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Essays on Genetic Evolution and Economics

by Terence C. Burnham

Paperback e-Book PDF
Institution: Harvard University
Advisor(s): Edward O. Wilson
Degree: Ph.D., Business Economics
Year: 1997
Volume: 164 pages
ISBN-10: 0965856429
ISBN-13: 9780965856423


Ever since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, genetic evolutionary theory has increasingly served as the foundation for fields that deal with organisms that arose by natural selection. This thesis argues that economic theory should integrate with Darwinian theory through the creation of a "genetic evolutionary economics". The promise of genetic evolutionary economics is a better understanding of human nature and, consequently, a more accurate and comprehensive economic science.

Economic theory rests on a set of assumptions about human nature. These economic axioms concern human genes, but there is no explicit connection between genetic evolution and economic theory. As a result, human behavior and economic predictions of that behavior diverge in a variety of important settings. Why, for example, do most people save too little for the future when economics assumes that they will save enough? Chapter 2 discusses the difficulties inherent in the standard economic approach. Natural selection theory, the chapter argues, is the best tool for refining the axioms of economics.

Genetic evolutionary economics allows the derivation of parameters that are intractable with standard economic techniques. There is, for instance, an ancient debate within economics about the role of self-interest in human affairs. Chapter 3 builds a genetic evolutionary model relevant to this issue, and concludes that a Darwinian lens removes many of the apparent paradoxes.

Genetic evolutionary economics is a scientific endeavor. As such, it produces specific, testable hypotheses concerning behavior in economically relevant situations. Chapter 4 reports on a theoretical and experimental investigation of gift giving. A genetic evolutionary model organizes the existing data on gift giving and makes novel, testable predictions. Laboratory experiments, performed to test the theory, confirm the evolutionary model's predictions.

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