One of the fundamental differences between modern-day humans and all other species is our ability to cooperate in huge numbers. In a one-on-one comparison, we are not all that different from a chimpanzee, but in a comparison of large groups, we are worlds apart. We have a combination of factors to thank for this ability, from fire to larger brains to language to imagination, but most simply, our cooperative ability is the direct result of one process: evolution. Genetic evolution granted us the ability to create stories that unified extremely large numbers of people and in doing so, it opened the door to a new fast-track of evolution known as cultural evolution. Humans have the ability to shape and reshape our societies, unconstrained by our DNA, in a way that no other species can. This allows us to quickly change our behavior to adapt to new environments and it is certainly the driving force behind the success of our species.
To me and many of the authors, economics is the key way we shape our collective behavior as it determines how we meet our material needs and how we structure our relationships with one another. Our world and our needs are continually changing, however, which means our economic systems must continually adapt as well. Neoclassical economics, as a discipline and an ideology, has fundamental problems in theory and in practice that must be solved if the human species is going to continue its history of achievement. Although every “Advice to an Aspiring Economist” essay represents a unique recommendation of how to proceed, they converge on a few of the same points of emphasis. In broad terms, most authors suggest paths forward that typically highlight the importance of interdisciplinary thinking, history, and ‘the Why’ to advancement.
The most popular theoretical critiques of economics are about the rational actor theory of the individual and the resulting models of collective behavior. The rational actor is generally disapproved of for its treatment of humans as completely rational and asocial animals whose well-being depends entirely on consumption. As evolution clearly demonstrates, humans are actually extremely social animals who are highly sensitive to context and utility is frequently relative rather than absolute. Neoclassical models of collective behavior consequently fail by not accounting for the interactions between people. As the concept of emergence explains, “agents on one level may, through their micro interactions, create macro phenomena which are unexpected or unintended.” Therefore, group behavior is not simply the sum of individual decisions as economics typically treats it. Furthermore, Adam Smith’s invisible hand conflicts with the evolutionary truth that individual and group interests are often in direct competition. As Blair Fix describes, “For groups to succeed, group members must act prosocially. The problem is that within groups, it’s usually best for individuals to act selfishly.” These issues create a dangerous rift between theory and reality.
Many authors also emphasized that rationality and Pareto efficient equilibrium are often misconstrued as optimal in economics. In contrast, they argue that ‘irrational’ emotions are often useful evolutionary tools for commitment and collective action problems, such as the tragedy of the commons and wasteful arms races, arise from rational behavior. Similarly, Pareto efficiency is simply the inability to make anyone better off without making anyone worse off. This has nothing to do with equity or the social ideal. As Donald Cox warns, nature is not the goal either as “just because something is ‘natural’ does not make it good or even acceptable.” Without rationality, efficiency, or naturality as a goal, many of the authors suggest a need to reflect on the purpose of economics. One common idea is that economics should focus on how we form collective wholes and foster cooperation within our species.
The practical issues that economics is currently failing to solve provide additional evidence of the need for change. Neoclassical economics is supposed to solve our needs ‘efficiently,’ but it is destroying our environment; “generating inequalities and inequities that threaten the social cohesion of our societies;” creating insecurity in people’s livelihoods; leading to excess consumerism, workaholism, anxiety, depression, and burnout; and, on top of all that, economics as-is failed to provide guidance through Covid-19. It is clear that the gap between reality and economic theory has led to little success in solving the issues of our time.
The most oft-cited reason for the present failure of the economics discipline is that it is unwilling to welcome new ideas outside of those that fit its current methodology. Almost every single author felt that the economics discipline was actively unwelcoming to and, at best, indifferent towards heterodox ideas. John Gowdy describes it as a “stranglehold on the field by a handful of economics departments that largely control access to the top journals and employment by the top departments.” Consequently, scholars who are out of step with the field, especially its idea of utility maximization or Max U, face academic oblivion. As Geoffrey Hodgson puts it, “You love economics. But if you do not love Max U, then most economists will not love you.” Basic evolutionary theory reveals that variation is essential to the lasting success of any endeavor, but at the moment, the economics discipline is actively condemning diversity of thought.
