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November 03, 2003

We Need a Sociobiological Economics


I’ve been reading a lot about cooperation and private property recently, but what my reading has led me to ponder, somewhat paradoxically, has been the whole phenomenon of envy—or whatever term you want to use for the desire to knock down, impede, or supplant more successful rivals, even if this might harm the desirer as well as his victims. (One writer I came across called this, rather acutely, “negative altruism”—a willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to harm others.) Pondering this, in turn, led me to notice some shortcomings in current economic analysis, at least as seen through sociobiological eyes, and to wonder what a sociobiological economics might look like.

Let me back and up take you through my chain of logic, however convoluted. I started out reading a book by Robert Axelrod, “The Evolution of Cooperation.” This is not, despite its title, a book on the history of cooperation, but rather one that attempts to analyze cooperation using a little game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

As you may know, this is a game for two players. On each round, the players choose whether to either “cooperate” or “defect.” Neither knows what the other has decided to do until both choices are revealed. Clearly there are a fixed number of possibilities; both can cooperate, both can defect, or one can cooperate and the other can defect. The game then rewards each player with points for these outcomes with ascending scores for the following outcomes:

#1) You choose to cooperate and your opponent chooses to defect (“the sucker’s payoff”) Sample payoff to you: -2
#2) You choose to defect and your opponent chooses to defect (“mutual defection”) Sample payoff to you: 0
#3) You choose to cooperate and your opponent chooses to cooperate (“reward for mutual cooperation”) Sample payoff to you: 2
#4) You choose to defect and your opponent chooses to cooperate: (“temptation to defect”) Sample payoff to you: 6

The scoring is arbitrary, as long as it increases at each step from situation #1 to #4. This simple game fairly accurately describes the issues surrounding two people cooperating on, say, writing a paper for school. #1 and #4 are mirror images of the same situation: If one takes the paper seriously, and the other blows it off, the one ends up writing the whole paper and the other shares the same grade, leaving the one feeling like a sucker, which he or she is, and the other very happy with the outcome. If neither party is willing to share the work, both have to write their own papers, leaving both no better off than if cooperation had never been attempted. If both responsibly share the work, each is better off for getting a good grade while having done only half the work.

The “dilemma” comes about from trying to figure out what to do when confronted with having to play the game (and assuming you don’t have a history of cooperation or defection with your “partner.”) If you choose to cooperate, you will get a score of either –2 or 2; if you choose to defect, you will get a choice of either 0 or 6. Cooperation, in short, has an average payoff of “0” and defection an average payoff of “3.” (The payoffs are arbitrary, but as long as cases #1-#4 above pay off in a consistently increasing way, defection will always average a higher payoff than cooperation.) Hence, it makes sense to defect, right? Well, yeah, except that your “partner” will figure the odds the same way. The likely outcome is that both of you will defect and will both get a lower score than if you had both cooperated.

Axelrod points out that the only way to achieve cooperation is to, as he puts it, “lengthen the shadow of the future.” In other words, the above analysis, however grim, is appropriate if you never expect to see the other party again—go ahead and screw or try to screw your partner—it won’t turn out too badly, and you might do well out of it. If you live in a small town, however, and you can reasonably expect to see your game partner every day for the rest of your life, then the situation is different. Then you realize that defecting means potentially giving up a lot of potential future benefit. Hence, cooperation starts looking sensible again.

On the other hand, even in small towns there are jerks, so just assuming that you are obligated to cooperate with every one will surely get you taken advantage of. While there is no mathematically perfect strategy in this game, it turns out the best “rough and ready” strategy is known as “tit for tat.” This means you do the same thing to people that they did to you the previous round, after starting out by cooperating. You have to be willing to reciprocate if somebody screws you, but you don’t hold a grudge; you are willing to forgive and forget if your opposite number turns over a new leaf.

(Aside: this analysis explains the fervently negative emotional reaction people have to free riders, i.e., people who accept the benefits of group cooperation but don’t contribute. This behavior undermines the whole concept of cooperation, turning it into a sucker’s game. Despite a fair amount of stigmatization of this negative emotional reaction as “mean-spiritedness” in recent years, hostility to free riding and a willingness to punish it are both essential aspects of cooperation.)

So prospering from cooperation seems pretty simple—as long as we expect to see our “partners” again frequently. And we all want to prosper, right? As economics tells us, we’re good little utility maximizers.

Well….maybe. Or maybe not. There is a snake in the garden of Eden, as Mr. Axelrod notes with dismay:

In my classes, I have often had pairs of students play the Prisoner’s Dilemma for several dozen moves. I tell them that the object is to score well for themselves, as if they were getting a dollar a point. I also tell them that it should not matter to them whether they score a little better or a little worse than the other player, so long as they can collect as many “dollars” for themselves as possible. These instructions simply do not work. The students look for a standard of comparison to see if they are doing well or poorly. The standard, which is readily available to them, is the comparison of their score with the score of the other player. Sooner or later, one student defects to get ahead, or at least to see what will happen. The other usually defects so as not to get behind. Then the situation is likely to deteriorate with mutual recriminations. Soon the players realize that they are not doing as well as they might have, and one of them tries to restore mutual cooperation. But the other is not sure whether this is a ploy that will lead to being exploited again as soon as cooperation begins once more.

Wondering a bit about this, I turned to a similar game theory-style discussion of private property. This I got from a paper by Herbert Gintis, “The Evolution of Private Property” which you can read here. Mr. Gintis builds a mathematical model for private property that he calls the “Contester-Usurper” model to try to understand why in both nature and human society private property is fairly rare but, once established, is often quite a stable arrangement. I won’t go through the details of this as they are fairly complex, but I would point out that his model highlights two “problematic” aspects of private property.

The first is that, generally, the rational thing for non-owners to do with private property is to try to steal it or claim it for themselves (i.e., “usurp” it). This implies, of course, that the property is intrinsically valuable or has received improvements by the owner making it valuable. The reward of usurping is obvious and the risks involved with displacing the owner aren’t that high, especially if you gang up with some buddies to do it. The rub here is very much like that revealed in the Prisoner’s Dilemma—the “base case” is antisocial behavior, which will prevent owners or usurpers from bothering to invest in improving their property.

The second is that the only way for private property ownership to establish itself is by raising the costs of such usurpation to the point where the risk of death outweighs the probabilistic reward of usurping the property. Among animals this might be done by a mutation that encourages “owners” to fight especially fiercely in defense of their territory (balancing the increased risk of death with the reproductive benefits of being a property owner.)

While Mr. Gintis confines his model to animals, I would extend it to people, because doing so reveals another touchy aspect of private property. Human usurpers have the ability to cooperate in profitable ventures like usurpation, so merely fighting fiercely to defend your property probably isn’t a viable strategy; you need the cooperation of others to help defend your turf. And when other people have a necessary hand in defending the investor’s ability to reap the benefits of his or her investment, we have a situation in which they may feel that their reward (watching their neighbor grow rich) isn’t appropriate given the danger involved. So private property arouses, at least potentially, covetous feelings among both the “bad guys” and among your friends and neighbors…which may explain why it arose and sustained itself, on a mass basis, only in very limited parts of the globe.

In short, both of these analyses suggest that rather than being good little utility maximizers, busily piling up the best possible outcome for themselves and ignoring the results of others' struggles, people have a either a bias towards (or rational reasons for) viewing the world as a zero-sum game, in which good outcomes for others are either a direct or indirect threat to themselves. I’m pretty much an ignoramus economically, but I don’t recall any of my professors discussing this tendency of people to see the world in zero-sum terms during the couple years of courses I took at our Lousy Ivy University.

