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Bristol philosophers awarded £960,000 by the European Research Council

Professor Samir Okasha (left) and Professor Ken Binmore

Professor Samir Okasha (left) and Professor Ken Binmore

Press release issued: 6 March 2012

Professor Samir Okasha and Professor Ken Binmore in the Department of Philosophy have been awarded a European Research Council Advanced Grant worth £960,928 for their project Darwinism and the Theory of Rational Choice.

The aim of the research project is to explore the relationship between Darwinian evolution and the theory of rational choice, from an overarching philosophical perspective.

There exist deep and interesting links, both conceptual and formal, between evolutionary theory and rational choice theory. These arise because a notion of optimization, or maximization, is central to both bodies of theory.

Evolutionary biologists typically assume that because of natural selection, animals will behave as if they are trying to maximize their Darwinian fitness (for some appropriate measure of fitness). This is the guiding assumption in much work on animal behaviour.

Rational choice theorists typically assume that humans will behave as if they are trying to maximize a utility function. This is the guiding assumption in much work in social science.

Thus there is a close parallel between the notion of fitness in evolutionary theory and the notion of utility in the theory of rationality.  This parallel has been noted before, by workers in a number of fields, but has never been systematically explored from a philosophical perspective, and has been the source of considerable confusion in the literature.

The research project has three inter-related strands. The first is to explore in detail the thematic links between rational choice theory and Darwinian evolution, focusing on the fitness/utility parallel.

The second is to try to explain why these links obtain, by asking whether there is an evolutionary foundation for the norms of traditional rational choice theory, such as expected utility maximization, Bayesian updating, and transitivity of preference.

The third is to study the link between evolutionary and rational choice theory in relation to one particular issue, namely the tension between individual self-interest and group welfare.

The research will be carried out by Professor Okasha, Professor Binmore, two post-docs and a PhD student.  The project will use an inter-disciplinary research methodology that draws on ideas and techniques from philosophy of science, evolutionary biology, and economics/rational choice theory.

Research outputs will include a series of articles in leading journals, a monograph by Professor Okasha, and a collection of edited papers.  Project events will include a series of workshops and two major international conferences.

About ERC Advanced Grants

ERC Advanced Grants allow exceptional established research leaders of any nationality and any age to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects that open new directions in their respective research fields or other domains.

The ERC Advanced Grant funding targets researchers who have already established themselves as independent research leaders in their own right.

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