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George Diepenbrock
KU News Service
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Professor studies connection between evolutionary biology, economic success

Tue, 05/13/2014

LAWRENCE — With the emergence in the past three decades of fields such as behavioral genetics, scientists and economists have examined ways to transfer ideas about how organisms succeed biologically or reproductively – known as fitness – to achieve economic success – and the reverse.

"The rough idea in this research is if you know what's biologically useful to do, that will tell you what people want to do," said Armin Schulz, a University of Kansas assistant professor of philosophy who studies theoretical connections between disparate sciences.

However, because trying to transfer concepts from biology and apply them to economics or social science is complex, Schulz in a recent essay urges caution and aims to establish a framework for correctly connecting the evolutionary biological notion of fitness and the economic notion of utility, or preference.

"It's not always going to work," Schulz said. "So I want some recipe that says now you can do it and now you can't – and here is why."

The key idea behind this recipe is that connecting fitness to utility can be done in contexts where utility can be given the necessary precision to match that of fitness.

In particular, Schulz argues that connecting fitness to utility is problematic precisely when what is biologically advantageous changes. The journal Biology and Philosophy will publish Schulz's article "Niche Construction, Adaptive Preferences, and the Differences Between Fitness and Utility" in its May edition.

"In a nutshell, the key thing to worry about when you're going from fitness to utility is that utility is a softer, a more permissive notion than biological fitness," he said. "Fitness is more precise."

One example of trying to apply a connection between the two fields showed up recently in mainstream celebrity news. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow in March announced on her blog that she and husband Chris Martin, lead vocalist for Coldplay, were "consciously uncoupling."

Paltrow added an essay by her "lifestyle advisers" that argued divorce rates have risen due to the fact that human psychology has not adapted as human life expectancy has increased. Specifically, the idea of Paltrow’s advisers seems to be that it may well be biologically advantageous to want to commit to one partner for 15 years or so, but after that it is biologically advantageous to want to switch partners.

However, according to Schulz, this argument is likely to fall apart upon closer consideration. The reason for this is that connecting the concept of biological advantage — or fitness — with that of utility – or preference – is tricky, he said.

Schulz added this implies that it may well be reasonable to say that it is fitness enhancing to change partners after 20 years of marriage, but this does not mean that it is also reasonable to say that it is utility maximizing.

He contends the Paltrow "conscious uncoupling" argument would have been better served to stay away from the evolutionary biology and said the fact that life spans have increased may simply be irrelevant to why people want to get divorced.

"Perhaps the reason for why Paltrow and Martin decided to split may not be that humans now live longer and can thus take advantage of mating opportunities denied to their ancestors," he said. "Instead, the reason may just be they did not find staying married to each other enjoyable anymore."



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