Sociobiology would seem to easily account for the psychology of such a zero-sum game point-of view of the world. If we are all seeking to be winners in a reproductive race, the accrual of money or status to others can be seen as a threat to one’s own reproductive future, and that of one’s offspring. And during the long history of human hunter-gathering, the possibility of significant inequality somehow paying off, or benefiting, the entire community sufficiently to justify the downsides of that inequality must have seemed pretty laughable. As Marek Kohn notes in her essay, “Unity is Health: An Evolutionary Left” (which you can read here) notes:

...[T]hose peoples who still hunt and gather, as all humans did till ten thousand years ago, have a markedly egalitarian outlook. They recognise and admire exceptional individuals, but they do not permit them to acquire exceptional degrees of power. As the anthropologist Christopher Boehm points out, humans never lost their ancestors' instinct to dominate. But among hunters and gatherers, the instinct is collectivised. Individuals who seek to dominate are restrained by "counter-dominance" from the rest of the group. The politics of envy may be the oldest politics of all.

So how do we incorporate "the politics of envy" and the politics of the rest of human nature—however smoothly or roughly they fit under current economic conditions—into notions of how society does and ought to work? Can we just incorporate such feelings into our current, utilitarian economic models? At least one example of an attempt to do this which I stumbled across, which you can read here, makes me suspicious that this approach will work.

This is a paper by Richard Layard called “Rethinking Public Economics: The Implications of Rivalry and Habit." He starts with the very sociobiological notion that because of our evolutionary past, humans feel compelled to “keep up with the Joneses”:

We are all rivalrous, to a greater or lesser degree. Which one of us would not suffer if all our colleagues except us got a raise? It is an intrinsic part of human nature, wired into the genes. When a monkey becomes top monkey, his serotonin count improves, and when he is displaced it falls. This competitive instinct promoted survival in the wild. In our tamer world it is completely rational to limit those spheres of life where it survives in its more extreme forms, and to promote optimal levels of less rivalrous activity. [Emphasis added]

Unfortunately for his intellectual consistency, Mr. Layard’s economic/utilitarian analytic apparatus doesn’t really incorporate any Darwinian content. Once he has observed that our Darwinian past has given us a strange psychological bias, he simply incorporates it in the traditional calculus of utility. He announces this allegiance to traditional economic perspectives in the very first sentence of his paper:

The aim of public policy should be to maximise people’s happiness, suitably aggregated.

Starting from there, Mr. Layard works out the implications of the notion that people systematically overwork because of keeping up with the Joneses-style rivalry, which he treats as a market failure to be corrected by governmental intervention:

For example, if people compared their leisure with others’ as intensely as they compared their earnings, the private income-leisure choices of the individual would remain socially efficient. However that is not how things are. People are much less sensitive to other people’s leisure than they are to other people’s earnings…People compare their conspicuous consumption with others but are much less concerned with their comparative access to leisure, public goods and inconspicuous consumption. That is why we should worry lest the latter get under-produced.

Mr. Layard, who appears to be a good ways to the left, politically speaking, after an impressive display of mathematics and utility functions proposes a good, stiff tax to fix the problem. (I hope no one is terribly shocked.) The tax would be targeted at people working excessive hours and indulging in conspicuous consumption in order to keep them from triggering neurotic bouts of overwork and overconsumption among their neighbors. The proceeds of this tax would be invested in public goods like roads, bridges, libraries and mass transit systems (which our atavistic determination to keep up with the Joneses causes us to under-appreciate.)

While I can imagine John Stuart Mill applauding an analysis based on the notion that the goal of public policy should be to maximize people’s happiness, suitably aggregated, I don’t hear Darwin clapping, at least not while wearing his biologist’s hat. (I have no idea of Darwin’s politics.) I don’t recall, in any discussion of Darwinian theory, a discussion of happiness as a goal at all. I certainly have no memory of reading, as an unargued assumption, that the goal of maximizing people’s happiness, suitably aggregated, should be the supreme point of our social order. (I also don't recall much discussion of equity, fairness or egalitarianism in Darwinian thought, either.) No, what I remember are phrases like “survival of the fittest,” “reproductive competition,” and “selfish and potentially immortal genes.”

I don’t think this is an accident. I’m not aware of happiness maximization as a logical outcome of natural or sexual selection. I would think, if our bodies and minds are, as Richard Dawkins describes them, mortal “survival machines” to protect and transmit immortal genes, that too much happiness in the survival machine could even interfere with its mission.

I can also imagine crises in which it might well be the height of folly to have promoted optimal levels of less rivalrous activity (i.e., leisure) as Mr. Layard advises us to do, when—from an evolutionary standpoint—we should have devoted ourselves to the furious heaping up of material resources essential to solving such a crisis. Now, I understand that no one, including myself, wants to think like this; but I’m not at all sure that our genes have similar scruples. After all, many of them are 4 billion years old, and I’m sure have survived a number of tight spots along the way. Keeping our survival-machine noses to the grindstone may be a perfectly sensible survival strategy--for them.

So it seems to me that, rather than inserting dollops of sociobiological insight into current-day economics, it might be necessary to rethink economics from the ground up to change it from a system designed around the idea of maximizing social utility (and the social utility of the current generation, no less) to one designed around the idea of maximizing successful reproduction, now and into the future.

While I can see this far into the problem, I’m not sure exactly what such a truly sociobiologically-oriented economics would look like. Do you have any intuitions about how it might change from the current state of the Dismal Science?

Best regards,


posted by Friedrich at November 3, 2003


Friedrich writes:

"I’m not sure exactly what such a truly sociobiologically-oriented economics would look like." (i.e. one oriented towards maximizing 'successful reproduction' rather than 'social utility').

Well, I'm not sure what precisely it would look like either, but I'm pretty sure what it would be called. It would be called 'eugenics'.

It would be about designing an economic policy to encourage intelligent people (and in particular intelligent women) to reproduce at least as rapidly as the cognitively disadvantaged.

Of course, the moment you start airing ideas like this you'll get the argumentum ad Hitlerum by the bucketload. Eugenics = euthanasia = the Holocaust.

Beware, Friedrich, beware!

Posted by: Charles Copeland on November 3, 2003 4:59 PM

An interesting post, which raises prvocative issues in all sorts of directions. I have just a couple comments:

"selfish genes" (along with other similar sociobiological usages) has always struck me as one of the most bogus ideas I have ever heard from someone not dead drunk. I dont know what to call it--maybe anthropomorphizing biochemistry. True, the genes of people who reproduce survive; but that doesn't mean that the urge to reproduce--either considered as some sort of hard-wired drive or as a personal motive--is in order that the genes may survive. Everything I have read about Darwinian evolution indicates that the essense of Darwinism is this: mutations happen, some of them happen to enhance the survival chances (and thus the reproductive chances) of those individuals in whom they happen, and their genes prosper as long as thing change to make them no longer fit. End of story. Things change & other things happen. There is no particular purpose to this grand scheme is things. Genes arent selfish; they just do things that genes do, if they are lucky enough--not cunning enough--to be around to do them. Isnt that orthodox Darwinism?

Also, where you see envy as the motive for not cooperating with the extremely rich in protecting their property, I see--if I understand your scenario--merely suspicion that they are being suckered: why should we help him when we get nothing out of it? or almost nothing compared to the help we give him? But whether it's envy or not, I would agree that extreme disparities of wealth are not conducive to maintaining respect for private property. And I first learned that from Ben Franklin, who thought--and never tired to repeating--that what he called (I'm quoting from aging memory) "general mediocrity of fortune"--i.e. the a large & strong middle class--was the cornerstone of a stable & happy democracy. So, yes I think the growing disparity of wealth in this country is a real and potentially disastrous problem--which doesnt mean that I agree with every hare-brained retrofitting gimmick designed to fix that, though not all retrofits are hare-brained.