By far the most popular suggestion was therefore about the importance of interdisciplinary thinking. Nearly every author emphasized that solutions can be found by breaking down academic silos. This advice goes for not only the economics discipline, but also for the aspiring economist. As Alan Kirman writes, “if you want to prepare yourself to understand and contribute, however modestly, to improving the world, keep your mind open and learn from what is happening in other disciplines from biology to sociology, and from physics to psychology.”
Many authors also emphasized the importance of including the etiology of economics in its study. Economic history is currently neglected, but as Lisi Krall highlights, a more expansive knowledge of economic thought would reveal that neoclassical economics is not the only way human behavior has been conceptualized. History also points out that our current iteration of economics is neither inevitable or ideal. Although neoclassical economics is currently very popular, “there is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens.” Either way, since “economic behavior is a cultural phenomenon,” it makes sense to treat it as an adaptation of cultural evolution, which means we must study its history.
It is also valuable to determine ‘the whys’ of economics; Not only the purpose of economics as I mentioned earlier, but also why we behave as we do. Since economic life has evolved like all other things, it must have an adaptive purpose that our behavior reflects. It is also possible that our evolutionary behavior is actually maladaptive in the modern world, similarly to the obesity epidemic. Understanding why we behave as we do grants a much deeper understanding than simply knowing when we behave a certain way, which provides an opportunity to improve our economic systems.
There is one additional piece of advice that I would like to emphasize and that is the importance of being ambitious. Dreaming big, taking risks, and speaking up can create results. This was one lesson this project taught me. Going out on a limb and asking David Sloan Wilson for advice led to a series that really has the potential to begin reshaping economics. Although these essays warn that driving change in economics will not be easy, if we are to ever make change for the better, someone is going to have to roll up their sleeves and get to work. It might as well be us.
We are on the precipice of a revolution in economics, waiting for a little push. As many of our authors declare, a contribution is waiting to be made that will reshape our societies for the better. It is clear that economics must be updated if we are going to solve the issues that plague our world, so why not give evolutionary ideas a go? Evolutionary thinking could alter economics in an endless number of ways, but whether economics changes at all is up to us. Luckily, though, it is our unique ability to create and manage change, especially within massive groups, that made our species so successful in the first place. Let’s not waste that ability by ignoring the potential of evolutionary thinking in economics.
A Note to All Who Contributed to “Advice to An Aspiring Economist:”
With my last written words, I would like to briefly offer my sincerest thanks to everyone involved in this series. When I first reached out to David Sloan Wilson about my interest in evolutionary economics, I never imagined that it would lead to this series. I am so grateful to all who were involved, and I am especially appreciative of all the authors who offered their advice. I gained great insight from each and every essay and I am certain that many others will, too.
Every individual essay was an extremely worthwhile read, but they aggregated to something even more special. To me, this series effuses a sense of community that I have not found elsewhere. Even though many of the essays express pessimism about economics opening up to evolution, there is some hope and comfort in the fact that at least it is a shared feeling. Economics might say otherwise, but the reassurance that others care about these issues really matters - especially to an aspiring economist.
Thank you all again!
 Harari, Yuval N. 2015. Sapiens. New York: Harper Perennial.
 Dennis Snower, "A Copernican Revolution in Economics"
 David Hirshleifer, "Bringing Evolutionary Thinking Into Economics and Finance"
 Robert Frank, "The Case for Adding Darwin to Behavioral Economics"
 Donald Cox, "Advice for Evolutionary-Minded Economics Students"
 Lisi Krall, "A War Between the Economy and Earth"
 David Bollier, "My Advice to an Aspiring Economist: Don't Be an Economist"; Kirman; Snower
 John Gowdy, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Truths of Being an Economist"
 Terence Burnham, "Do zee Chimpanzees Have zee Credit Cards?"; Geoffrey Hodgson, "Some Pessimistic Advice to an Aspiring Economist"; Snower
 Harari, Yuval N. 2015. Sapiens. New York: Harper Perennial, p. 243.