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Sunday, September 17, 2017

The behavioural ecology of irrational behaviours

Philippe Huneman Johannes Martens
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
September 2017, 39:23


Natural selection is often envisaged as the ultimate cause of the apparent rationality exhibited by organisms in their specific habitat. Given the equivalence between selection and rationality as maximizing processes, one would indeed expect organisms to implement rational decision-makers. Yet, many violations of the clauses of rationality have been witnessed in various species such as starlings, hummingbirds, amoebas and honeybees. This paper attempts to interpret such discrepancies between economic rationality (defined by the main axioms of rational choice theory) and biological rationality (defined by natural selection). After having distinguished two kinds of rationality we introduce irrationality as a negation of economic rationality by biologically rational decision-makers. Focusing mainly on those instances of irrationalities that can be understood as exhibiting inconsistency in making choices, i.e. as non-conformity of a given behaviour to axioms such as transitivity or independence of irrelevant alternatives, we propose two possible families of Darwinian explanations that may account for these apparent irrationalities. First, we consider cases where natural selection may have been an indirect cause of irrationality. Second, we consider putative cases where violations of rationality axioms may have been directly favored by natural selection. Though the latter cases (prima facie) seem to clearly contradict our intuitive representation of natural selection as a process that maximizes fitness, we argue that they are actually unproblematic; for often, they can be redescribed as cases where no rationality axiom is violated, or as situations where no adaptive solution exists in the first place.

The article is here.
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