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dswilson5.jpg I am an evolutionist who studies all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world, as I relate in my book Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. In addition to my academic research, I manage a number of programs and websites for expanding evolution beyond the biological sciences in higher education(EvoS), public policy formulation (The Evolution Institute), community based research (Binghamton Neighborhood Project) and the study of religion (Evolutionary Religious Studies). 


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March 12, 2010

Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms VII: Lin Ostrom's Recipe for Success

Category: Evolution Institute

A lot of data interpreted by the right kind of theory (see E&E; III) was required for Lin to identify the eight ingredients that enable groups to manage their own affairs. A warning is in order before I proceed: After you learn them, you are likely to think "Of course! Aren't these obvious?" The answer is "Only in retrospect". The ingredients did not emerge from neoclassical economic theory, a long intellectual journey was required for Lin to discover them, and all successful explanations, obvious or not, must be understood in terms of a formal theoretical framework.

Without further ado, here is Lin Ostrom's recipe for success, taken from the final chapter of her book Understanding Institutional Diversity.

March 9, 2010

Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms VI: Elinor Ostrom--Evolutionist

Category: Evolution Institute

We needn't wait for the merits of the evolutionary perspective for economics and public policy to be recognized--they already have in the choice of Elinor Ostrom as the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Lin (as she likes to be called) is a political scientist by training, but the study of institutional change is central to the field of political science, even if the E-word is sparsely used. She felt impelled to use the E-word in the title of her 1990 classic Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action and liberally cites the evolutionary literature in her more recent Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005).

March 7, 2010

Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms V: The Invisible Hand Meets Multilevel Selection

Category: Evolution Institute

The goal of public policy, at least idealistically, is to benefit the common good. Way back in the 1700's, Adam Smith made the observation that economies have a way of running themselves without their members having the common good in mind. Their narrow concerns are guided, as if by an invisible hand, to regulate the economy at a larger scale. Ever since, the metaphor of the invisible hand has represented the idea that unrestrained self-interest automatically enhances the common good, which is the foundation of laissez-faire economic philosophy.

February 9, 2010

Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms IV: The Limiting Factor of Cultural Evolution is not Origin but Spread

Category: Evolution Institute

I'm back after finishing the first draft of my next book, titled Evolving the City, which will be published by Little, Brown and is about how evolutionary theory can improve the quality of life in a practical sense. It is based on my own odyssey during the last four years trying to make a difference in my city of Binghamton, New York, and creating the Evolution Institute with my friend and co-director, Jerry Lieberman, who is also president of the Humanists of Florida Association.

Getting involved in real-world issues such as childhood education, risky adolescent behavior, and landlord-tenant relations was the best intellectual decision that I ever made.

December 16, 2009

Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms III: The Case of Norms

Category: Evolution Institute

The year was 2007. The event was the 118th annual meeting of the American Economic Association. The person was George A. Akerlof, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics and newly elected president of the AEA, who stepped up to the podium to deliver his presidential address titled "The Missing Motivation in Macroeconomics". The missing motivation was norms.

Norms? Economists have been the primary advisors on public policy and they're only newly considering a little thing called norms? This is the kind of disconnect between economic theory and reality that makes outsiders rub their eyes in disbelief.

Yet, it is important to resist the facile conclusion that economists are delusional as individuals. Most economists are very smart, very well informed, and very well-intentioned for the most part. We therefore have a mystery to solve that is far more interesting and consequential than mocking economists: What are the social and intellectual dynamics that cause smart, well-informed, and well-intentioned people to ignore something as manifestly important for our species as norms?

December 12, 2009

Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms II: The Case of the Allais Paradox

Category: Evolution Institute

Consider the following proposition: I'll give you 1 million dollars for sure or a 50:50 chance at 2.1 million dollars. What's your choice? If you're like me, you'll choose the certain 1 million. Yet, that is a violation of core economic theory that became known as the "Allais Paradox" based on the pioneering work of Maurice Allais in the 1950's, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1988.

The Allais Paradox provides a nice way to begin understanding the gap between economics and evolution. Using the notation that I introduced in E&E; I, if A=the assumption that people maximize their mean expected utility and A'=the assumption that people are also sensitive to the variance in addition to the mean, then A' is clearly superior to A as a description of our species. Call it evolution, psychology, common sense, or whatever you like. If core economic theory is a collection of assumptions (ABC), and if science is an incremental process, then the transition from ABC to A'BC should be straightforward. What Allais established would be progress, not a paradox. Instead, something about A' made A'BC more problematic than ABC, interfering with incremental scientific progress. What was it?

December 7, 2009

Economics and Evolution as Different Paradigms I: How Wide is the Gap?

Category: Evolution Institute

Meet the Evolution Institute, the world's first evolutionary think tank. The mission of the EI is to connect the world of evolutionary science to the world of public policy formulation. Only three years old, we have already made progress on childhood education, risky adolescent behavior, and the mother of all policy issues--the regulation of human social interactions.

December 5, 2009

From group selection to the Evolution Institute: Interview on

Category: Evolution InstituteTruth and Reconciliation in Group Selection

Today's "Science Saturday" at features an interview between Razib Kahn (Gene Expression) and myself. The interview begins with a discussion of multilevel selection, the subject of my recently concluded "truth and reconciliation" series, and ends with a discussion of the Evolution Institute and its mission to connect the world of evolutionary science with the world of public policy formulation. I look forward to making the same segue on this blog, focusing on the many ways that evolutionary theory can be used to understand and improve the human condition at scales large and small.

November 17, 2009

Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection XIX: Happily Ever After

Category: Truth and Reconciliation in Group Selection

We have reached the end of the T&R; series. In a truth and reconciliation process, truth is required for reconciliation. There must be a consensus on what happened, even if all wrongs cannot be righted. I have had my say on what happened during the group selection controversy. Anyone who wishes to challenge my account is welcome to do so. This period in the history of evolutionary thought deserves the same kind of scholarship that is lavished upon Darwin and his contemporaries. The more scholars the merrier. Much of what I have reported in the T&R; series is drawn from my book with Elliott Sober, Unto Others, which was published in 1998 and has largely withstood the test of time. I'd like to think that Samir Okasha, author of the highly respected Evolution and the Levels of Selection (2006), agrees with my account. If not, I hope he will speak up.

Once a consensus is reached on what happened, scientific inquiry can proceed in a more unified fashion than before. I end this series with a summary of what a fully reconciled field of sociobiology will look like. For a more detailed account, please consult my 2007 article co-authored with E.O. Wilson titled "Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology".


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