Journal of Bioeconomics

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 37–52 | Cite as

Human ultrasociality and the invisible hand: foundational developments in evolutionary science alter a foundational concept in economics

  • David Sloan WilsonEmail author
  • John M. Gowdy


Advances in the study of social behavior require a revision in the economic concept of the invisible hand, which states that self-interested behavior leads to well-functioning societies without individuals having the welfare of the society in mind. Evolutionary theory shows that self-interest does not robustly benefit the common good because behaviors that are “for the good of the group” seldom maximize relative fitness within the group. The evolution of group-level functional organization requires a process of group-level selection. Species that have become highly adaptive at the group level are called ultrasocial. The idea that an invisible hand leads to social harmony is valid primarily for ultrasocial species, where selection at the group level results in individual-level behaviors that produce group-beneficial outcomes. Individuals do not necessarily have the welfare of the group in mind, but neither do their behaviors or underlying proximate mechanisms resemble the economic concept of self-interest. Evolutionary science therefore provides a valid concept of the invisible hand, but one that is different from the received version, with far-reaching implications for economics, politics, and public policy.


Economics Evolution Invisible hand Multilevel selection Regulation Public policy 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Biology and AnthropologyBinghamton UniversityBinghamtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Science and Technology StudiesRensselaer Polytechnic InstituteTroyUSA

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