Eat Grubs and Live: The Habit-Instinct Problem in Institutional Evolutionary Economics

By Poirot, Clifford S., Jr. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Eat Grubs and Live: The Habit-Instinct Problem in Institutional Evolutionary Economics


Poirot, Clifford S., Jr., Journal of Economic Issues


There is significant debate among Institutional Evolutionary Economists as to whether, or how concepts that are used to explain the genetic evolution of species can be used to explain the evolution of humanly devised social institutions (Cordes 2007; Hodgson 2007; Jennings and Waller 1994; Poirot 2007). This paper seeks to shed some light on this controversy by comparing and contrasting the perspective of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology with that of Thorstein Veblen. I will explain the differences through the use of two somewhat tongue in cheek metaphors: "eat dung and die" vs. "eat grubs and live." Both metaphors imply a view of the human brain as an evolutionary adaptation to the problems of the Pleistocene epoch. But where "eat dung and die" implies a focus on the brain as composed of multiple, instinctual modules, "eat grubs and live" implies a focus on the human capacity for applying intelligent reasoning to multiple different contexts.

Eat Dung and Die

The metaphor, "eat dung and die" was coined by evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (1992) as a somewhat tongue in cheek pedagogical device to explain their views on the evolution and functioning of the human brain. Tooby and Cosmides also use this metaphor to contrast their theory with what they have termed the Standard Social Science Model (SSM). The SSM according to Tooby and Cosmides often leads students to mistakenly believe people have no instincts. The metaphor suggests that humans, like fruit flies, have strongly rooted genetically based instincts against eating toxic substances. But toxicity is species specific. Dung tastes good to fruit flies. Humans are not unique because they lack instincts. The human brain is unique because it is a collection of many, multiple instincts.

The above metaphor does in fact provide a useful pedagogical device for explaining core concepts in the closely allied fields of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. Both are rooted in the strong adaptationist program of evolutionary biology (Dawkins 1996). The strong adaptationist program focuses on the role of natural selection, acting on genetic variation, in pushing organisms to optimal fitness peaks. Some versions of the strong adaptationist program focus on the gene, or specific units of inheritance, rather than the entire organism or the species as the target and unit of selection. Evolutionary success or failure, when viewed from the perspective of the gene, is defined in terms of the ability of the gene to replicate itself and pass its replica on to the next generation, which it does from building well-adapted organisms. From the point of view of the organism, evolutionary success is the ability to get the organism's genes into the next generation. Organisms (or genes) that are better adapted to their ecological niche will have a higher level of reproductive fitness and will therefore be more successful in evolution.

The strong adaptationist program in evolutionary biology explains the evolution of animal behavior, including human behavior as an outcome of general fitness maximization. This extends the focus beyond natural selection to include sexual selection, kin selection and in the case of humans, cultural selection. Contemporary evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are theories of gene-culture co-evolution, not of rigid genetic determinism. The term instinct means that there are strong genetic factors that code for specific chemical responses and in turn predispose an organism to respond in a certain way to environmental stimuli. While culture is an evolved capacity and therefore has a basis in the human genes, culture is still real. It enables humans, and to a lesser degree other primates, to further their survival. Still, there is an underlying assumption that many human behaviors and traits originated and serve the function of enabling humans to attract members of the opposite sex and thus insure getting their genes into the next generation. …

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