env eco

Green Blog: From Evolution to Economics

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 21, 2013    •    627 Views

By Amy Tourgee, guest blogger, Kent Place School alumna and Environmental Studies undergraduate at Princeton University

When I was a freshman in college, I was a little bit lost in trying to figure out what I wanted to study for the next 3 years of my life. I had just dropped engineering in the fall of my freshman year – thank god, got out early – and I wanted to get as far away from physics as possible. So, I ended up taking an intro economics course in the spring with Alan Blinder (major Econ crush) which I really enjoyed! However, I was also enrolled in an environmental studies class, and that subject ended up really capturing my interests and passions. Today, I’m majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton, with a minor in Environmental Studies. I always thought it was weird how I could swing from Economics to Evolution – aren’t they so different?

Well, my friends, this question was finally answered for me a few days ago. Spoiler alert: the answer is no, they are not different at all. I was listening to a re-run of Freakonomics Radio podcast (read transcript here) on Saturday in which Freakonomics author Steve Levitt says, “There could be no two disciplines closer than evolutionary biology and economics.”

Amazing! And Levitt is so right! He goes on to explain how both areas of study model behavior under a set of costs and benefits. This makes sense to me, because cost benefit analysis is at the core of animal behavior. An animal is innately selfish – it will only expend energy (cost) if it leads to a survival gain or advantage (benefit). If the animal miscalculates those costs and benefits, it will likely lead to death.

This idea becomes less clear-cut with humans, as we have consciences and therefore, internal conflict. Famous biologist and podcast guest E. O. Wilson applies the cost benefit analysis to the notion of human spite. See – when we act out of spite to hurt another, our gain is emotional, a feeling of satisfaction.

Although Levitt says that both disciplines of economics and evolutionary biology strive for simplicity, it seems overwhelming to me when you start adding in emotional and moral components when studying humans. I think about it as less scientific, but in fact, mathematics is used to model this sort of behavior – even multifaceted human behavior. That’s pretty cool, but, like physics, I’ll be staying away from math for as long as possible.

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