Arthur Robson holds the Canada Research Chair in Economic Theory and Evolution at the University of Simon Fraser. He has made an extraordinary contribution to economic theory, particularly microeconomic theory in the context of change brought about by competitive evolutionary pressures. His scholarship has been prodigious and has shaped the direction of enquiry by economists and, to some degree, certain biological science.
Professor Arthur Robson gained a BSc(Hons) First Class in Pure and Applied Mathematics from Victoria University of Wellington in 1968; when he won the Robert Stout award for the best degree. In 1969 he entered the Pure Mathematics PhD programme at MIT, but after two years of course work switched to a PhD in economics that he completed at MIT in 1974. His thesis was on the contemporary topic “Congestion, Pollution and Urban Structure”. His research publications – of which there are more than 60 in the upper echelon of economics journals – reveal an early interest in inter-temporal strategies and consequent effects incorporating uncertainty. By the 1990s Arthur’s publications show his strong interest in evolutionary processes and from that time a large number of publications that apply the logic of mathematical economics to the evolution of economic systems and their primitives – such as preferences. They include the effect of selection among agents that face different sorts of uncertainty. As an aside, some recall the paper – “Status, the Distribution of Wealth, Private and Social Attitudes to Risk,” Econometrica 60 (1992), 837-857, presented at Victoria – that held the result that purchase of lottery tickets can be rational if the prize is big enough.
Arthur has brought a unique insight to evolutionary game theory. We discuss two of his contributions here, selected based on being both important and easy to explain. Perhaps it is because so many of us are economists, but we game theorists do seem to have an underlying belief that a decentralized optimizing process like evolution should lead to efficient outcomes much of the time. Be that as it may, most evolutionary models do not lead to efficiency. Arthur is responsible for two of the most important papers showing how evolution can lead to efficiency. One of these is “Efficiency in Evolutionary Games: Darwin, Nash and the Secret Hand-shake,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 144 (1990), 379-396. In this paper, Arthur allows for a mutation that does two things. It leads the recipient to show a visible ‘signal’ (the secret hand-shake) that this mutation has occurred. It also leads the recipient of the mutation to make a cooperative choice when interacting with another individual who also shows this signal. In this manner, the mutants are able to benefit from cooperation when facing each other, while still being able to make an optimal choice when faced with non-mutants. Mutants with ‘secret hand-shakes’ quickly take over a population when the interactions within that population are such that cooperative behavior does not leave an agent exposed to exploitation.
Arthur tackles the fundamental mystery of human intelligence in “The Evolution of Rationality and the Red Queen,” Journal of Economic Theory 111 (2003), 1-22. Our high intelligence is clearly useful in the complex societies in which we dwell. On the other hand, our high intelligence is necessary for the formation of our complex societies. It has been argued that our exceptionally high intelligence is unnecessary for dealing with the external environment that existed prior to the formation of our societies. Many who have made this argument suggest that our societies and intelligence evolved together. However, such arguments ignore the different time scales required for evolution and the development of a society. Arthur shows how competition between humans can lead to an arms race in which we need ever greater and greater intelligence in order to succeed against other humans. A nice feature of this approach is that as humans get smarter, the evolutionary pressure for intelligence increases. On the other hand, if intelligence occurred because of the external environment, then evolutionary pressure on intelligence would decrease the smarter humans became.
Arthur’s outstanding research achievements and scholarship are reflected in his post-PhD long-term and short-term appointments. He started his post-PhD academic career at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in 1975, moving to Simon Fraser University in 2003. He overlapped with John McMillan – NZAE Distinguished Fellow 2005 – at UWO during a very academically lively period for that economics department. Arthur has had myriad short term academic engagements in prominent institutions in North America, Europe the UK, as well as the Middle East and Australia and New Zealand. He has received visiting Fellowships and is a Fellow of the Econometric Society among others. Arthur has been in international demand for his research per se, but also for his seminars and organisation of conference sessions and workshops on evolutionary economics.
Arthur has held continued interest in New Zealand and visited this country from time to time, including in his role of Adjunct Professor at Victoria University for 2005-2008. He has outstanding credentials for the award of Distinguished Fellow of the New Zealand Association of Economists.
Lewis Evans and Jack Robles