Darwin as Economist?

One session at the recent AEA meetings addressed “popular economics,” with a panel including Diane Coyle, Robert Frank, Steve Levitt, and Robert Shiller. (Shiller wrote a bit about it on Slate.) Many interesting things were said. To me, the most interesting was that Frank is writing a book arguing that Charles Darwin, more so than Adam Smith, is the true forefather of modern economics. (He has already written a Times column on the topic.)

This made me think back to a chunk from the introduction of SuperFreakonomics that we ended up tossing during the editing process. It is hardly perfect — we wouldn’t have thrown it away had it been — but I thought it might be worth posting here nonetheless as a prelude to Frank’s book, which I’m eager to read. So here’s our SuperFreakonomics outtake on Darwin-as-economist.

On May 24, 1859, the noted English zoologist, surgeon, and author Thomas Bell addressed the Linnean Society, a London institution of which Bell was president and which was among the world’s leading institutions for the study of natural history. Bell lamented that the previous year was not a noteworthy one; it had not, he said:

“been marked by any of the striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear; it is only at remote intervals that we can reasonably expect any sudden and brilliant innovation which shall produce a marked and permanent impress on the character of any branch of knowledge, or confer a lasting and important service to mankind.”

So no “striking discoveries” in the natural sciences had come along in the previous year – except for, as it turns out, a little theory called evolution by natural selection. Indeed, the Linnean Society was the very site of the announcement of Charles Darwin’s theory. And yet even a scholar as learned as Thomas Bell failed to appreciate just how profound and revolutionary it was.

Which, even if you are a somewhat-above-average thinker, might lead you to scratch your head, and wonder: So what am I missing out on?

These days, Darwin is regularly proclaimed a genius, and understandably so, for he essentially solved a riddle – where do species, including man, come from? – that had puzzled great thinkers for centuries.

But was Darwin’s feat in fact a triumph of genius?

As a 22-year-old man of wealth, privilege, and sharp intellect, Darwin climbed aboard a British naval ship called the
Beagle, which was dispatched to chart the coastline of faraway lands. Already a serious naturalist, Darwin thought it might be interesting to look at the animals in these distant places. At the time, he was a firm believer in the biblical theory of creation.

It was a journey that few such people of his standing would tolerate. His quarters were beyond cramped and the going was rough; he also suffered from seasickness and a hatful of other maladies. But he stuck it out, logging more than 40,000 miles over the course of 4 years, 9 months, and 5 days. The Beagle sailed down the eastern coast of South America and back up its western coast, then on to Australia, the southern tip of Africa, back to South America, and finally home to England, with many stops at islands, large and small, along the way.

While the ship’s crew did its work, Darwin did his, patrolling the shoreline but also making countless trips inland, some dangerous and many arduous. He collected and observed all manner of flora, geological formations, and especially the fauna – woodpeckers and geese, living corals and fossilized crustaceans, and on the Galapagos Islands, gigantic tortoises that didn’t mind if Darwin rode on their backs and birds whose beaks varied in length according to their diet.

Upon returning to England in 1836, he had so much data that he barely knew what to make of it. So he kept collecting more data, dissecting and measuring and thinking about all sorts of birds and barnacles. This went on for more than 20 years. He might have gone on gathering data for another 20 years but his hand was forced when a young naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace sent Darwin a paper he’d written that contained a theory about evolution that was strikingly similar to Darwin’s own. So Darwin’s long-brewing discovery was hurriedly announced at a Linnean Society meeting (along with Wallace’s findings), after which he rushed to explain his entire theory in a book called The Origin of Species. And the world was never the same.

So go ahead and call Darwin a genius if you must, but his accomplishment was above all a triumph of doggedness; in many ways, it was the opposite of genius.

There are at least two further points worth making about Darwin’s discovery as it relates to this book.

The first is that his theory of evolution wasn’t wasn’t actually new at the time Darwin proposed it, and had in fact been around long enough to be discredited. So why did Darwin’s version take finally hold?

Because Darwin was the man who painstakingly marshalled the empirical evidence that proved the theory. It was evident that he was not merely a man preaching what he hoped to be true; rather, he was a scientist explaining what the data said.

