poly: The Handicap Principle

From: Robin Hanson <hanson@econ.berkeley.edu>
Date: Mon Jun 08 1998 - 09:48:02 PDT

I'm about 2/3 of the way through this wonderful book:

"The Handicap Principle, A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle",
by Amotz Zahavi And Avishag Zahavi, Oxford Univ. Press, 1997.

The most powerful conceptual tool in the information economist's
tool kit is "costly signaling". It was been used to understand
dozens (at least) of types of economic phenomena since its
celebrated theoretical elaboration in the mid 70s.

It turns out that some biologists also thought of the idea in
the mid 70s:

  When we first suggested this Handicap Principle in 1975 it was
  almost unianimously rejected. Many papers were published using
  formal, explicit mathematical models "proving" that the Handicap
  Principle does not work, or that it might apply only under very
  special conditions. This trend changed in 1990 when Alan Grafen
  published two papers using different mathematical models to show
  that the Handicap Principle is generally applicable, and that it
  is a sound principle that can ensure reliability in commuication
  between competing organisms. Since then, the Handicap Principle
  has become widely accepted.

  Throughout all these years, while our colleagues were debating
  the validity of the principle, we continued to observe and
  explore the living world around us. The Handicap Principle
  revealed an endless array of new ways to understand such
  phenomena ...

It is interesting to compare economist's and biologist's experience
with the concept of costly signaling. Economists seem to be better
theorists, having almost immediately accepted the concept; a Nobel
Prize in this area seems likely in the next decade.

Biologists, however, seem to do a better job putting together
accessible summary books on such topics. I don't know of any
economics book that comes close to summarizing the economic
applications of costly signaling, in the way this book summarizes
possible biological applications. This is likely due to economist's
emphasis on journal articles, and on formal testing and modeling.

Robin Hanson
hanson@econ.berkeley.edu http://hanson.berkeley.edu/
RWJF Health Policy Scholar, Sch. of Public Health 510-643-1884
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 FAX: 510-643-2627
Received on Mon Jun 8 17:12:36 1998

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