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Which parent can be expected to be more altruistic toward their child, the mother or father? All else equal, can we expect older generation members to be more solicitous of younger family members or vice versa? Policy interventions often target recipients by demographic status: more money being put in the hands of mothers, say, or transfers of income from young to old via public pensions. Economics makes predictions about pecuniary incentives and behavior but tends to be agnostic about how, say, a post-menopausal grandmother might behave, just because she is a post-menopausal grandmother. Evolutionary theory fills this gap by analyzing how preferences of family members emerge from the Darwinian exigencies of “survive and reproduce.” Coin of the realm is so-called “inclusive fitness,” reproductive success of oneself plus that of relatives, weighted by closeness of the relationship. Appending basic biological traits onto considerations of inclusive fitness generates predictions about preferences of family members. A post-menopausal grandmother with a daughter just starting a family is predicted to care more about her daughter than the daughter cares about her, for example. Evolutionary theory predicts that mothers tend to be more altruistic toward children than fathers, and that close relatives would be inclined to provide more support to one another than distant relatives. An original case study is provided, which explains the puzzle of diverging marriage rates by education in terms of heterogeneity in preferences for commitment. Economists are justifiably loathe to invoke preferences to explain trends, since preference-based explanations can be concocted to explain just about anything. But the evolutionary approach does not permit just any invocation of preferences. The dictates of “survive and reproduce” sharply circumscribe the kinds of preference-related arguments that are admissible.

Article

Nikolaus Robalino and Arthur Robson

Modern economic theory rests on the basic assumption that agents’ choices are guided by preferences. The question of where such preferences might have come from has traditionally been ignored or viewed agnostically. The biological approach to economic behavior addresses the issue of the origins of economic preferences explicitly. This approach assumes that economic preferences are shaped by the forces of natural selection. For example, an important theoretical insight delivered thus far by this approach is that individuals ought to be more risk averse to aggregate than to idiosyncratic risk. Additionally the approach has delivered an evolutionary basis for hedonic and adaptive utility and an evolutionary rationale for “theory of mind.” Related empirical work has studied the evolution of time preferences, loss aversion, and explored the deep evolutionary determinants of long-run economic development.