Posted by: John Hinchey on November 3, 2003 5:18 PM

You pick up on a big problem in economics. It wants to be a descriptive science. But it's just not the case that people act to maximize their utility. Its also not the case that people act to maximize their inclusive fitness. The best you can say, descriptively, is that our cognitive systems, insofar as they are adaptations and not spandrels, were selected because they helped maximize inclusive fitness in the ancestral environment. But, given the radical changes to our environments, its doubtful that our cognitive mechanisms taken together actually function to maximize anything. In short, the mind is a big kludge, engineered to solve a different problem than it now faces. So its not clear why it would even be interesting to study what would maximize fitness. It certainly wouldn't be predictive.

What Darwin helps us to do is improve our behavioral assumptions by telling us what our various cognitive mechanisms are most likely TRYING to accomplish, and helping us understand how these mechanisms interact with our current environment to produce behavior. We can then use these new behavioral assumptions to explain and partially predict how individual behavior will aggregate, given various constraints. But I believe that this will involve jettisoning the idea that we're actually maximizing anything. (Or if anything is, various cognitive modules--each with its own welfare function--are trying to mazimize. But there is no way to aggregate these to give a single consistent function for the person.)

It was always immensely naive to assume that individuals are trying to maximize utility as the basis for a descriptive discipline. And then to think the basis for social policy OUGHT to be the maximization of aggregate utility, is just plain weird. To sum up, individuals don't try to maximize utility. If they did, there'd be no way to usefully aggegate it. And if there was, there'd be no point in doing it, because aggregate utility is not a compelling moral target. And the same goes for inclusive fitness.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson on November 3, 2003 5:47 PM

I follow nature, science, et al. and articles on cooperation, altruism, etc. often appear. The one I saw most recently was a 23 october review article in nature titled "the nature of altruism". After reading Sober and Wilson's Unto Others and Boehm's Hierarchy in the Forest a few years ago I started collecting articles on cooperation, altruism, evolutionary game theory etc. But I don't have any special expertise other than intro biology, I just find it interesting.

I don't follow economics, but from what I see in the media they are starting to play the behavioral and biological games; e.g. application of functional brain imaging to simple economic games, application of data from the heuristics and biases program of social psychology (tversky, kahneman, etc)

I think what John Hinchey says makes sense, but it runs deeper than bad metaphors. Whether envy figures into a good analysis or not is an empirical question. Tooby and Cosmides, et al have generated a few good hypotheses from their "evolutionary psychology" program (e.g. cheater detection), however, it hasn't made much of a contribution to the prediction of behavior; so far, anyway. My opinion is that the cognitive brain and behavioral sciences can get along just fine without evolutionary stories, but here I'm only speculating.

Posted by: Shai on November 3, 2003 6:31 PM

"I tell them that the object is to score well for themselves, as if they were getting a dollar a point. I also tell them that it should not matter to them whether they score a little better or a little worse than the other player, so long as they can collect as many “dollars” for themselves as possible."

Axelrod says that this indicates that we aren't utility maximizers. I think he's proven exactly the opposite. The key phrase is "as if they were getting a dollar a point." In fact, they weren't getting a dollar a point; in fact, racking up lots of these pseudo-dollars had maximized their utility not at all. Had he really given them a dollar per point, I suspect they'd have played differently.

My second objection is that playing a game is psychologically different than the real-world situations Axelrod is trying to model. When you go to the store to buy milk, you are trying to acquire milk. When you play a game with someone, you are trying to beat them. In this game, I'd say that the actual point totals are irrelevant. Rather, participants scored emotional points by outwitting their opponents. They could do this without feeling guilty simply because they knew that at base the game didn't matter.

Conducting experiments in economics is extraordinarily difficult, and it's impossible when the stakes have no value.

Posted by: Will Duquette on November 3, 2003 7:20 PM

A variety of work by Gintis, Sam Bowles, and others has highlighted how spiteful behavior (or, "negative altruism") can enable cooperation in multi-party groups. This is when the spiteful behavior is a way of punishing defectors and cheaters, and is sometimes called "strong reciprocity."

In eusocial insects like bees, one of the main experimental systems that motivated original sociobiology, you see effects like these in "worker policing," where the colony will punish workers who try to usurp the queen's role and do a little secret reproduction on their own.

In other words, what you are calling the tendency for zero-sum thinking, may be deeply tied into what originally enables cooperation, sociality, norms-formation, private property, etc.. If everyone were selfish, they might not ever cooperate effectively.

I think someone mentioned the review article on this in last week's Nature (23 Oct 03). It's an active area, and attracts behavioral economists, game theorists, and also evolutionary biologists who are interested in the evolution of cooperation in people and other systems (that's where I fit in).


Posted by: alexis on November 3, 2003 9:24 PM

I think I tilt towards what Will was saying. But mostly what I'm aware of is being out of my depth, and having a head that's spinning. My own genes aren't selfish; they're dizzy.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 3, 2003 10:43 PM

This is an interesting discussion. Alexis makes an important point about the role that "irrationally" vindictive punishers play in sustaining social cooperation.

My one request is that Axelrod not be taken as the authority on game theory, evolutionary or otherwise, and that the Prisoner's Dilemma not be taken as the primary model of social interaction. (Axelrod actually describes the forebearance of soldiers in the trenches of WWI as an example of cooperation in a repeated PD, which is simply nuts--initiating a firefight when the other side wasn't shooting in no way created a large benefit for the defector. First, the individual soldier would receive little benefit even in the event of a tactical success. Second, the minute one side started shooting, the other side could start shooting back, so a tactical success was unlikely. Whatever game was involved in that setting (dynamic Chicken may be the right model), it wasn't a PD. )

In general, it's surprisingly hard to get non-game-theory people to understand that there is a large number of 2X2 games, each of which models different sorts of phenomena. Thus we have the Stag Hunt, the Battle of the Sexes, Pure Coordination, Chicken, and a host of others with which to make analogies. The obsession with the PD is like thinking that all of poetry is about love poems in iambic pentameter.

Posted by: steve on November 4, 2003 12:05 AM

Mr. Copeland:

I'm not proposing eugenics. I think my notion of a sociobiological welfare state would be one that focused pretty firmly on children, rather than primarily on the aged, as the current American system does.

However, the notion of "selective breeding" that you raise is another example of the, er, hypocrisy of "mainstream" political and economic thought. We redistribute income with a clear conscience, but we would all faint at the notion of "sexual redistribution" (i.e., insisting that attractive men and women mate with ordinary looking men and women, or highly athletic men and women mate with klutzes, or intelligent ones with dummies.) All of the same arguments in favor of egalitarianism, social equity, etc., that people have dreamed up to justify income redistribution would apply to such a breeding scheme, possibly even with greater force. So why is this completely beyond the pale? Because all the egalitarian/equitable arguments for income redistribution are bulls--t; income redistribution is simply a very practical matter of "negative altruism," knocking down reproductive and other advantages enjoyed by high-earning individuals. Meanwhile, "sexual redistribution" would hit far too close to home, and involve average people relinquishing control over their reproductive choices. Consequently, the idea is a total non-starter, just as sociobiology (but not political economy) would predict.

Mr. Hinchey:

I don't know whether, from a sociobiological point of view, that increasing income inequality is a good or bad thing. It raises social tensions by conferring sexual advantages on the wealthy; on the other hand, inequality is connected to private property which is clearly related to today's vast material prosperity, which is also darn good for making sure that one's children get to adulthood without starving or succumbing to disease.

While I agree that the terminology of "selfish" genes is slippery and often misleading, the genes that successfully replicate themselves and direct the synthesis of complex "survival machines" is a process that is difficult to distinguish from "purpose." So despite the verbal inaccuracy, I think the underlying concept is anything but bogus.

