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Proving Rationality


Mark Greenberg


UCLA School of Law and Department of Philosophy


UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 05-26
PERSPECTIVES ON IMITATION, Susan Hurley, Nick Chater, eds., 2005

Abstract:     
Conventional economic theory assumes that economic agents are rational decisionmakers in the sense that they act as if they were trying to maximize some one-dimensional criterion. A well-known body of experimental work has increasingly shed doubt on the assumption that human beings are rational in this sense, however. Recently, some economic theorists have tried to justify the assumption of rationality by appealing to a cultural analogue of natural selection. Robert Sugden's interesting paper is highly critical of this strategy - the evolutionary strategy, for short. Indeed, some of Sudgen's remarks might be read to suggest that Darwinian theorizing about cultural evolution is a sterile enterprise of manipulating tautologies about replicators that can have no relevance to the empirical question of whether human beings are rational. On this reading of Sugden's paper, the evolutionary strategy is a failure, and, more generally, a Darwinian theory of cultural change - meme theory - can have no explanatory value. Sugden's arguments, however, do not warrant this dismissiveness toward the evolutionary strategy or toward meme theory. A better way to read Sugden's paper, I suggest, is as a plea for empirical investigation in addition to relatively a priori theorizing. The larger interest of Sugden's paper is less its critique of a particular application of meme theory than its suggestiveness for further work in meme theory generally. Contrary to the implication of some of his remarks, Sugden's paper itself illustrates that theoretical work on Darwinian theories of cultural change can fruitfully complement empirical investigation.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 5

Keywords: evolutionary theory, Darwin, economic theory, rationality, decision-making, gene, replicator, meme, biological evolution, natural selection, cultural evolution, cultural change, Dawkins, Binmore, Sugden, decision theory, empirical, a priori, explanation

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Date posted: September 13, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Greenberg, Mark, Proving Rationality. PERSPECTIVES ON IMITATION, Susan Hurley, Nick Chater, eds., 2005; PERSPECTIVES ON IMITATION, Susan Hurley, Nick Chater, eds., 2005 . Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=802924

Contact Information

Mark Greenberg (Contact Author)
UCLA School of Law and Department of Philosophy ( email )
385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States
(310) 206-1337 (Phone)
(310) 825-6023 (Fax)
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