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The cultural evolution and ecology of institutions

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Human societies are structured by what we refer to as ‘institutions’, which are socially created and culturally inherited proscriptions on behaviour that define roles and set expectations about social interactions. The study of institutions in several social science fields has provided many important insights that have not been fully appreciated in the evolutionary human sciences. However, such research has often lacked a shared understanding of general processes of change that shape institutional diversity across space and time. We argue that evolutionary theory can provide a useful framework for synthesizing information from different disciplines to address issues such as how and why institutions change over time, how institutional rules co-evolve with other culturally inherited traits, and the role that ecological factors might play in shaping institutional diversity. We argue that we can gain important insights by applying cultural evolutionary thinking to the study of institutions, but that we also need to expand and adapt our approaches to better handle the ways that institutions work, and how they might change over time. In this paper, we illustrate our approach by describing macro-scale empirical comparative analyses that demonstrate how evolutionary theory can be used to generate and test hypotheses about the processes that have shaped some of the major patterns we see in institutional diversity over time and across the world today. We then go on to discuss how we might usefully develop micro-scale models of institutional change by adapting concepts from game theory and agent-based modelling. We end by considering current challenges and areas for future research, and the potential implications for other areas of study and real-world applications. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Foundations of cultural evolution’.
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royalsocietypublishing.org/journal/rstb
Opinion piece
Cite this article: Currie TE, Campenni M,
Flitton A, Njagi T, Ontiri E, Perret C, Walker L.
2021 The cultural evolution and ecology of
institutions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 376:
20200047.
https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0047
Accepted: 7 April 2021
One contribution of 15 to a theme issue
Foundations of cultural evolution.
Subject Areas:
behaviour, evolution, ecology,
theoretical biology
Keywords:
cultural evolution, institutions, political
complexity, driven trend, barrier effects
Author for correspondence:
Thomas E. Currie
e-mail: t.currie@exeter.ac.uk
Electronic supplementary material is available
online at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.
c.5393769.
The cultural evolution and ecology of
institutions
Thomas E. Currie1, Marco Campenni1, Adam Flitton1, Tim Njagi2,
Enoch Ontiri1,3, Cedric Perret1and Lindsay Walker1
1
Human Behaviour and Cultural Evolution Group, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter,
Penryn Campus, TR10 9FE, UK
2
Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, Egerton University, Nairobi, Kenya
3
Simply Green Worldwide, Nairobi, Kenya
TEC, 0000-0001-9861-1341; MC, 0000-0001-7649-4869
Human societies are structured by what we refer to as institutions, which
are socially created and culturally inherited proscriptions on behaviour that
define roles and set expectations about social interactions. The study of
institutions in several social science fields has provided many important
insights that have not been fully appreciated in the evolutionary human
sciences. However, such research has often lacked a shared understanding of
general processes of change that shape institutional diversity across space
and time. We argue that evolutionary theory can provide a useful framework
for synthesizing information from different disciplines to address issues such
as how and why institutions change over time, how institutional rules
co-evolve with other culturally inherited traits, and the role that ecological fac-
tors might play in shaping institutional diversity. We argue that we can gain
important insights by applying cultural evolutionary thinking to the study
of institutions, but that we also need to expand and adapt our approaches to
better handle the ways that institutions work, and how they might change
over time. In this paper, we illustrate our approach by describing macro-
scale empirical comparative analyses that demonstrate how evolutionary
theory can be used to generate and test hypotheses about the processes that
have shaped some of the major patterns we see in institutional diversity
over time and across the world today. We then go on to discuss how we
might usefully develop micro-scale models of institutional change by adapting
concepts from game theory and agent-based modelling. We end by consider-
ing current challenges and areas for future research, and the potential
implications for other areas of study and real-world applications.
This article is part of the theme issue Foundations of cultural evolution.
