Herb Gintis

Herb Gintis, who drew on a variety of disciplines to study human society, passed away on January 5, 2023, in Northampton, Massachusetts, at the age of 82. He had been an SFI External Professor since 2001 and was a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he taught since 1974.

Gintis was a deep thinker — perpetually curious, widely read, and highly opinionated. He challenged orthodoxy and conventional wisdom, followed nontraditional paths, and was never afraid to change his mind when encountering new ideas. In the mid-1960s, as a young scholar close to completing his Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard University, Gintis decided to take a break from academics to become a sandal maker. As he became actively involved in the anti-war movement and Marxist intellectual currents of the time, he felt mathematics was too disconnected from the real world. When he returned to Harvard, he switched his Ph.D. to economics and completed his dissertation, Alienation and power: towards a radical welfare economicin 1969.

“Herb was always interested in: How do we become the kind of person that we are?” says SFI Professor Sam Bowles, who completed his Ph.D. in economics in 1965 at Harvard where he met Gintis. “He wanted to know where our tastes and desires and norms and ethics come from. They may seem a mixed bag, but those are all things that determine whether we prefer one state of the world or another. His dissertation was a powerful critique of the then-standard economic models.” 

Their collaboration began in earnest when, in 1968, Gintis and Bowles received a set of questions about economics and inequality from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was organizing the Poor People’s March, just before he was assassinated. Shocked to realize that their training in economics left them unprepared to answer Dr. King’s questions, the pair resolved to change the direction of economics education. After a battle to get approval from Harvard’s curriculum gate-keepers, they co-taught a course called “The Capitalist Economy: Conflict and Power.” 

Gintis wanted to know what drove people’s values and desires; Bowles was focused on economic injustice. Those questions paired well, they thought, and together, they launched a collaboration and friendship extending over almost half a century.

“Herb was like my brother,” says Bowles. “We spoke every day.”  

In 1974, they were hired by the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Two years later they published their first of several books. Schooling in Capitalist America received wide attention around the world and was reprinted in several languages. The idea for what would have been their second book, however, floundered as they wrote it — they realized after years of research that the premise was incorrect. 

“It’s exciting to find out that you are wrong,” says Bowles. “It means science has moved on."

That willingness to revise his thinking was a hallmark of how Herb interacted with other researchers. “Herb loved a vigorous debate and would push against ideas as a way of testing them,” says SFI External Professor Eric Beinhocker (Oxford University). “But he was never dogmatic, and was constantly bouncing ideas off of others, learning, listening, and evolving his own thinking.” 

He also read widely and shared his opinions of the books he read, leaving more than 350 detailed reviews on Amazon. He readily incorporated new ideas into his own work as he encountered them. “Herb was incredibly wide-ranging in his knowledge and interdisciplinary in his scholarship,” says Beinhocker. “He had a perpetual curiosity that kept him constantly exploring for new and better ideas.” 

In 1986, Gintis and Bowles published their second book, Democracy and Capitalism, a critique of both philosophical liberalism and Marxism as inadequate foundations of democracy. 

Their third book, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolutionpublished in 2013, took a new approach to sociobiology.  Its aim was to explain human cooperation and altruism. Contrary to popular wisdom in both economics and biology, they suggested, cooperation in humans doesn’t stem solely from self-interest. It also comes from our “better angels” — our predisposition, genetically and culturally evolved, to value fairness and collaboration toward a common goal. 

That book is one reason SFI Professor Mirta Galesic became interested in SFI. “I inhaled it,” she says. “Among other techniques, they used agent-based models to understand cooperation in humans. It’s so difficult to do clean and simple ABM, and they showed how to do it. It was very important for my own work.” 

While Gintis loved a good debate, he also made a point to share his praise of work he found inspiring, whether the work came from an established academic or an early-career researcher. “He would write to me saying how much he liked some of my ideas,” recalls Galesic. “It meant the world to me.” 

SFI External Professor Suresh Naidu (Columbia University) reflects a similar sentiment. He was an undergraduate student in mathematics at the University of Waterloo in the early 2000s when he first encountered Gintis and Bowles’ work. It “was a revelation, one of the things that made me resolve to do a Ph.D. in economics at UMass Amherst (without having taken a single economics class!),” he says. “It was a chance to see the work process of a real genius. Only later would I realize how unique Herb's talents were even in a discipline filled with smart and eccentric people.”

In 2013, Gintis published a monograph — the third he’d written since becoming professor emeritus at UMass Amherst in 2003. Individuality and Entanglement uses research on gene-culture evolution, game theory, complexity science, and more to develop an analytic framework to unify behavioral sciences. 

“In my opinion, it is his most important book,” says Beinhocker. “They say that innovation happens at the edges. Herb had an instinct for where those edges were and how to bring them together.” 

After Gintis’s passing, Bowles received hundreds of emails from Herb’s colleagues and students. “People talk about how brilliant he was, of course, but there has also been this outpouring of affection,” says Bowles. “He was very unusual — his brilliance, his thought, his willingness to try out quite improbable ideas. Herb spent a lifetime of scholarly passion against injustice and untruth, challenging the old and creating new ways of doing the many sciences of human behavior.”