The Evolutionary Foundations of Economics


Jason Collins


June 22, 2015

I posted this paper on SSRN a few months ago, but neglected to blog about it - I’ve written (with my supervisors) a review of the literature incorporating evolutionary theory into economics. The abstract:

The Evolutionary Foundations of Economics

As human traits and preferences were shaped by natural selection, there is substantial potential for the use of evolutionary biology in economic analysis. In this paper, we review the extent to which evolutionary theory has been incorporated into economic research. We examine work in four areas: the evolution of preferences, the molecular genetic basis of economic traits, the interaction of evolutionary and economic dynamics, and the genetic foundations of economic development. These fields comprise a thriving body of research, but have significant scope of further investigation. In particular, the growing accessibility of low cost molecular data will create more opportunities for research on the relationship between molecular genetic information and economic traits.

The paper is fairly flat in tone as I wrote it as the introductory review chapter for my thesis. If you’re familiar with the blog, you will have read some more critical pieces on the papers covered in my article before. Links to some of those critiques can be found down the bottom of my evolutionary biology and economics reading list page.

And the disclaimer - this paper isn’t about “evolutionary economics” in the way that term is typically used. I’m interested in the biological angle:

The subject matter of this paper needs to be distinguished from what is commonly called “evolutionary economics”. Evolutionary economics uses biological concepts, such as natural selection, and applies them to the dynamics of firms, business processes and institutions. The economy is seen as a complex adaptive system in which innovation and change are central considerations. The origin of evolutionary economics is often traced to Veblen (1898), and was revived by Alchian (1950) and later Nelson and Winter (1982), whose seminal work inspired a vast literature. The subject matter of this paper differs from evolutionary economics in that we focus on human biology rather than seeking to apply a biological analogy to higher levels such as firms. This paper is about the application of evolutionary biology to economic processes at the level of humans and their genes and their interactions at the population level.