In recent decades, social scientists have discovered that evolutionary biology provides fresh, exciting insights into human behaviour. Psychologists now actively pursue Evolutionary Psychology, anthropologists study models of geneculture co-evolution, and neoclassical economists formulate mathematical models of the evolution of human preferences (see Robson 2001). But the recent interest in the biological underpinnings of human social behaviour is not new – it is actually the rediscovery of an approach that was quite popular in the early twentieth century. The first wave of evolutionary theorising in the social sciences proceeded

directly from Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species (1859). Darwin himself applied the theory of natural selection to human behaviour in The Descent of Man (1871), in which he proposed that instincts – innate biological drives – help to explain human behaviour. By 1890, William James had produced his landmark Principles of Psychology, which elaborated on the role of instincts in human behaviour. In 1899 Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, which used an early version of the concept of gene-culture co-evolution to explain human socioeconomic behaviour. James, Veblen, and many others were part of a broad movement in the social sciences towards evolutionary theorising (Degler 1991; Richards 1987). The influence of evolutionary theory on the social sciences peaked shortly

before the Second World War and then began to decline. After the war, James’s programme of Evolutionary Psychology was supplanted by behaviourist psychology, and Veblen’s Evolutionary Economics was displaced by neoclassical economics. By the later twentieth century, evolutionary thinking in the social sciences had been marginalised. Ironically, the waning of interest in the evolutionary approach to human

behaviour occurred just as evolutionary biologists were forging a new, rigorous, and powerful theory of evolution. Today we think of biological evolution as a process of genetic change. But neither Darwin nor his early followers possessed the concept of a gene, nor the knowledge that an organism’s genotype remains largely unaffected by the life experiences of the organism. Mendel had not yet been rediscovered, and Weissmann’s famous experiment, in which many generations of mice lost their tails in order to prove that biological

inheritance is not Lamarckian, was not fully appreciated. Today’s theory of biological evolution, known as ‘the modern synthesis’, emerged shortly before the Second World War. It combined Darwin’s concept of natural selection with Mendel’s concept of the gene as a quantum unit of inheritance. It incorporated the observation that the germ line was separate from the soma. The synthesis of these ideas allowed biologists to develop mathematical models of evolution by natural selection, creating the field of population genetics (Bowler 1989). The modern synthesis theory of biological evolution posits three funda-

mental processes, variation, selection, and retention of characters. Variation of characters is random, so the course of evolution is inherently path-dependent and non-teleological – ‘chance caught on the wing’. Selection occurs as a result of differential rates of reproduction (i.e., by reproduction of the fit-enough rather than by ‘survival of the fittest’, the latter being Herbert Spencer’s misleading phrase). Retention is accomplished by genes, which faithfully replicate themselves in each generation. The modern conception of evolution by natural selection thus features random variation caused by genetic mutations, selection of genes via differences in rates of reproduction, and transmission (retention) of genes by the self-replication of DNA. A few technical details of the modern synthesis will be important in the

discussion that follows. First, evolution is something that happens to a population, not to an individual. A species is a population of interbreeding individuals, not a ‘thing’. Second, since no species lives in isolation, it is more accurate to speak of the simultaneous co-evolution of multiple species. Each species is part of the environment of the others. And third, although the gene is the vehicle of heredity, selective forces may affect groups of genes. Selection may operate at the level of the individual gene, at the level of the chromosome, at the level of the genotype of an individual organism, or at the level of the collective genes of a group of organisms in a social group (Wilson 1977; Michod 2000; Field 2004). Selection at the level of the social group, though once controversial, is now the accepted explanation of the evolution of some seemingly ‘fitness-reducing’ behaviours such as altruism. A Darwinian approach to human behaviour must also address the effects

of learned behaviour and culture, which is done with models of gene-culture co-evolution (see especially Boyd and Richerson 1985). Culture is endogenised in an evolutionary model of human behaviour by assuming that ‘cultural transmission of behaviours is analogous to genetic transmission’ (Dawkins 1976). The cultural analogue to a gene is a ‘meme’, a unit of behaviour that is replicated when it is imitated by another person. Genes and memes co-evolve in parallel, interacting with each other. Memetic evolution parallels genetic evolution, but there are three important

