Economics and evolutionary biology reading list

Below is a suggested reading list for someone interested in the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology. If you have any recommendations for additions, please let me know. I also intend to restrain the size of the list so that it contains the best references, not all of them.

The list is arranged as follows:
1. Books at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology
2. Articles at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology
2A. The evolution of preferences
2B. Genoeconomics
2C. Evolution and economic dynamics
2D. Macro-genoeconomics
3. Books and articles, while not at the intersection, that are vital to how I think about it
4. Books and articles on evolutionary economics and complexity theory (see the Three Stages of Evolutionary Economics for how this differentiates from my core area of interest).

You can also download the reading list as a pdf.


1. Books at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology

Clark, Gregory (2008) A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World: The Industrial Revolution was triggered by the reproductive success of the rich, as their traits spread downward through society.

Gandolfi, Arthur, Anna Sachko Gandolfi and David P. Barash (2002) Economics as an Evolutionary Science: From Utility to Fitness: The title captures the book’s core focus on translating the economic concept of utility into the biological concept of fitness (my review here).

Ofek, Haim (2001) Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution: Ofek’s core argument is that humans were selected for exchange. The book contains many novel arguments on how economic factors affected human evolution.

Rubin, Paul (2002) Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom: Humans naturally seek political freedom and Modern Western societies do the best job of meeting these needs (my review here).

Seabright, Paul (2010) The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life: An evolutionary examination of the complex web of interactions with strangers that underlie today’s economic institutions.


2. Articles at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology

2A. The evolution of preferences

Becker, Gary (1976) Altruism, Egoism and Genetic Fitness: Economics and Sociobiology: One of the earliest calls for biology to be used in economics (my post here).

De Fraja, Gianni (2009) The origin of utility: Sexual selection and conspicuous consumption (ungated working paper here): The desire for conspicuous consumption was shaped by sexual selection and is consistent with a utility maximising economic framework (my post here).

Hansson, Ingemar and Charles Stuart (1990) Malthusian Selection of Preferences: The earliest article I am aware of that explicitly examines the evolution of an economic preference (my post here).

Hirshleifer, Jack (1977) Economics from a Biological Viewpoint: Another of the earliest calls for biology to be used in economics (my post here).

Rayo, Luis and Gary Becker (2007) Evolutionary Efficiency and Happiness: An argument that if happiness is a tool through which human choices are directed to evolutionary goals, constraints on our feelings may lead to relative preferences and habit formation. They also present a shorter version of the argument here (my post here).

Rogers, Alan (1994) Evolution of Time Preference by Natural Selection: One of the first articles to propose an evolutionary basis to time preference (my post here).

Robson, Arthur and Larry Samuelson (2009) The Evolution of Time Preference with Aggregate Uncertainty (ungated working paper here): A great article on how risk affects the optimal rate of time preference. I should note that Arthur Robson is the king of the study of the evolution of preferences, as a scan of the papers on his home page shows.

Robson, Arthur and Larry Samuelson (2009) The Evolutionary Foundations of Preferences in Benhabib, Jess, Alberto Bisin and Matthew O. Jackson, Handbook of Social Economics (ungated working version here): A thorough and excellent review of the literature on the evolution of preferences.

Rubin, Paul and Chris Paul II (1979) An Evolutionary Model of Taste for Risk: A fantastic example of how an evolutionary framework can yield new results (my post here).

2B. Genoeconomics

Beauchamp, Jonathan P. (2011) Molecular Genetics and EconomicsJournal of Economic Perspectives, 25(4), pp.57–82 (ungated pdf here): A good discussion of the potential use of molecular genetics in economics and economic policy (my post here).

Benjamin, Daniel J. et al. (2012) The Promises and Pitfalls of Genoeconomics, Annual Review of Economics, 4(1), pp.627–662 (ungated working paper here): A sound reminder to take a lot of genoeconomics research with a grain of salt.

2C. Evolution and economic dynamics

Clark, Gregory (2008) In defense of the Malthusian interpretation of history, European Review of Economic History, 12(2), pp.175-199 (ungated working paper here): This article is a response to critiques of A Farewell to Alms (critiques hereherehere and here), but it expands on some important points in the book.

Galor, Oded and Omer Moav (2002) Natural Selection and the Origin of Economic Growth, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117(4), pp.1133–1191 (ungated working paper here): The seminal article proposing that evolution affected economic growth through a genetically based preference for quality or quantity of children. With Juerg Weber and Boris Baer, I have simulated and extended this paper (ungated pdf here) (my post about this paper and my extension here).

