Becker on evolution and economics


Jason Collins


May 6, 2014

Gary Becker was one of the first economists to seriously contemplate the role that evolutionary biology could play in economics. In 1976, he wrote:

I have argued that both economics and sociobiology would gain from combining the analytical techniques of economists with the techniques in population genetics, entomology, and other biological foundations of sociobiology. The preferences taken as given by economists and vaguely attributed to “human nature” or something similar – the emphasis on self-interest, altruism toward kin, social distinction, and other enduring aspects of preferences – may be largely explained by the selection over time of traits having greater genetic fitness and survival value.

Over the last two days, a couple of people have classed him as the greatest social scientist of the last 50 years. I am happy to grant the title of greatest economist over that period, but I’ll reserve the social scientist title. Becker broke down a lot of barriers in other fields, but I am not sure that many of his applications will outlast approaches grounded in biology. In the long-run, E.O. Wilson and his groundbreaking work starting with Sociobiology might be the more important piece.

In the meantime, below are links to some posts over the last few years I have written about Becker’s work:

  1. Rotten kids and altruism.

  2. Altruists and the knowledge problem.

  3. Consumption and fitness.

  4. Deriving the demand for children.

  5. The evolution of happiness.