disanalogies. First, though transmission of genes is strictly parent-to-child, the transmission of memes through a population of carriers can go in any direction; it more nearly resembles the spread of an infectious virus. Second, acquired characters do not change the biological genotype and are not transmitted, while acquired memes can of course be transmitted to others in a quasi-Lamarckian

fashion. And third, cultural evolution is many orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution. Most theorists therefore assume that genetic evolution lags behind cultural evolution – that modern humans possess a genotype evolved for life in small bands of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, overlain by a culturally acquired memotype of more modern origin, a ‘veneer of civilisation’. The behaviour ultimately expressed by a human is the product of a complex

interplay between genes and memes (Ridley 2003). For example, a genetically predisposed taste for sweet foods might be culturally influenced to result in a preference for rice pudding over bread pudding. Or, taking an extreme example, consider the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests. Celibacy is genetically disastrous, but the memotype is so culturally robust that it survives by the constant recruitment of new priests. In models of gene-culture co-evolution, genes predispose but culture disposes. Thorstein Veblen produced the world’s first working model of gene-culture

co-evolution in 1899 (see the splendid history in Hodgson 2004; see also Hodgson 2001: 297; Jensen 1987). Veblen argued that humans have innate instincts, or drives, analogous to what are now called genetic predispositions, and ‘habits of thought’, analogous to memes. Veblen defines an institution as a ‘common habit of thought’, analogous to a species of meme, and includes an ‘instinct of idle curiosity’, which produces cultural innovations analogous to mutations in a genetic model. Thus ‘Social evolution is a process of selective adaptation of temperament and habits of thought under the stress and circumstances of associated life’ (Veblen 1899: 145). Veblen’s analysis of human economic behaviour rests upon his concept of

the ‘instinct of workmanship’. The instinct of workmanship is essentially a drive to be productive, to create, to work efficiently and effectively. Curiously, Veblen posits that this drive to be productive motivates service to the social group rather than self-interest. Veblen does recognise interpersonal rivalry, but the rivalry in his scheme is not the result of simple egoistic self-seeking. Instead, it is competition for social esteem – the desire to be judged a ‘top man’ in the eyes of others in the social group – that motivates individuals to produce and amass individual possessions. Veblen, to his credit, and unlike most of his contemporaries, explains how the instinct of workmanship might have been favoured by natural selection in the environment of early humans. He argues that group selection in the primordial social group of early man produced the altruistic bias of the instinct of workmanship as well as a human desire for social esteem. The purpose of this chapter is to review and assess Veblen’s explanation

of the origin via natural selection of the instinct of workmanship. We will survey Veblen’s antecedents, analyse and evaluate Veblen’s use of theory from evolutionary biology, and then attempt to draw lessons for modern economists.

The meaning of the word ‘evolution’ has itself evolved over time (Bowler 1988). In the nineteenth century, ‘evolution’ often referred to ‘ontogenetic evolution’

(Hodgson 1993), that is, change according a predetermined pattern, in stages, much as an infant matures into an adult. Lewis H. Morgan’s (1907) theory of social evolution, with ‘savagery’ leading to ‘barbarism’, and ‘barbarism’ to ‘civilisation’, is one example of an ontogenetic theory of cultural evolution. Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution, which preceded Darwin’s and was more widely read at the time (Richards 1987), is another. Both Morgan and Spencer had great impact on Veblen. But Veblen rejected their ontogenetic approach to evolution in favour of

‘selectionist’ (Murphey 2002) or ‘phylogenetic’ (Hodgson 1993) models of evolution, for both cultural and biological change. Selectionist models, first proposed by Charles Darwin, view evolution as a statistical process in which order emerges from disorder via natural selection, with no pre-ordained pattern or plan. Veblen, following Darwin, held that evolution was not ‘teleological’ but was in fact a product of ‘cumulative causation’, path-dependent but unplanned, and subject to the influence of chance events. Veblen’s application of selectionist thinking to cultural evolution also draws

from Darwin. Darwin proposed, in The Origin of Species, that cultural evolution could proceed in a fashion analogous to natural selection (Hodgson 2003: 86). Sir Charles Lyell soon applied Darwin’s idea of selectionist cultural evolution to the evolution of language: