Economist's theories start in stone age

Nov 13, 2003, vol. 28, no. 6
By Stuart Colcleugh

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He is one of the most innovative researchers in his field. But some of the ideas of economist Arthur Robson (left), who recently assumed a senior Canada Research Chair at SFU, are definitely from the stone age.

Robson's combination of biology- and economics-based theoretical models to study humanity's transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture beginning 10,000 years ago - and from agriculture to industry during the industrial revolution - has produced unique insights into the evolutionary roots of human preferences.

Insights that are transforming the way scientists look at economic behavior and economic theory in general.

“In some ways, what I'm doing is reversing the causal relationship between biology and economics,” says the New Zealand native, who came to SFU from the University of Western Ontario with a PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A leading game theorist, Robson has published widely in a variety of other specialized fields, from evolutionary biology to resource economics and industrial organization.

He is the recipient of a Killam research fellowship and visiting fellowships in Australia, the U.S., Israel and the United Kingdom. Robson says he will use his renewable senior-level chair funding ($200,000 annually for seven years) to expand on his previous research. In particular, he plans to:

• Study contemporary hunter-gatherer societies in South America to make further deductions about our evolutionary heritage.

• Develop more theoretical models of the evolution of economic behavior.

• Conduct additional research into game theory - a branch of mathematical analysis concerned with decision-making in conflict situations - and its relationship to the biological basis of strategic behavior.

“We are absolutely delighted to have Arthur here,” says economics department chair Greg Dow.

“In the past, economists have not had a plausible explanation for where economic preferences come from. Robson's evolutionary approach is helping to fill that gap, whether it involves attitudes toward risk, social status, preferences about present versus future consumption or the number of children to have as well as the level of parental investment per child.”

The Canada Research Chair program is a federally funded initiative to keep and attract leading researchers. SFU has 27 chairs remaining to fill.

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