1. Introduction
In comparison to other species, human societies are characterized by the fact
that they create rules about what individuals are supposed to do in different
situations. These rules and the social processes that generate and shape them
make up what are known as institutions, which affect different aspects of
our lives and fundamentally regulate and structure social interactions [15]. It
is argued that this ability to create institutions helps bond societies together
and underpins the fact that humans are able to cooperate, work together and
perform collective behaviours with genetically unrelated individuals on a
scale not seen in other species [2,6]. As well as acknowledging our species
capacity for cooperative behaviour, it is also important to recognize that
across time and space there has been a great deal of variation in the scale at
which human societies have been able to act collectively [7,8]. Here we argue
that the ability of humans to construct systems involving culturally inherited
rules of behaviour (institutions) helps shape cooperation and collective
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behaviour in humans, but that this hasnt been fully
integrated into current evolutionary approaches to human
behaviour. We argue that an evolutionary framework that
integrates insights and approaches from the evolutionary
human sciences (e.g. cultural evolutionary theory, behaviour-
al ecology), and various more traditional social science and
humanities disciplines (e.g. economics, political science,
anthropology and archaeology) can be valuable in addressing
questions about how institutions function and how they
evolve. This will also involve not just applying existing the-
ories and models from cultural evolution but will require
us to expand and adapt our approaches to better handle
the ways that institutions work, and how they might
change over time. Here we present findings from previous
and current research on these topics, and outline ways in
which future research might progress.
(a) What are institutions?
Institutionsis a term (like many terms in the social sciences)
that can have quite distinct meanings in different contexts
and disciplines. Here we use the commonly held understand-
ing that institutions are human-generated regulators of social
interaction and refer to a wide variety of spheres of human
society such as marriage, use of money, legal systems, sys-
tems of government, and ownership of property. Abstractly,
we can think of institutions as involving proscriptions
about what actions are permitted or must (or must not) be
undertaken by certain defined individuals, under what con-
ditions, and often the potential consequences for not
following those rules [9]. For example, marriage is an insti-
tution that establishes a specific kind of lasting, inter-
personal union between people. Although thought to be a
cultural universal, different societies have different rules
about the characteristics of people that are able to enter into
marriage with each other (e.g. how old the participants
must be, which groups they must come from, whether some-
one can be married more than once), and what rights or
obligations being married has for those in the marriage and
other relevant parties such as offspring and other family
members. We also note that the term institutionis some-
times used to refer to specific groups, bodies or units (e.g.
specific universities or banks), as these refer to particular
groups and collections of people here we would refer to
such entities as organizations.
All human societies have some form of institutions, but
within and between cultures institutions can vary in the
extent to which rules are implicit or explicit, written or
unwritten, enforced or otherwise adhered to, and connected
to or supported by other institutions. Even accepting this
broad definition of institutions we can identify different
schools of thought about how to conceptualize institutions.
One view equates institutions with rules, such as the ones
described by nationslaws and constitutions [5], while the
other refers to institutions as stable, regular patterns of
behaviour, or equilibria, e.g. everybody drives on the left
side of the road because they expect others to do so and
they prefer to avoid accidents [10] (for more detailed discus-
sions of these distinctions, see [1,9,11]). In reality, both the
institutions-as-rulesand institutions-as-equilibriaper-
spectives relate to important concepts which affect the
knowledge that individuals have about different situations,
the behaviour they exhibit in those situations, and how
specific rules actually play out in practice. We return to this
point in §1c in thinking about how these different aspects
of institutions connect to cultural evolutionary theory.
Unless specified, we do not make a distinction between
these two forms when we use the term institution. Maintain-
ing a rather broad and inclusive definition that is not tied to
one specific theoretical or methodological approach allows us
and other researchers to see connections across different dis-
ciplines and think about how these might be integrated in a
synthetic evolutionary framework.
(b) The function of institutions
Social living involves interacting with other individuals. While
such interactions can provide benefits they often involve costs
and can present challenges to individuals acting collectively.