Mr. Wilkinson:

I agree with you more or less completely.

Mr. Shai:

I think you are (deliberately?) underestimating the many remarkable insights that sociobiology has contributed, if only to the study of animal behavior. I believe it is being seriously resisted as it applies to human behavior, and will continue to be, but will ultimately reshape the social sciences.

Mr. Duquette:

You raise a good question here; in fact, I'm thinking about conducting a real world example with a few hundred bucks as "rewards." I'll let you know how it goes.


I agree that selfishness seems to be an essential aspect of cooperation. However, it would seem to me that unlike social insects, people--who are in reproductive competition with each other--may have other reasons for practicing negative altruism. I seem to remember that male chimpanzees(?) often kill babies fathered by other chimpanzees so that the mother will go on heat and become sexually receptive to them. I'm not saying people go so far, but I doubt this sort of thing is remotely extinct in the human breast.

Michael Blowhard: I'm sure you're not out of your depth, I'm just being opaque. I'm really sorry about being less than crystal clear here, but I think the contradiction between economics (in which people are presumed to be utility or happiness maximizers) and sociobiology (in which people are presumed to be focused on reproductive success) is real. I suspect, anyway, that economics has chosen to focus on money and "utility" because maximizing both of those things can be done for a society--wealth is a non-zero-sum game. I suspect that economics has shied away from looking at reproductive success, because it has a zero-sum-game quality to it (making people kind of nervous.) Of course, that's just a hunch.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 4, 2003 12:19 AM

Just a note on Darwin's personal politics: I believe he was a fairly typical upper middle class Victorian Whig or "capital L" Liberal Party supporter. He believed in private property, private enterprise and the like. His grandfather Erasmus had been a member of the famous Lunar Society with other Whig geniuses of the Industrial Revolution such as Watt, Bolton, and Priestley. His mother and wife/cousin were Wedgewoods of the famous china-making dynasty. Darwin inherited a sizable wad of money and invested actively in the stock market.

He had read Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" as a young man, although he downplayed the obvious relationship between Smith's theory of the constructive power of economic competition and Darwin's theory of the constructive power of natural competition. Smith was closely identified with the Liberal (Whig) Party, and Darwin was advised that highlighting the parallels would alienate the Tory half of the population, who were less enthusiastic about competition. So, Darwin tended to emphasize instead his debt to Malthus, one of Smith's followers.

Darwin's politics are relevant to the extent that his theory of natural selection was a natural outgrowth of general trends in British intellectual discourse toward recognizing the power of competition. Both John Maynard Keynes and Stephen Jay Gould have drawn attention to how Darwinism is largely the application of classical free market economics to biology. In fact, three Britons, including the great geologist Hutton, published the theory of natural selection before Darwin (and Wallace came up with it independently and published it with Darwin in 1858), but nobody noticed them. Darwin was a giant, but he was very much a man of his times. Fortunately, Victorian times were a grand age for independent thinking.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 4, 2003 4:38 AM


You say "I agree that selfishness seems to be an essential aspect of cooperation. However, it would seem to me that unlike social insects, people--who are in reproductive competition with each other--may have other reasons for practicing negative altruism."

First, my point was not exactly that selfishness was essential for cooperation. In fact, pure selfishness fails to produce cooperation under many conditions. What I'm saying is, being spiteful and punishing non-cooperators does improve cooperation. But being spiteful is not being intelligently selfish, since being spiteful means that you are willing to give up your own benefits just to hurt someone else. In fact, what is noteworthy about the relevant models on this that being spiteful would harm your individual reproductive chances if it were not for group-level effects.

This all gets at the distiction between selfish as defined in a game theoretic analysis (where you have to be very specific what you mean) and selfish as a psychological category (where these distinctions get blurred pretty easily).

This distinction also matters quite a bit to your comment that "people ... may have other reasons for practicing negative altruiusm."

I never meant to suggest that people _experience_ their psychological motivation for spiteful behavior as the desire to improve cooperation. I was getting at the separate question of whether, in fact, such behavior actually does improv cooperation. We don't have introspective access to the "genetic reasons" for our behavior. People may pursue sex simply because it's fun, even if its larger strategic purpose from a Darwinian POV is reproduction.

"Unto Others" (Sober & Wilson) is very good in this area, distinguishing the various things we might mean by "he is altruistic" -- there's a naive psychological sense of it, there an over-refined philosophical sense of it (where you get tied up in knots by objections like "he only helps people because it makes him feel better"), and there's also a more narrowly strategic sense (where you just add up costs and benefits).

I don't really have any opinions about how insects experience their motivations, never having had a conversation with one.

Posted by: alexis on November 4, 2003 5:51 AM


you're right, I was exaggerating where I meant to express skepticism about the practical application of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary game theory to economics. But I wasn't here questioning the insight of evolutionary theory, including evolutionary psychology, but only its predictive power, particularly where you can simply bypass evolutionary assumptions about human psychology (often generated by the simple math of evolutionary genetics, or an oversimplified typology of persons employed for methodologically pragmatic reasons) by making experiments and observing brain and behavior.

I am fascinated by the work of Gintis, and popularizers such as Pinker, however, I do still wonder what empirical background it would add to the analysis of markets; i'm certainly not an expert, so perhaps my ignorance here has lead to a faulty judgement. (I am sophisticated enough to understand some of the math in the Gintis paper you post, but am dismayed that papers like this only hand wave in the direction of empirical verification, in his case some vague comments about the "communist" and "bourgeois" strategy, mathematical consistency aside; I'm being somewhat unfair here because Gintis is a theoretician, but then where are the people doing anything other than that?)

Posted by: Shai on November 4, 2003 1:35 PM

In all this gab one thing is missing, one item does not get mention, even though it does have a profound effect on one's life. Friends.

Friends help each other. Friends watch out for each other. Friends are there regardless of circumstance. One who has friends has a distinct advantage over those who don't.

While not necessarily altruistic a good friendship will increase a person's resource base, and improve the resource base of his friends as well.

This lack of attention to friends and friendship makes me wonder about the social life of academics. Has academic politics so warped their social perceptions they can no longer see friends as something reliable and good? Are they become so jaded, bitter, and cold the very concept of "friend" has become a non-starter.

Do friends play the games as strangers or enemies do?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 4, 2003 2:48 PM

Why would you want to design economics around the idea of maximising successful reproduction, now and into the future?

Our genes may have the objective of maximising their successful reproduction (my apologies John, but all the more accurate wordings I've tried are all too long and complicated, so I'm going to anthromorphise), but I fail to grasp why that should be an objective for us. I know of no moral theory that goes "Jeff wants something, therefore it is morally right", why should we adopt one that goes "Jeff's genes want something, therefore it is morally right"?

Also, the current theory of maximising social utility can easily incorporate people wanting to maximise their successful reproduction. E.g. if Friedrich wants to maximise his successful reproduction, then his utility is some function of his kids, grandkids, ggkids, etc. Utility would go up with the number who survive, probability of survival would go down as the number of kids increases. A bit more complicated than saying Friedirch's utility increases with every post he makes to this blog, (his marginal utility declines at some point), but not incompatible with existing economics.

And it wouldn't make any difference to much of the basic microeconomics tools - opportunity cost, comparative advantage, incentives, Coase's Theorem, externalities, etc.

I think incorporating evolutionary psychology into economics will be very useful, it looks like providing a good theory of where people vary from rationality, and can provide some information about people's preferences.

