Evolutionary Psychology Meets Economics 101 - Evolution News & Views

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Evolutionary Psychology Meets Economics 101

Today in the Chronicle for Higher Education, the blog entitled "Brainstorm" features an article by one of the publication's regular bloggers, David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. The title is "Envy and Evolution," and the teaser on the Chronicle's front page puts it this way: "David Barash observes that given a choice, people typically prefer to earn more than others around them, even if that amount is objectively small. Blame evolution."

In an effort to show that "evolution" has vast explanatory power, Barash refers to a survey of graduate students in public health at Harvard that posed the following alternatives:

1. You earn $50,000 and others earn $25,000, or
2. You earn $100,000 and others earn $250,000.
Barash was shocked to learn that a majority of respondents picked alternative #1. He comments, "Traditional economic theory has a very hard time making sense of this."

Rubbish. As we may soon be reminded by painful experience, having a lot of money doesn't do you much good if other people don't value your money. There is this obscure theory that economists have come up with called "supply and demand." If there's a big supply of something, the price goes down. If everybody else has $250,000, then you're going to have a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to your $100,000. You're actually better off if everybody has $25,000 and you have $50,000. Unlike professors of evolutionary psychology, most people know enough about economics to recognize that when it comes to buying power, relative rather than absolute value is what's important.

Barash goes on to contrast this "startling" result with a different hypothetical posed to the same group:

1. You have two weeks' vacation and others have one week
2. You have four weeks' vacation and others have eight weeks
Here, 80% of respondents chose option #2. Barash discounts the result in the second hypothetical because it isn't as visible to others as the measure of income. "The likelihood is that there is something about conspicuous 'goods' -- i.e., income and the stuff it enables you to do -- that render them especially liable to generate envy."

If other studies produce similar results, he says, "I'd like to suggest a possible underlying reason: The simple fact (about which I've written previously in the Chronicle) that natural selection operates far more via differential payoffs than by objective measures of success."

What to make of this? The data don't even support Barash's smaller claim -- that a significant number of people would indulge their resentment of others' success even at the cost of their own self-interest. Much less do these results support the larger claim that people's behavior can be explained as a result of natural selection.

If this is the sort of evidence upon which readers of the Chronicle are expected to base their confidence in Darwin's theory of natural selection, maybe the demise of Darwinian theory is closer than we think.