economics Nobel prize?

While Edward O. Wilson won the prize for his work on island biogeography and species developing in isolation, his work in sociobiology and later application to humans should be a lynchpin of economic thinking. Bill Hamilton, were he still alive, could be considered for his work on altruism and kin selection. Robert Trivers might also be a worthy winner for his contributions in the area of cooperation. Robert May’s paper on the complex behaviour of simple systems is at the foundation of my understanding of complexity. The work of John Maynard Smith is peppered through any book on game theory (although he is also deceased).

Biology has not yet been adopted in economics to an extent that would make it likely that any of these candidates will receive the economics Nobel prize. However, as the award to Daniel Kahneman showed, the Nobel Committee is not averse to looking outside the narrow group labeled as economists.