The area where economics is very lacking is in how to make decisions about publicly-funded goods where the benefits are intangible, since it doesn't define people's utility functions. For example I was recently asked for comment on a proposal to extend a war memorial, costing $x million. Economics gave me no advice on whether this was a good or a bad idea in itself, and I couldn't find any moral theory that helped me. But then how would evolutionary psychology help? I think that we would all agree that the driving force behind memorials is not some calculation about the effect on future human generations. You could do some hand-waving about how honouring people who died for the country will encourage future generations of young men to go off and die, thus increasing the reproductive success of the people they leave behind, but that doesn't tell me how much we should be spending on extending a war memorial. Any more than the maximising utility standard economics, which runs "people get intangible benefits from war memorials, evidenced by the fact that we build them."

Posted by: Tracy on November 4, 2003 4:47 PM


Incorporating sociobiological preferences into standard utilitarian calculations might look easy, but I would predict it is actually not possible. Happiness, the goal of utility, is vague enough to permit the notion of its maximization across society, at least once fortified by notions of "Well, it seems like more money would make you more happy," etc. What's key about it is that it permits the system to gloss over choices that more fundamentalist ideologies, like sociobiology, insist on. Sociobiology doesn't postulate successful reproduction as one of many goals, but rather the only goal. (Obviously, the same characteristic would be true of many brands of religion.)

As for your statement that you are not morally required to follow the goals of your genes, that is true; however, if you don't, your descendants won't be around to discuss the matter. In short, you are now postulating your own fundamentalist goal (to be moral) which has nothing to do with what I'm talking about.

I believe, if you don't see a conflict, that you should consider my "illustration" of sexual redistribution in my response to Mr. Copland. It would seem to me that it would only be moral, by many commonly accepted moralities, to institute such a system. Do you agree? If so, why do you think it hasn't been seriously proposed.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 4, 2003 6:05 PM

I'm a fairly serious game player and game designer, both of two-player and multi-player games (note the dichotomy, it's crucial and I'll get back to it), and I don't see much relation between what Mr. Axelrod is modelling with his PD games and much of anything in real life. The problems I see are based in lack of consequence and lack of information.

As someone above mentioned, the students are told that higher scores are better, but better than what? Since there is no normed result or comparison of scores, there isn't any feedback about what strategy works best.

The students enter the game with no assumed prior knowledge of their opponent, so there is no good information to base decisions on.

Rather than the experiment described, let's think about a modified experiment:

Start with the same pairings and the same game, but after each round, randomly switch opponents. Further, allow the students to discuss their experiences in previous rounds while switching opponents. Then, add a reward to the person who ends up with the highest score and a penalty to the person who ends up with the lowest.

I suspect the behaviors of the students would change dramatically. Players who hurt their partners in hopes of getting the big points will get nothing. Players who consistently cooperate will get cooperation.

(As an aside, I suspect the best strategy would be to cooperate until the last round or so, then betray your partner for the point boost. Note that this remains your best strategy even if your opponent is following the same strategy.)

Back to the two-player/multi-player differences:

In two-player games, there is generally no negotiation (even tacit agreement), since any action taken is likely to be a net benefit for one player. In multi-player games, cooperation is almost always the way to win. If you can get close to equal deals that help you and an opponent, each of you has benefitted relative to the field. Do this with more opponents than the other players and you will gain more than your opponents.

Another way to look at this by examining types of actions (we assume there is an opportunity cost for each action, that is, that each action precludes other actions):

1) Helps me - always worth doing when possible; a gain relative to each competitor.
2) Helps me and someone else - worth doing unless the person it helps is my primary competitor; a gain relative to most competitors and no negative effect on my position relative to my ally.
3) Hurts a competitor - only worth doing when the person hurt is my primary competitor; otherwise, I've helped my primary competitor without helping myself relative to him.

In my experience, life is a multi-player game. 8-)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 4, 2003 8:24 PM

Friedrich - utility is not necessarily the same as happiness. It was here at the Two Blowhards that either you or Michael said it should be measured in units of "life-worth-livingness", which is different from happiness.

As an economist, utility is something I have to have so I can get marginal utility, which is a very useful tool for modelling people's actions. (E.g. we do not face a choice between eating until our stomachsit is worthwhile to have another mouthful).

As for incorporating sociobiological preferences into standard utilitarian calculations, it is so far from being impossible that I've already done it. Here it is, done for you:
U(Friedrich) = sum(no_of_kids_who_reproduce + no_of_grandkids_who_reproduce/2 + no_of_ggkids_who_reproduce/4 + no_of_gggkids_who_reproduce/16 + .... )
I could do it more mathematically with an equation editor, but this outlines the basic idea.

The interesting bit would be how to maximise this, to give a fuller answer would require some empricial evidence on how the probability of kids reproducing changes as the number of kids change and the resources you put into each change. Certainly easier to find out than figuring out how to maximise utility when utility is made up of umpteen different things without a clear goal. Of course the probabilities would keep changing as we increased our knowledge of the world, which leads us into Austrian economics.

My question was why would we want to substitute reproductive success for utility in economics. The only reason I could think of was moral. Do you have some other reason? You can't argue that the change would better match people's actual behaviour - thanks to the invention of birth control numerous people limit having children in favour of other goals. I do so myself.

As for "sexual redistribution" - what does the morality or otherwise of that have to do with economics? I personally think it is immoral because it involves treating other people as means, not as ends in themselves, but I think the same about compulsary income redistribution. But that has nothing to do with "the study of the allocation of scarce resources".

Posted by: Tracy on November 4, 2003 9:41 PM

Drat, I should have used preview. The second paragraph in the post above should read:

As an economist, utility is something I have to have so I can get marginal utility, which is a very useful tool for modelling people's actions. (E.g. we do not face a choice between eating until our stomachs rupture or starving to death, instead we decide if it is worthwhile to have another mouthful).

Posted by: Tracy on November 4, 2003 9:43 PM

After reading this thread I'm starting to think sociologists have the social skills of an autistic lizard.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 4, 2003 11:04 PM


What I fear about incorporating sociobiological insights in dribs and drabs into standard utilitarian thinking are exercises like Richard Layard's paper, in which he acknowledges a drive (in his words, "rivalrousness") that doesn't make sense (in his view, anyway) from the standpoint of happiness- or utility-maximization, and proposes a stiff tax to "fix" this atavistic tendency and force people to be more "rational"--i.e., work less and spend more time on public transporation or something. This seems to me to get the whole idea backwards.

But the issues go beyond that. Your equation above is interesting, but doesn't capture the fact that it might be in my reproductive interest for you to minimize your reproductive activities so as to maximize the available resources for my offspring. Sorry if I'm being opaque about this, perhaps if I knew more economics I could express myself better, but I'm not aware of too many instances where standard econ deals with conflicts like this, which sociobiology suggests are common (and are easily visible in both human and animal behavior.)

Morality in general may not dictate taking sociobiological "goals" as the most significant ones, but if you assume that we are evolved creatures who have been (excuse the word) designed for certain ends, taking those into account would seem a very rational, sensible thing to do, IMHO. (Actually, the whole notion of what "morality" dictates and what goals it assumes is a bit more problematic than we're assuming for the sake of this discussion. Remember Nietzsche's critique of Kantian categorical imperatives--"the real question in analyzing moralities is to ask what kind of human being they breed)

Lastly, I don't mean to put words or beliefs in your mouth, but I seem to recall lots of paragraphs about the declining marginal utility of money, which as I recall were intended explicitly to justify income redistribution, in my macro-economics college textbook. (I thought they were bull when I read them then and do now, but apparently many eminent economists do not.) And I repeat that concepts like "decreasing marginal utility" applied to, say, beauty or athletic ability or intelligence would absolutely work as justifications of my "sexual redistribution" scheme. My point is not to advocate such a scheme, but rather to ask why most people, including I presume the eminent economists who embrace the declining marginal utility of money, would gape open-mouthed with horror if a "sexual redistribution" scheme were proposed. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think that their reaction makes perfect sense from a sociobiological perspective and, um, no sense at all from their "standard" economist utility maximization perspective. (I notice you took off your economist hat and put on a morality hat to answer that one, too. Why?)

