The Most Rational People in the World

Course Description

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 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 flexible social organization. The prima facie evidence of human evolutionary and ecological success raises a paradox with respect to recent work in economics and psychology, which 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.

Course Details

Stanford Introductory Seminars are small, discussion-based classes. Therefore, enrollment is limited. Preference is given to rising Stanford first- and second-year students who haven't had the opportunity to take an Introductory Seminar previously. A portion of seats are open to students participating in Summer Session. Interested students may self-enroll in Axess whenever there is an open space.

Syllabus Link

None available.
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