Subversion with 1517 Episode 001: The Rational Irrationality of the Past

Introducing Subversion with 1517: a podcast dedicated to freeing big ideas from the halls of the university. Episodes of Subversion feature conversations, talks, and interviews with and by intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and makers pushing the envelope of conventional opinion.

Episode 001 focuses on challenging the modern assumption that odd and weird cultural practices of the past are explained away by lack of knowledge or too much superstition. It turns out that seemingly primitive societies may have been onto something lost in modern, global culture.

Listen on iTunes.

Episode 001 Guests

In this first episode, we are joined by two social theorists with different, although complementary, explanations for the seemingly weird, irrational, and crazy practices of our ancestors. The first approaches questions of odd practices through a lens of the economic way of thinking and has built his career on finding rational explanations for the fringes of society. The second addresses these questions through a lens of evolutionary biology and anthropology. Both give reason to pause before judging odd or crazy practices as such.

Peter Leeson

Peter Leeson is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University and our first guest.


Leeson has spent much of his career exploring the bizarre and weird through rational choice theory. His previous works include a paper on the rationality of human sacrifice in pre-colonial society (of which we discuss in the interview), The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, and most recently, WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird.

We explore rational choice explanations for everything from trial by ordeal to human sacrifice to hazing and crazy collegiate practices.

Joseph Henrich

Joseph Henrich is a professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and has previously held professorships in psychology and economics and is our second guest, presenting a case of using evolutionary systems for cooperation as a lens for understanding the past.


Henrich’s work focuses on how different systems evolve for cultural learning and passing on knowledge for cooperation’s sake. He’s the author of several books, most recently and notably, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter.

With him, we explore what can be learned by a cooperation game across cultures, dead European explorers, and how religion passes on important cooperation mechanisms over generations.

Call to Action

What are some weird or crazy cultural practices that you can’t seem to explain? How might you approach understanding them with rational choice theory or through a lens of social cooperation?

What questions do you want to explore outside of the university lecture halls? What big ideas matter that aren’t being discussed today?

Tweet at us @1517Fund on Twitter and leave a reply here and we’ll consider your topic for future episodes of Subversion with 1517.