Also, you might remember that economics started out (and still in many ways remains) political economy.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 5, 2003 6:03 AM

Samuel Bowles, who was mentioned above, has a new book called Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions and Evolution that's due to be out any time now.

Posted by: Dimitriy Masterov on November 5, 2003 11:28 AM

Okay, I suspect I'm misinterpreting something here, so if someone can correct me, I'd be grateful.

If economics is to be successfully predictive of human economic behaviour, then it must take into account that our behaviour was fashioned for maximimizing reproductive fitness. The set of behaviours we've been given may not actually increase our reproductive fitness given that evolution obviously has not had a chance to catch up to modern society (last 2 - 10 thousand years).

It is also important that evolution has not given us the desire to maximize our fitness, it has given us characteristics that maximize our fitness (or at least have done so over the last 100,000 years). For example, many people have characteristics that make them desire to use birth control or who don't want kids (which used to be irrelevant to having them).

However, knowing what originally drove the creation of a behaviour may makes us more accurate in actually understanding what the behaviour is.

Fair enough. Now, we then move to the prescriptive element. Deciding policy based on a number of goals. What I don't understand, FvB, is how the previous statement is relevant to our economic goals. Distributing reproductive fitness may fulfill some sort of biologic goal, but it's not what the current characteristics we have been given actually desire.

The desire to accumulate possessions may indeed have been originally planted in us so that we could increase our reproductive fitness, but that's just the original cause, not the desire itself.

To me, the original cause of the characteristics is essentially irrelevant to modern society. (I'll let my ancestors 1,000,000 years from now worry about my absence or presence of my genes.) Now, we deal with the charateristics themselves. To use a clumsy analogy, we're given a rocket for the purpose of blowing the other side up. We are not wrong to use it instead to explore the moon.

You are right that happiness is only a by-product of evolution, as is sentience itself. Does this mean that they are worthless as metrics? No. The by-product is (for us) now what matters.

So back to the original point. What do we try to maximize? Happiness seems to be a rational goal because the "search for happiness" characteristic is the main goal of most humans (ignoring the fact that what generates that happiness varies wildly in humans).

The "drive for happiness" is of far more importance to most of us than sexual fitness, so causing massive unhappiness by redistributing sexual fitness would seem to almost everyone as counter-productive. Why trade what is not highly valued (sexual fitness) for what is highly valued (happiness). So what if the original drivers of the characteristics would be (to anthropomorphize) thrilled to make such a trade.

I think the decreasing utility of money towards happiness is generally a given, although there may be a few who disagree.

Therefore, it makes sense (if your goal is to maximize happiness) to redistribute money. Too much redistribution may decrease the total amount of money as high producers withdraw (or too much unhappiness is generated by the redistribution - a possibly bigger factor in the USA). Where the line in redistribution should be drawn is something each society must wrestle with.

Posted by: Tom West on November 5, 2003 11:43 AM

Mr. West:

I understand your point--or at least I think I do--but I can't agree. I will freely admit that modern consciousness has achieved a disconnect with our evolutionarily programmed urges. I do not see this disconnect as particularly productive of happiness, even if the pursuit of this mental state is our avowed societial goal. (An interesting aspect of this can be seen in Mr. Layard's paper, which is that in the "rich" world's self reported measures of happiness have not increased for many decades.) I know in my own case that all "deeper" forms of happiness that I have obtained in life have largely come from following my biological imperatives--getting married, raising children, avoiding economic dependency on others, etc. Taking my own risks, cleaning up my own messes. Maybe that's not true for others, but I tend to generalize from my own experience. In other words, I suspect that happiness is not really obtainable in the abstract, and in the particular, well, it helps to "know thyself." And I suspect that sociobiology will tell people things about themselves that just might be more true than say, the teachings of Marx or of Madison Ave.

I think, by the way, that redistribution makes perfect sense from a sociobiological point of view, in case I didn't make that clear in the post or in the comments. I would, however, argue with the notion that progressive taxation should be the mechanism to fund such large part because when you're on the receiving end of very stiff marginal rates (not faced by your fellow taxpayers) it has a corrosive effect on the notion of "we're all in this together."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 5, 2003 12:47 PM

Mr. West:

Sorry, I missed this sentence before:

The "drive for happiness" is of far more importance to most of us than sexual fitness, so causing massive unhappiness by redistributing sexual fitness would seem to almost everyone as counter-productive. Why trade what is not highly valued (sexual fitness) for what is highly valued (happiness).

This causes me to do a neck-snapping double take. People don't care about sexual fitness? Have you ever gone to high school? Have you ever seen how much money highly attractive Hollywood stars make? Do you really think most men pile up status and money for their own sake? I mean, come on, what planet are you living on? Sexual fitness is an enormously important driver of human behavior. If you don't believe me, try hitting on a lot of other men's wives and see how long it'll be before you get beaten up or confronted in a remarkably hostile manner.

If we care so little about sexual fitness, why would redistributing it cause so much unhappiness?

I think you're putting the cart (happiness) before the horse (sexual fitness) here. The two are related, but one is the cause, the other the effect.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 5, 2003 2:59 PM

Sorry, let me be correct myself. I mean reproductive fitness, which is what counts in an evolutionary sense. The sex drive is there, originally because it would create more children, but now it is divorced from that.

Do you really think most men pile up status and money for their own sake?

Actually, yes. I'm absolutely certain that many a tycoon has lowered their reproductive fitness in order to make more money. I'd say that the "get possessions" characteristic was created to increase reproductive fitness, but it certainly doesn't always work that way. I'll even go so far that in modern society, accumulating possessions works against having (and keeping) children. (Mainly because now even the poor have enough resources to raise children successfully.)

We were not built for conditions of abundance.

If we care so little about sexual fitness, why would redistributing it cause so much unhappiness?

Trading/deciding on sexual partners would cause unhappiness not because we aren't going to produce the children we want, but because the emotional attachments (another characteristic that now often tends to work against reproduction - just look at the divorce rates when you add children to the mix) we make are shattered. Evolution didn't give us the characteristic to directly consider the evolutionary benefit.

It is interesting that you point out that happiness is no longer increasing in modern societies. This doesn't suprise me at all. We've now essentially achieved teh base level of wealth that mother nature requires for evolutionary success. Adding more wealth doesn't really increase our progenies chance of breeding, and statistically, probably lowers the number of progeny. (Again a characteristic of wanting possessions now curbs the "have children" characteristic). At this point, secondary effects dominate. That is, our happiness with our posessions depends on not only the absolute amount, but also how we compare our wealth to others.

This is certainly why most measures of poverty are based on the societal average of possessions.

As for your post about "deeper" happiness through things that happen increase your reproductive fitness. That's a very good point. My reply would be that each of these happen to increase your fitness, however, if society changed so that you they no longer did so, I think you'd still feel the same happiness. Do couples not intending to have children feel any less happy when getting married, paying off their mortgage, etc?

I almost feel sorry for evolution. It's worked hard to equip humanity with the best tools that it could for the "marathon" of reproductive success and suddenly its found that the race iss actually competing using Formula-1's :-)

I think you're putting the cart (happiness) before the horse (sexual fitness) here. The two are related, but one is the cause, the other the effect.

I'd agree. But to my mind, the cause is no longer relevant. It's the effect that we actually feel. Once again, who care's *why* we've got a rocket. Let's take it to the moon!

