Evolution of preferences in structured populations: Genes, guns, and culture

Ingela Alger, Jörgen W. Weibull, and Laurent Lehmann


During human evolution, individuals interacted mostly within small groups that were connected by limited migration and sometimes by conflicts. Which preferences, if any, will prevail in such scenarios? Building on population biology models of spatially structured populations, and assuming individuals' preferences to be their private information, we characterize those preferences that, once established, cannot be displaced by alternative preferences. We represent such uninvadable preferences in terms of fitness and in terms of material payoffs. At the fitness level, individuals can be regarded to act as if driven by a mix of self-interest and a Kantian motive that evaluates own behavior in the light of the consequences for own fitness if others adopted this behavior. This Kantian motive is borne out from (genetic or cultural) kin selection. At the material-payoff level, individuals act as if driven in part by self-interest and a Kantian motive (in terms of material payoffs), but also in part by other-regarding preferences towards other group members. This latter motive is borne out of group resource constraints and the risk of conflict with other groups. We show how group size, the migration rate, the risk of group conflicts, and cultural loyalty shape the relative strengths of these motives.

JEL codes

  • A12: Relation of Economics to Other Disciplines
  • A13: Relation of Economics to Social Values
  • B52: Institutional • Evolutionary
  • C73: Stochastic and Dynamic Games • Evolutionary Games • Repeated Games
  • D01: Microeconomic Behavior: Underlying Principles
  • D91: Intertemporal Household Choice • Life Cycle Models and Saving


Ingela Alger, Laurent Lehmann, and Jörgen W. Weibull, Evolution of preferences in group-structured populations: genes, guns, and culture, IAST Working Paper, n. 18-73, February 2018, revised October 2019.

See also

Published in

Journal of Economic Theory, vol. 185, n. 104951, January 2020