Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 457–481

How evolutionary biology challenges the classical theory of rational choice

  • W. S. Cooper


A fundamental philosophical question that arises in connection with evolutionary theory is whether the fittest patterns of behavior are always the most rational. Are fitness and rationality fully compatible? When behavioral rationality is characterized formally as in classical decision theory, the question becomes mathematically meaningful and can be explored systematically by investigating whether the optimally fit behavior predicted by evolutionary process models is decision-theoretically coherent. Upon investigation, it appears that in nontrivial evolutionary models the expected behavior is not always in accord with the norms of the standard theory of decision as ordinarily applied. Many classically irrational acts, e.g. betting on the occurrence of one event in the knowledge that the probabilities favor another, can under certain circumstances constitute adaptive behavior.

One interesting interpretation of this clash is that the criterion of rationality offered by classical decision theory is simply incorrect (or at least incomplete) as it stands, and that evolutionary theory should be called upon to provide a more generally applicable theory of rationality. Such a program, should it prove feasible, would amount to the logical reduction of the theory of rational choice to evolutionary theory.

Key words

Evolution evolutionary biology fitness decision theory theory of choice rationality rational behavior reductionism 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • W. S. Cooper
    • 1
  1. 1.S.L.I.S.University of CaliforniaBerkeleyU.S.A.

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