The second point concerns an original insight that Darwin did add to the existing thinking about evolution. He identified the mechanism by which evolution occurred: natural selection. In his decades-long course of collecting data, Darwin came to understand that species changed in large part because they were forced to compete for resources with other species and other animals within their species. As habitats changed, so too did the allocation of resources – which allowed some species to survive, thrive, and evolve while others died out.

In this regard, “natural selection” is a great deal like “the economic approach.” If the latter describes how people get what they need when other people need the same thing, then the former describes how, say, a groundfinch gets when it needs when other groundfinches need the same thing. Therefore, the question of whether a particular species of groundfinch survives is in fact a lot like asking how and why a particular young woman becomes a prostitute instead of president.

Ben D

Although the second point is right on, the first point, which seems to be repeated on this blog quite often, is pretty arrogant. Why do some economists claim that anyone who uses empirical data is "thinking like an economist?" I'm sorry, but economics is a branch of science, not the other way around.


A french author wrote a book where economics are just a part of a broad vision of the world.

For instance how Newton changed the way people understood the world and helped the Physiocrats built their therories.

"Des grandes représentations du monde et de l'économie"
René Passet in 2010

Eric M. Jones

"Evolution by natural selection" has much in common with observed mechanisms that might otherwise seem quite puzzling. To wit:

In the western world, antiques get smaller as one goes westward. This describes suits-of-armor, which are ofter huge in Europe but small in the USA. Easy to understand if you had to ship one. Likewise, tables, cabinets and all manner of things taken westward by settlers--and even now--tend to be smaller. Giant wardrobes were left first in Europe, then in the East-coast, and they rarely made it to California.

It's all Evolution and I suppose "Economics".

John R

Regarding Darwin & economics you might find interesting Ullica Segerstrale's book Defenders Of The Truth. It's not specifically on your topic but it considers the deep connections between competing hypotheses in evolutionary biology and the social/economic/political commitments of their proponents.



Interesting thoughts. I think it was the science writer Colin Tudge who suggested that homo sapiens represent such a catastrophic evolutionary leap from all the other forms of life on earth as to merit being designated as the third kingdom, in Linnean taxonomy: plants, animals, man. Elephants and whales may have languages in which they communicate, but no more have the cognizance to ponder Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West" than they have the manual dexterity to construct the Panama Canal. We not only rose to the top of the Great Chain of Being, we formulated and articulated the concept. We evolved in the blink of an eye into beings who grasp and practice humor and ambiguity and compassion and elaborate systems of effective knowledge. For all of these reasons, nature-based assumptions about human behavior and society are obsolete. Not tomorrow, or next year, but in the evolutionary blink of an eye. The world's present economic systems will prove the lowest-hanging fruit.



Re #1: "I'm sorry, but economics is a branch of science...."

Sorry, but I have to disagree with that. There may be, perhaps in an obscure college faculty post somewhere in the upper midwest, an economist who actually treats the subject as a science, but from observation, those who get any sort of public platform at all quickly degenerate into "preaching what he hoped to be true".


"So go ahead and call Darwin a genius if you must, but his accomplishment was above all a triumph of doggedness; in many ways, it was the opposite of genius."

Eh? And there was I thinking genius was 99% perspiration... so how exactly was this the opposite?

Andrew Mitchell MD

Adam Smith and the French physiocrat economists described survival and evolution of the fittest "men" 80-100 years before Darwin. Many of them suspected humans were descended from apes, but religion was too strong because the rich needed to suppress the poor with superstition.


The thing that struck me about natural selection is that it is very likely that sometimes the most beautiful animal died out, while a lesser animal lived on. Or it might be that a gorgeous flower, unable to take the cold, died out, while a quite plain plant remained.

The same with economic theory, I imagine. And government. I think it was Churchill who said, " Democracy is the worst government in the world...except for all the other types of government."

Same with the "free market." It can be really mean and nasty at times (though we have worked to fix some of those rough spots). It's not as "sweet' and caring as socialism. But it's the one that has shown itself the fittest, able to endure the best.

Cyril Morong

Darwin even gave expert economic testimony before congress a couple of years ago



Both free-market capitalism and the natural world evolve via forms of natural selection that lead to amazing creations, whether it is a species of plant (natural) or the sale of an iPod (economics). Importantly, both systems are "hands-off", not controlled by God or government. Some conservation argue that a "hand-off" system in the natural world could not produce such complexity, yet simultaneously argue that a "hands-off" approach to economics will be the most productive.


