Jason Collins on Teaching Evolution in Economics: A warning from Trivers

Yesterday, Jason Collins, in his excellent blog Evolving Economics, posted the following comment under the title “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.

I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of Jason’s comment or the Nisbett quote*. But they do bring to mind a comment I read many years ago in Bob Trivers‘ commentary on his Trivers-Willard Effect paper, in his wonderful “Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers“:

In 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 selection’.”

To be fair to both psychology and economics, Trivers than goes on to explain how biology and other fields (like psychology and economics) are unified disciplines able to respond to new data and altered empirical and theoretic perspectives. But the long time it has taken for evolution to take effect in other areas of social science such as sociology and social anthropology, and to some extent psychology, should act as a warning.




*A quote which is, here, presented fourth-hand (This column(Jason Collins(Gad Saad(Kenrick & Simpson(Nisbett)))))

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Rob Brooks

I am an evolutionary biologist who thinks about sex for a living. Things I have thought and written about include the evolution of mate choice, the costs of being attractive, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death. Follow @Brooks_Rob on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Jason Collins on Teaching Evolution in Economics: A warning from Trivers”

  1. You don’t hear “natural selection” in the halls of sociology departments because science lost in the Darwin v Marx debate among sociologists years ago.

    – an future biology PhD interested in the usefulness of evolutionary theory in explaining spontaneous order and complexity at all levels, from genes to governments.

  2. I expect my dream of 20 years is a touch too short for economics. The current generation are being trained in the same manner that they have been since the 1970s, if not earlier, and if we need to wait for them to die (the usual manner in which paradigm shifts occur), we could be waiting a while. I suppose the fact it won’t be swallowed willingly by the rest of the profession is what makes it interesting.

    I’ve just started reading Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth on complexity economics. There’s another example of how hard it is to introduce a new paradigm into a field that would appear to be crying out for one.

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