Posted by: Tom West on November 5, 2003 4:07 PM

My equation was describing your utility function, not your budget function or production function, which would describe how to maximise your utility function (in this case by maximising your number of kids). Writing your production function for maximising the expected number of offspring you have would be more difficult and require more empirical information than I have, and possibly more than scientists currently have, but it would definitely be easier than writing a production function for a utility function that included other things, like blogging, running marathons, feeding the hungry (non-relatives) and soaking in hot baths.

It is well known amongst economists that it might at times be in your best interests (as defined by yourself) to take away resources from me in order to increase your utility. That activity can take the form of theft, protectionism, rent-seeking, or free and fair competition (e.g. you improve your utility by inventing a better widget than the one I am already manufacturing, selling it to the public, and thus taking away my market), or other forms I can't think of at the moment. From an economics point of view, the first three are bad since they impose inefficiencies, the fourth is good since it improves efficiency. All four are common in the real world, and get plenty of attention from economists. Yep, the utility function I wrote doesn't capture those incentives to take away others' resources, but the production function could, and if we to write an accurate one, would.

Decreasing marginal utility in money is not actually a convincing argument for income redistribution to maximise utility in all cases. Imagine two people, one rich, one poor, who both experience diminishing marginal utility in income. If the rich person really enjoys having money, their marginal utility for each extra dollar may be higher than the marginal utility of the poor person, e.g. an extra dollar to the rich person may increase their utility by 2/sqrt(x), while an extra dollar to the poor person only increases their utility by 1/sqrt(x) (where x is the current stock of money they have). In that case you would wind up redistributing money from the poor person to the rich person. If you want to fit an example to this, imagine the rich person is a financial trader who thinks the one who dies with the best toys wins, while the poor person is a poet heavily into Stoicism. Since we do not know people's utilities in the real world, income redistribution from the rich to the poor may or may not raise total utility.

The standard case in textbooks also assumes that income is distributed in the first place, not produced by people's efforts. In fact income is produced, and redistributing income blunts the incentives to produce more. Thus if someone's going to argue for income redistribution using an economic model (and, per marginal utility, the *amount* of income redistribution empirically appears to be important, the income redistribution as practised under communism didn't work, on the other hand the European economies have survived for quite a while with substantial social welfare states), then they have to build a more complicated model taking into account the effects of income redistribution on production, and make some heroic assumptions about how society's utility function makes trade-offs between income redistribution and income production. However, we cannot see society, all we see is individual people, and aggregating up from all the individual people's utility functions to a society utility function is an extremely dubious mathematical trick, requiring even more heroic assumptions.

Differing reactions to income redistribution and sexual redistribution (whether that be by eminent economists or completely undistinguished politicians) could be explained by people finding their choice of sexual partners much more important to their overall happiness than the amount of dollars they have. Rape is generally regarded as a more horrific crime than a mugging. Standard utility theory cannot answer this one, since it does not explain where people's utilities come from, it can just include the observed behaviour. Note that in the utility equation I wrote for you, assuming that you were only interested in maximising your productive fitness, I didn't include any explanations about why you wanted to do so because I didn't need them.

From my own commonsense as to why economic redistribution is more generally acceptable than sexual redistribution, one dollar is much the same as another, one lover is not. If the government redistributes dollars at least you know what you're getting or losing, if they compulsorily assign lovers you may wind up with someone you hate, even if the government thinks you're getting a good deal.

I answered the question from a morality perspective since I find it hard to think about such things from an economic perspective, and I like to be able to distinguish between my goals and my economics on how to get there, so if someone convinces me to change my goals I don't have to change all my economics at the same time. Designing economics around maximising successful reproduction would take away its usefulness in helping me decide how to pursue my goals, since maximising successful reproduction is not my goal. (I may decide to reproduce at some point in the future, but I definitely am not acting in a way to maximise my chances of doing so successfully). If economics was redesigned around maximising successful reproduction, I bet that current economics would be reinvented under a new name, so we could use the same tools to address non-reproductive goals.

I agree that taking our evolutionary history into account is rational and sensible. But that's different from redesigning economics "around the idea of maximizing successful reproduction, now and into the future", which is what you state in the original post you think might be necessary. And whatever you think of Richard Layard, I have serious doubts that redesigning economics "around the idea of maximizing successful reproduction" would prevent people from making arguments you think are shoddy.

I am remembering that economics started out as political economy. I just don't see what relevance that has to whether we should redesign it around the idea of maximising successful reproduction.

Posted by: Tracy on November 5, 2003 5:57 PM

Friedrich, Another thing I've thought of, in relation to your response to Mr West. You say that:

I know in my own case that all "deeper" forms of happiness that I have obtained in life have largely come from following my biological imperatives--getting married, raising children, avoiding economic dependency on others, etc. Taking my own risks, cleaning up my own messes.

If your sole goal was maximising your reproductive fitness, I would expect you to have done the following things with your life:

1. Have as many children as possible, taking into account the trade-off that the more kids you have the less resources you can devote per kid, decreasing their likelihood of survival.

2. Being male, you would have had as many affairs as possible outside your marriage, in the hope of producing other kids to carry on your genes, to be raised by other parents. The only limiting factors in this would be a) the chance your wife would find out and leave you when your kids were young enough that this would reduce their likelihood of having kids themselves and b) the chance that someone would kill you.

3. If one of your kids could no longer increase your genes' chances of reproducing (by becoming terminally ill, becoming sterile, by announcing they are gay, etc) you would immediately not devote any more time or resources to them.

Have you been doing these things? If so, did they bring you "deeper forms of happiness"? Or do you think they would?

Posted by: Tracy on November 5, 2003 6:18 PM


You say:

While I agree that the terminology of "selfish" genes is slippery and often misleading, the genes that successfully replicate themselves and direct the synthesis of complex "survival machines" is a process that is difficult to distinguish from "purpose." So despite the verbal inaccuracy, I think the underlying concept is anything but bogus.

Well, let me try this again. My point is that consequence is being confused with purpose, and I think it IS easy to distinguish them. We have genes that enable us to reproduce, if we--as an individual--choose to employ them to do so. But my genes dont have a will-to-reproduce any more than my car has a will to take a cross country trip. Individuals are selfish or not, not their genes.

In fact, it seems to make less sense to call my genes selfish than to call my car selfish. My car was assembled for the prupose of allowing me to take it for rides; my genes, so I am told by evolutionary scientists, were assembled by accident. The notion that they selfishly connive to do what they are able to do only by accident--and which benefits them only by a happy accident--makes no sense to me.

I mean, is it or is it not true that Darwinian orthodoxy holds that mutations are random events--accidents--and that the fact that a mutation may enhance survival chances are a happy accident? This notion of the "selfish gene" seems to be trying to smuggle in through the back door (of atheism) the mystical Christian notions of creative evolution of people like (if memory serves) Bergson and Teillhard de Chardin that were in their last stages of scientific semirespectability when I was in college eons ago. Not that I know anything, to be sure--maybe genes are selfish--but it sure doesnt square with what I understand to be the prevailing scientific understanding of how evolution works.

Posted by: John Hinchey on November 5, 2003 6:22 PM

Mr. Hinchey:

You say: We have genes that enable us to reproduce, if we--as an individual--choose to employ them to do so. But my genes dont have a will-to-reproduce any more than my car has a will to take a cross country trip.

Did you ever go through puberty? If you really think that your relations with the other sex, assuming you are heterosexual, are purely the result of your lofty, autonomous mind, which is in no way being manipulated chemically and other ways as well to encourage you to have sex (and reproduce and pass on those little strands of DNA)...well, then, you live in a different world than I. Does this make your genes selfish? Not as a matter of conscious intention, genes not having any consciousness. But conscious intention seems, IMHO, a erroneously narrow measure of "purpose."

