Four Kinds of Darwinian Competition and the Economy

Four types of Darwinian competition affect wealth for individuals and societies.

Posted Nov 17, 2020

As an evolved species, humans compete with each other in four different ways that affect economic activity. From this perspective, our economic behavior is just one aspect of Darwin's struggle to exist.

This should not be surprising. After all, Darwin himself took the struggle idea from an economist, Thomas Malthus.

Malthus lived in an era of frequent food scarcity and concluded that the human population was restricted by the availability of food. In Malthus's world, the human population rose until it ran out of food and then declined.

Competition Over Food

The current population explosion demonstrates that food production can increase more rapidly than Malthus thought. Periodic food scarcity is another issue.

There is a strong association between food consumption in a country and its economic growth. In countries that are food insecure, prospects for economic growth are bleak. This is not rocket science. Hungry people find it difficult to work. Malnutrition also has complex effects on the developing brain. Intellectual capacity is reduced, depressing lifelong earning capacity (1).

In food-insecure countries, inhabitants are more focused on survival and less interested in accomplishing tasks that are intrinsically motivated, whether it is obtaining an advanced degree, solving a scientific problem, founding a business, or writing a successful book. Hunger thus robs societies of the diverse manifestations of creativity, talent, and ambition.

Health, Wealth, and Survival

In developing countries, chronic diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and schistosomiasis are a constant drain on the energy and well-being of the individual. Small wonder that a country's burden of disease predicts low levels of economic production (2). Tropical nations that confronted many severe disease epidemics and a number of serious parasites were historically stuck in no-growth mode. Strides being made against these diverse ailments are likely to boost economic growth.

Health insecurity, and low life expectancy, favor a focus on the present. The populations of poor countries strive to make their current lives bearable and have little focus on the future.

Money is more likely to be spent quickly rather than being invested for future returns. It is difficult to obtain credit, and lenders require prohibitively high-interest rates because money spent today is perceived as more valuable than returns deferred to the future (3). The basic Darwinian struggle to survive thus has profound consequences for business investment.

The Darwinian themes of sustenance and survival come together in a sibling rivalry, where parental investment added to one child may subtract from the economic prospects of the others.

Sibling Rivalry

If the family size is small, parents have more resources to invest in each child, and this phenomenon has many consequences for the economic success of children as studied for decades by psychologists and economists.

Firstborns receive more parental investment than their siblings because there is less competition for them early in life. Consequently, they tend to be higher achievers in education, in careers, and even in politics (possibly because of their opportunity to lord it over younger siblings).

With the birth of more children, effective parental investment per child is reduced. This can be very obvious when it relates to the availability of food or paying for medical care, and so forth. There are more subtle effects related to declining levels of parental attention that impair cognitive ability and emotional security in later life.

Even among affluent households, large families suffer a decline in parental investment compared to families having fewer children. The consequences are wide-ranging, from intelligence and academic performance to economic underachievement and vulnerability to delinquency and drug abuse.

In developed countries, it is more expensive to raise a child, and disadvantaged children may have poor job prospects in competitive skills-based job markets.

The last form of competition involves the selection of a mate. Wealthy men are more attractive as marriage partners, even in the Internet age, notwithstanding greater gender equality (4).

Competition Over a Mate

In the Feudal Age, there was little difference in wealth from one peasant to the next. Once agricultural workers left the land for life in towns and cities, they found greater social mobility. Those who mastered crafts, such as weaving, could make more money than laborers. This new-found affluence was expressed in fine furniture, imported china, and fancy bedspreads and curtains.

Higher-earning men were more attractive as spouses, so that competition over status can be interpreted as competition over mates.

So there are at least four ways in which individual wealth and economic development are affected by Darwinian competition, as developed in detail in my new book, Evolution in the Here and Now.


1 Case, A. & Paxon, C. (2008). Stature and status: Height, ability and labour market outcomes. Journal of Political Economy, 116, 491-532.

2 Barber, N. (2020). Evolution in the here and now: How adaptation and social learning explain humanity. Lanham, MD: Prometheus/Rowman and Littlefield.

3 Clark, G. (2007). A farewell to alms: A brief economic history of the world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

4 Hitsch, G., Hortacsu, A., & Ariely, D. (2010). What makes you click? - Mate preferences in online dating. Quantitative Marketing and Economics, 8, 393-427.