Spolaore, Enrico and Romain Wacziarg (2013) How Deep Are the Roots of Economic Development?Journal of Economic Literature, 51(2), pp.325–369 (ungated pdf here): An outstanding discussion of the deep roots of economic development and how persistent differences in development are.

2D. Macro-genoeconomics

Ashraf, Quamrul and Oded Galor (2013) The Out of Africa Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development (ungated working paper here): Genetic diversity has positive effects on innovation but hampers trade, meaning that moderate levels of genetic diversity gives the right mix (I have written a series of posts on this paper, all of which can be found through this post).

Spolaore, Enrico and Romain Wacziarg (2009) The Diffusion of Development (ungated working paper here): An argument that the genetic distance between populations acts as a barrier to the transfer of technology, leading to income differences between groups (my post here).


3. Other books containing core ideas relating to my thinking on evolution and economics

Cochran, Gregory and Henry Harpending (2010) The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution: Human evolution is getting faster.

Diamond, Jared (2005) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies: Jared Diamond gets a lot of flack for his strong support of environmental causation, but I believe the thesis in Guns, Germs and Steel is basically right – you just need to add in some evolutionary feedback with the environment.

Frank, Robert (1988) Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions: A fantastic game theoretic approach to the role of the emotions (my review here).

Harris, Judith Rich (2009) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated: Beyond the package of genes, parents have limited influence on their children. Much similar literature is reviewed in a more breezy fashion at the beginning of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by Bryan Caplan (my review here).

Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow: While the field of behavioural economics has not yet made the step into evolutionary biology, this overview is the best there is (my review here).

Miller, Geoffrey (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature: This might be the best modern exposition of sexual selection there is, and the argument that sexual selection shaped the human mind is compelling.

Miller, Geoffrey (2009) Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior: Evolution shaped our consumer preferences but they do not always work perfectly in a modern environment (my review here).

Ridley, Matt (2003) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature: The book that triggered my interest in evolutionary biology and convinced me that it was relevant to human affairs.

Saad, Gad (2007) The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption: As I noted in my review, this book contains more material taking on the Standard Social Science Model approach to consumption than is fun to wade through, but Saad’s book is still the go to source for material on the evolutionary psychology approach to consumption.

Zahavi, Amotz and Avishag Zahavi (1999) The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle: It’s all about honest signalling. Alan Grafen’s twin papers providing the mathematical basis for this signalling is also important (they are here and here).


4. Books and articles on evolutionary economics and complexity theory

Nelson, Richard and Sidney Winter (1985) An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change: The seminal book that established evolutionary economics as a serious field.

Beinhocker, Eric (2006) Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics: The best readable discussion of the field of “evolutionary economics” and the application of complexity theory to economics (my review here).

Alchian (1950) Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory: The 1950 proposal that examining the actions of economic agents as trial and error, and adaptive and imitative behaviour may be a better basis for examining economic behaviour than perfectly rational profit maximisation.


  1. Wiltez says

    I would add Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric Beinhocker and (in related books) Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist

    • says

      I’m in the process of reading Beinhocker’s book, so it may be an addition, although I usually distinguish between recognising that humans are evolved biological organisms (my area of interest) and the use of an evolutionary framework in complexity economics. Maybe I should add a few complexity economics titles – they are certainly influential for my thinking?

      I was considering adding one Ridley book, The Red Queen, although it is so long since I read it I am having trouble benchmarking it against the others. It was important in developing my thinking. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Rational Optimist as I felt Ridley misused the evolutionary metaphor at times. I should write a post of my thoughts on that.

      • Sam Wonacott says

        Yes, you certainly should. I–and probably many others–would be very interested in hearing your take on the Rational Optimist.

  2. Stephen Oates says

    “Microeconomics: Behaviour, Institutions and Evolution” by Samuel Bowles

    Wonderful book on Microeconomics. Includes real world examples and is particularly interested in
    showing what happens when the assumptions in undergrad Micro are relaxed. In one of the final chapters he shows some quantitative agent based models about the development of Institutions.

    “Not by Genes Alone” by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd

    A great non-mathematical account of an evolutionary based theory of cultural evolution.

    “Culture and the Evolutionary Process” by Boyd and Richerson

    A mathematical account of evolutionary based theory of cultural evolution.

    “Mathematical Models of Social Evolution” by McElreath and Boyd.

    The title is not accurate as this is more a great introduction for people who struggle with maths to the
    maths in biology. Chapters include; Price Equation, Hamilton’s rule, Signalling, Group selection, Sexual selection and Sex ratios etc.

    “Evolutionary Dynamics” by Martin Nowak

    A book that covers loads of mathematical biology, in particular lots on evolutionary game theory and
    evolutionary graph theory.  Has some great mathematical discussions about when altruism can survive in different forms of games.