Oh God, we're going back to the 19th century again.

If natural selection could be applied to economics, recessions will only hurt those who were "unfit", not everybody. Natural selection is different from older forms of evolution, because it counters the argument that acquired characteristics are not passed on to descendants. Allowing the markets to be totally free won't leave us with better consumers and producers, only those who are able to take advantage of each other better.

We need rules to make a competitive market. A perfectly competitive market is an ideal, it's not reality.

On the Macro side, it's such nonsense to make everything so moralistic and idealistic. I really find it ironic that the "Rationalists" are so dogmatic with their beliefs, making big bold hypotheses about the world and economy, with little empirical proof. Completely backwards.

Please, please, please. For the love of god, don't apply natural selection to economics. Don't apply natural selection to sociology. Apply natural selection only to biology.


F. Craven

Economics is not a pure science, so comparing it to the science of evolution is out of place. Economics is more about policy prescription with respect to human behavior (individual or mass). What is shocking today is the pervasiveness of social darwinist thinking, especially in U.S. culture, the belief, almost a faith, that any adversity experienced by individuals or groups is owing to their own behavior and/or bad luck, and attenuating their suffering interferes with "efficient market forces." Economics is supposed to be about people, how to make their lives better, how to promote fairness. Maybe those that want economics to be a pure positive science just want straightforward explanations and can't handle ambiguity and imperfect solutions.

R Gaudio

What evidence is there that the forces determining the survival (or extinction) of a groundfinch are analogous to the forces determining the occupational fate of a woman? The claim is unscientific in the extreme.

Rob Brooks

This is such an exciting area - one that Michael Shermer captures nicely in The Mind of the MArket, and David Barash in Economics as an Evolutionary Process. In my forthcoming book "Sex, Genes and Rock 'n' Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World" http://www.robbrooks.net/rob-brooks/1362 I deal with the links and similarities between economics and evolution - coming at the problem from a biologists perspective.

Becky N

What JHara said!!

"Therefore, the question of whether a particular species of groundfinch survives is in fact a lot like asking how and why a particular young woman becomes a prostitute instead of president. "

Species and individuals (especially individual humans!) are two very different things.


Um, a new approach noting the similarity of evolutionary theory to economics, or merely a revival of Social Darwinism, a theory which flourished for several decades about a hundred years ago? And which justified all kinds of exploitation of the lower classes as an example of survival of the fittest. Has the columnist read his history?


JHara, thank you. Evolution applies to species and access to resources, and has nothing to do with economics except in the broadest and most ineffective metaphor. And to apply it to choices made by individuals is ludicrous. Again it rears its head in an attempt rationalize human behavior - it seems Social Darwinism isn't so passe as might be hoped.

Peter Brewster

"Both free-market capitalism and the natural world evolve via forms of natural selection that lead to amazing creations, whether it is a species of plant (natural) or the sale of an iPod (economics). Importantly, both systems are "hands-off", not controlled by God or government" (6:26 PM)

Oh my - no! No. No. No! Try to make an iPod without a meshing set of international agreements, both enabling and restricting, and a trusted means of value exchange, both investment and commodity. Government is us joining together to set the stage for iPods.

When we fail to join the system fails. To wit: The downplay of Department of Commerce in the Reagan Administration meant US electronic development and manufacturing fell behind the rest of the world.


Forget about Creationism vs. Evolution. The systemic fraud by most paleontologist is shocking.

Chris McGowan, a zoologist and paleontologist who is the author of five books on the topic of dinosaurs, proved in his book Make Your Own Dinosaur Out Of Chicken Bones: Foolproof Instructions for Budding Paleontologists that animal bones can be reconstructed to become almost anything.

On her July 2010 radio show (WOR 710AM in New York) national talk-host Joan Hamburg spoke about her early career as a paleontologist and confessed "When we dig up something we don't really know anything. We just make it up."

Pro-evolutionist, Bill Bryson in his best-seller "A Short History of Nearly Everything" wrote "If you correlate [fossil] tool discovery with the species of creature most found nearby, you would have to conclude that early hand tools were mostly made by antelopes..." On almost every other page he writes about the chicanery, dishonesty, fraud-even murder in paleontology and archaeology. READ HIS BOOK AND FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF.