gintis: theoretical unity in the social sciences

Herbert Gintis thinks it’s time to unify the behavioral sciences. Sociology, economics, political science, human biology, anthropology and others all study the same thing, but each is based on different incompatible models of individual human behavior. There seems to be evidence that new developments have the potential to offer a more unifying theory. Evolutionary biology should be the basis of understanding much of human behavior. Rational choice and game theoretic frameworks are finding greater acceptance beyond economics; in the meantime, other fields need to absorb sociology’s emphasis on socialization — that people do things or understand the world in a way taught by society. The human behavioral sciences are still rife with many smaller inconsistencies; for example, according to Gintis, only anthropolgists look at the influence of culture across groups, but only sociologists look at culture within groups.

Gintis’ ultimate goal is to have a common baseline from which each discipline can extend or embellish in various ways; without that, it is very difficult to relate concepts from one field to another.

Perhaps betraying how hard it is to keep a focused approach to the study of the extreme differences in behavior in humans, Gintis also spends some of the paper talking about their gigantic study of game theory experiments with 15 hunter-gatherer societies [they had tribesmen and such play ultimatum and public goods games; they found incredible cultural variation for norms of reciprocity, fairness, spite, etc.] He makes a good point that experimental methods should be used a lot more in all the social sciences, and this work is certainly an impressive step in the right direction. But the results he presents there don’t seem to fit in as much with the rest of the paper; surely other empirical work is only going to be such a small piece of the puzzle that it will take decades of work before a good unifying theoretical synthesis is possible.


Herbert Gintis. “Towards the Unity of the Behavioral Sciences.” Santa Fe Institute Working Paper #03-02-015, March 2003, available online … or Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 1:3 2004.

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