    An awesome website that has online simulators that can be used to run simulations for evolutionary game
    theory.  Absolutely amazing – hours can be spent on the different games playing around with the settings. 

    “Supercooperators” by Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield

    Really an autobiography of Martin Nowak’s career. Some great non-mathematical discussions about evolutionary game theory and in particular when altruism is likely to do well. Also includes some thoughts on his controversial paper against Hamilton’s rule.

    • says

      Nice list. Apart from Mathematical Models of Social Evolution, they are all on my reading list – and unread. I should get onto them.

      I like the website link.

      • says

        I second Microeconomics by Samuel Bowles. I would also add ‘The Bounds of Reason’ by Herbert Gintis to that list. It argues for the methodological unification between social sciences and biology through game theory.

  3. Stephen Oates says

    Another excellent book is “Principles of Social Evolution” by Andrew Bourke. 
    It deliberately avoids human social structures but is an amazing discussion of Hamilton’s inclusive fitness. In particular it spends time looking at when “…the history of  life has involved the repeated grouping together of biological units into higher-level units followed by the consolidation of each new higher-level unit into an integrated collective.”  It mentions briefly the Nowak paper. An excellent account of inclusive fitness and its ramifications.

  4. HCL says

    What a first rate blog. I saw the post at GNXP – you should have advertised it more widely earlier. 

  5. David Levey says

    The book by Oded Galor, “Unified Growth Theory”. Full extension of the Galor/Moav and Ashraf/Galor articles in your list

  6. Counsellor says

    With Epigenetics (Lammarck)  and Symbiotics (Margulis) evolutionary theories are “opening up” to additional ways of investigation.

    To the extent “Economic” conditions comprise an environment affecting the human organism (cyclical periods of stravation in Sweden, e.g.) we have definitive interlinks. The micro-biologists seem to be dealing with these effects as “imprinting.”  We will probably learn (slowly and reluctantly) of much more interplay, and then how that interplay affects the constant re-arrangements in social organizations (responses) and the formations or declines of social orders.

  7. asehelene says

    Great lists, and great suggestions (and I have a number of them partially read – sigh).  Cool link too from Stephen Oates.

    I’m liking Gad Saad’s books on ev psych and consumption too.  

    • says

      Agreed on Rubin’s book.

      On The Art Instinct, I’m contemplating adding a few books with evolutionary psychology foundations that shed light on preferences, even though they might not have been written to explore the formation of preferences in the way an economist defines them.

  8. ERIC says

    I think the books in category 3 are the most worth reading.  Excellent picks. I would also add The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. The Rational Optimist is also excellent.

    Really?! “The Industrial Revolution was triggered by the reproductive success of
    the rich, as their traits spread downward through society.” REALLY?! LOL. So that’s what it was all about. Not that I have anything against the rich, but don’t give them all the credit…isn’t this like “The Protestant Ethic”, also shown not to be true. I just can’t let that one go.

    You want to  know what made the industrial revolution possible — steam turbines, diesel engines powered by cheap energy in the form of coal and later oil. Don’t underestimate the importance of energy — read anything by Vaclav Smil on this topic (PDF, Natural gas is on deck.

    • says

      The question you have to ask is why certain places at certain times invented steam and diesel engines or exploited the natural resources under their feet.

      Thanks for the Vaclav Smil link. Would you recommend any particular papers?

  9. Siniša Miličić says

    I think this article also fits in this list:
    * Thurner S., Klimek P., Hamel R., Schumpeterian economic dynamics as a quantifiable minimum model of evolution,

  10. Fred__R says

    Have you read “Death, Hope, and Sex” by James Chisholm? He argues that individuals’ life history strategies (and therefore, their time-preference, tolerance for risk, and, I’m guessing although he doesn’t get into this, economically productive personality traits) is a function of early childhood development (particularly attachment experiences), which are used as a proxy for how risky an environment the infant will be inhabiting.  I don’t have a good sense of how reliable his arguments are (I know Harpending has done similar work), but it seems like an interesting possibility.  

  11. Karen Knight says

    Jurgen Kluver’s (2002) An Essay Concerning Sociocultural Evolution: Theoretical Principles and Mathematical Models may be of some interest to you.

    I also think David Bohm’s later work is interesting with regards to the relationship between mind and matter.

    • says

      Thanks for the pointer. I’m just not sure where I’m going to find a reasonably priced copy of Kluver’s book – looks to be $80+ for both ebook and hardcopy. Do some authors wonder why they’re not read?

Comments, thoughts, suggestions?