Is capitalism in our genes? Competition, cooperation and the idea of homo oeconomicus from an evolutionary perspective

pages: 119-130

  • Mariagrazia Portera Center for Advanced Studies, Southeast Europe, University of Rijeka


In the last few years a growing number of academic disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences have turned to the evolutionary approach: Evolutionary Economics, among these disciplines, is a thriving subfield of Economics, which adopts Darwin’s evolutionary ideas and concepts for the understanding of economic system and modes of production. Evolutionary hypotheses such as the „selfish gene“ idea, the ideas of „inclusive fitness“, „struggle for life“ and „survival of the fittest“ may suggest - and have indeed suggested - that humans are rational self-interest individuals, doing what they can to increase their own reproductive chances or at least the chances of their close relatives („inclusive fitness“). To put it differently, evolutionary theory seems to suggest that capitalism (in a broad sense) is a system that has co-evolved with humans and best fits our evolved psychology. Is this the whole story? Is capitalism „in our genes“? In this paper I argue that conclusions such as „we are born to be rational self-interested agents“ or „capitalism is encoded in our genome“ are the result of a misleading application of Darwin’s evolutionary theory to human socio-economic processes, mainly to justify a (Western) society based on selfish principles, but which is not naturally selfish in itself. Evolution seems to be the result of cooperative, not only (or not mainly) competitive processes, and the model of Homo oeconomicus, that is the idea that humans are rational self-interested agents always trying to maximize profit, is, also from an bio-evolutionary perspective, nothing more than a fictional exercise. Keywords: Charles Darwin, survival of the fittest, evolutionary economics, symbiogenesis, altruism, cooperation, Elinor Ostrom


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