ESS 86N: The Most Rational People in the World
Humans, broadly construed, emerged as bipedal apes in the African mixed savanna-woodlands approximately two million years ago. From humble beginnings, humans have gone on to be become the ecologically dominant species in most biomes and grown to a global population in excess of seven billion. This dominance arises from a combination of features of the human organism including its extreme degree of behavioral flexibility and adaptive social organization. The prima facie evidence of human evolutionary and ecological success, however, raises a paradox. Recent work in economics and psychology increasingly argues for pervasive irrationality in human decision-making in a wide array of behavioral contexts. How is it possible for an organism with such seemingly flawed software supporting decision-making to become the globally dominant species? We will use this contradiction as the launching point for understanding what rationality means in a broad ecological and cross-cultural context. What do we mean by 'rationality'? How do different disciplines conceive of rationality in different ways? Is there such a thing as a rationality that transcends cultural differences or is the very idea of rationality a cultural construction that is used to justify imperialism and other modes of paternalism? Are there systematic factors that promote or impede rational decision-making? The seminar will provide a gentle introduction to the formal approaches of decision theory which we will apply to an unusual array of topics centered on the subsistence and reproductive decisions of hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, and agrarian peasants, in short, people living in face-to-face, subsistence societies. In addition to doing reading from a broad array of social and natural science disciplines around the topic of rationality, students will regularly engage in exercises to assess their own approaches to decision-making.
syllabus_summer2019-rev1.pdf (69.46 KB)