Mr. West:

Again, we may have to agree to disagree, which is how most of our previous interactions have ended, if memory serves. Yes, the body and brain designed by evolution to help you survive and replicate your genes can be used for other purposes. But that very sentence, at least to me, suggests why those "other purposes" would probably not line up with, or even gratify, one's deepest nature (a state not to be confused with most contemporary notions of "happiness.") Also, I find your notions that everyone has completely left the sociobiological track and is wandering freely across the landscape pursuing anti-evolutionary goals rather exaggerated. I think if you'd set out to count, you'd find more--substantially more--behavior indicating that people are still organizing their lives around successful reproduction than any other single goal you can dredge up. Yes, there are counter examples but I don't think that vitiates the general point nearly as much as you seem to think. I would hazard, for example, that the recent decline in birthrates suggests that women are setting the reproductive agenda. On the Stone Age savannah, the requirement of extended nursing and the shortness of lifespan dictated an absolute maximum of say 4 children per woman, and of course the average amount was far lower--and may in many cases have been zero. (Remember, population growth is a post-neolithic-revolution situation.) Somehow during the neolithic revolution men got the upper hand and demanded more children, but now that women are "out from under" so to speak I believe their reproductive preferences have returned to the long-term "norm." And the notion that civilization exists chiefly to make childbearing and childrearing more successful neither began with sociobiology nor, I suspect, has perished during sociobiology's lifetime.


I am delighted that you see no difficulty in utilizing the techniques of economics to determine what conditions would promote the greatest efficiency in reproductive matters. (As an aside, BTW, you seem to assume that "more is always better" in regards to successful reproduction; I suspect, rather, that there are quantity-quality tradeoffs involved in human reproduction that mitigate against that conclusion.) If you would care to work these conditions for maximum efficiency out, I would follow them with the greatest interest, in part because I think they would have significant interest for a number of public policy issues of today and tomorrow. I just haven't seen much discussion of this sort of thing, as a non-economist lay person.

I still think you're missing or dodging my point of sexual redistribution (again, BTW, I am in full agreement with your criticisms of declining marginal utility...I was just pointing out that it still gets bandied about as an argument supporting income redistribution fairly frequently, not that it is intellectually unassailable.) I think the differing reactions are evidence that (1) people take money far less seriously than reproduction, just as sociobiology would predict and (2) that many of the "economic" arguments advanced for social policy (like income redistribution) are, er, bogus, as becomes obvious when they are applied to such a thought experiment, leading to the inescapable conclusion that the real motive of income redistribution is negative altruism against the well-to-do. But that's just my opinion.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 6, 2003 12:25 AM


You keep shifting the goalposts. First you said Incorporating sociobiological preferences into standard utilitarian calculations might look easy, but I would predict it is actually not possible. I did so. Then you said that:
Your equation above is interesting, but doesn't capture the fact that it might be in my reproductive interest for you to minimize your reproductive activities so as to maximize the available resources for my offspring. Sorry if I'm being opaque about this, perhaps if I knew more economics I could express myself better, but I'm not aware of too many instances where standard econ deals with conflicts like this, which sociobiology suggests are common (and are easily visible in both human and animal behavior.)
I listed a number of cases where it is in people's interest to take away others' resources, that are dealt with frequently in economics.

Now you want me to write a production function for maximising your chances of reproductive success. Economics has gotten along for the last two hundred years without being able to write down an accurate production function for maximising utility, since any person's utility was undefined. (Economics frequently assumes production functions for the sake of argument). Consequently not being able to write down an accurate production function for maximising the number of children doesn't bother me, and I do not have the time to track down all the empirical data I'd need to do so. Especially since I suspect that if I did so, you'd just shift the goalposts again and find some other reason why economics as it currently is can't incorporate sociobiological preferences.

And yes, I do understand that there is a trade-off between number of kids and their probability of survival, that's why the utility function I wrote for you talked about no_of_kids_who_reproduce, and why I asked you if you Have as many children as possible, taking into account the trade-off that the more kids you have the less resources you can devote per kid, decreasing their likelihood of survival.. In one post I spoke inaccurately and talked about maximising the number of children, instead of the number of children who reproduce, but I am well aware there is a trade-off between number and quality.

As for the sexual redistribution I have said a. I personally oppose sexual and income redistribution on a moral basis. b. why I don't think anyone can make a water-tight argument for any redistribution based entirely on economics, c. why I think people are more comfortable with income redistribution than sexual redistribution, d. that standard utility theory cannot explain this, since it doesn't explain where people's preferences come from. You may be right that people's differing attitudes towards the two may be explained by evolutionary psychology. What does that mean for economics? Nothing, we don't need to explain where people's preferences come from to do economics, that's a job for the psychologists. You can go miles in economics just taking people's preferences as given. What could I do that you wouldn't define as dodging the question?

Posted by: Tracy on November 6, 2003 3:54 PM


Thanks for your insights; I started this post off in a state of puzzlement and I think I have gradually gotten a little clearer about where I was heading, mostly with your help.

However, while I respect (and agree with) most of your comments, and I'm sure they honestly represent your point of view, it seems to me that many economists--possibly speaking more as editorialists, or as political advocates--are more than willing to discuss, for want of a better way to describe it, ends rather than means. Few of the ends they seem to want to justify seem at all compatible with the ends described by sociobiology. Hence, it strikes me that, even if it didn't do anything much for economics per se, it would be an interesting discussion to look at the economics of the selfish gene. I recognize that this is what sociobiology is, to a large extent, but I wonder if a trained economist might be able to make lots of contributions better than biologists who are attempting to "think like an economist."

Sorry if you feel ill-used, but all this has been educational for me.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 10, 2003 1:22 AM


Yes, I went through puberty--and with a lot less (read: none) sex that I wish. I controlled my behavior--and there is nothing necessarily "lofty" in my reasons for controlling it the way I did. Indeed, there wasn't. And had I engaged in daily orgies during puberty, I would also have controlled my behavior, just in a different fashion. And what definition of "purpose" are you using? "Selfish" being a moral term, I would think it would have to involve some sort of notion of conscious or deliberate agency. If not, then I'd like to know what you mean by "selfish." If it's a definition that excludes any sense of moral agency, then its use by sociobiologists would strike me as just cheap sensationalism: Getting the buzz of seeming to be saying something really sexy and shocking without actually doing so.

Posted by: John Hinchey on November 12, 2003 4:11 PM

Mr. Hinchey:

The word selfish implies action with a preference for the self. I believe the reason sociobiologists like Mr. Dawkins linked selfish and gene was to emphasize that the the preferential action was, in fact, not targeted at the mortal individual but the potentially immortal gene.

Your discussion of "controlling" your behavior in regard to the biological imperatives of sex only underlines the fact that those imperatives are setting the agenda and the context for your actions, however much control or lack thereof you demonstrate. Hence, you can see yourself as being as autonomous as you like, but you're autonomously wandering around in a maze not designed by your conscious mind, but rather, by your genes.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 14, 2003 11:41 AM


I don't want to be tiresome, but you keep putting words into my mouth. I never said or implied that I thought of myself as "autonomous." My point was simply that I choose how to cope with my genetic (and other) environments, I'm the one that can be characterized as selfish or not, not my genes, which simply do what they do, willy nilly. I may prefer myself or not, but my genes can't prefer themselves (or not) because "prefer" means to give priority to one option over another and my genes have no options. They wouldn't even know what an option looks like. My hormones no more prefer to make me horny than Darwin's apple prefers falling down to falling up. And that was my orginal point: the closer you look at the implications of calling genes "selfish," the sillier it all sounds.

Posted by: John Hinchey on November 20, 2003 12:56 PM

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