Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Proving Rationality

  • Author(s): Greenberg, Mark
  • et al.

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.

Main Content
Current View