This can range from situations whereby individuals would
benefit from coordinating their actions (e.g. driving on one
agreed side of the road), to challenging social dilemmas
where cooperating can provide group-level benefits but
there are incentives to free-ride on the contributions or actions
of others (e.g. agreeing fishing limits can facilitate the sustain-
able management of a commonly owned fishery, but this
can be undone by individuals seeking to benefit in the short-
term by taking more than an agreed share, such that the
fishery collapses) [12]. At a functional level, institutional
rules help facilitate potential solutions to persistent or recur-
ring cooperation or coordination problems by helping to
structure interactions to more frequently occur between cer-
tain individuals or by changing the pay-offs to different
behaviours [5]. For example, institutions developed during
medieval times provided a framework for enabling individ-
uals to trade goods even at long distance. These institutions
secured property rights required for sending goods abroad,
and enforced contracts between individuals that would
never meet [13]. By permitting, promoting or enforcing certain
social interactions (but potentially not others) institutional
rules can facilitate positive assortment, e.g. bring together
those with a shared understanding in a coordination situation,
or enabling cooperators to interact more easily with other
cooperators in a collective action situation. This can happen
in many ways such as creating conditions that enable monitor-
ing of free-riding [14] or through facilitating reputational or
signalling mechanisms [15,16]. Furthermore, by effectively
changing the likely costs and benefits of different behaviours
institutions can change the default rules of the gamefrom
one in which pay-offs favour defection to one in which pay-
offs favour cooperation [2]. To give a concrete ethnographic
example, in irrigation systems in Nepal, communities have
developed rules about collective maintenance of the irrigation
system, and how much water can be taken in order to mini-
mize free-riding [12]. If an individual is deemed to have not
followed the rules then they receive a punishment: the trans-
gressor has one of their cows placed in a pen in the middle
of the village. Because the community is small, everyone in
the village knows whose cow this is, and also other villagers
are able to take milk from this cow. The cow is only released
once a fine is paid. Therefore, someone who breaks the irriga-
tion rules suffers directly by having to pay the fine and from
losing the ability to milk the cow while it is in the pen. They
also suffer reputational damage, which, in turn, may entail
opportunity costs by inhibiting future interactions with other
community members.
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It should beclarified that not all institutions enforce coopera-
tive or group-beneficial behaviours. First, institutions can exist
without a clear function, in the same way that other cultural
traits can be neutral or by-products of other adaptations [1,17].
Second, institutions can enforce socially detrimental behaviours
if these institutions are badly designed [18], or designed by a
minority for a minority [4]. For instance, institutions in Latin
America initially developed by Spanish and Portuguese
conquerors established a highly centralized, bureaucratic
administration with rules that favoured the colonists, and led
to wealth being extracted for their home populations in
Europe. These institutions ended up promoting the role of per-
sonal relationships for business successes, arbitrary property
rights and corruption, which hindered economic performance
for Latin American countries in the longer run [5].
As institutions can strongly differ in their effects on differ-
ent sections of a society, or in their ability to achieve certain
goals, social science researchers working on institutions
have examined the kinds of features that effective institutions
seem to possess. For example, the work of Ostrom [19] has
been key in understanding the functional design features of
institutions that enable societies to successfully manage
common-pool resources. We can draw analogies between
these design features and more general evolutionary mechan-
isms (see also [20] for a similar approach but framed in terms
of multilevel selection). For example, some principles relate to
the pay-offs of cooperative behaviours such as the basic idea
that benefits from resources need to outweigh the costs of
harvesting and managing them, while effective punishment
mechanisms can alter pay-offs to de-incentivize free-riding.
Effective dispute resolution mechanisms can play a role in
preventing individuals entering into death spiralswhereby
free-riding or perceived errors are automatically responded
to by withdrawing from cooperative behaviours by the
other party [21]. Other elements relate to how groups
decide on the rules. Collective outcomes are thought to be
better when users of the resource are able to decide on the
rules that affect them. This helps ensure that pay-offs are
well-structured and provide incentives for individuals to con-
tinue cooperative behaviour, rather than being skewed or
misaligned if others set the rules. The design principles
were developed for understanding the specific context of col-
lective management of natural resources and different
features and mechanisms may be more important in other
ecological or social contexts. However it seems likely that
monitoring, sanctioning and dispute resolution are likely to
occur in wide range of situations [22]. The design principle
relating collective choice arrangement also appears to match
well to arguments made in economics that institutions
which enable the majority of the population to take part in
economic and political decisions (inclusiveinstitutions such
as democratic voting, the rule of law) do better in terms of
development, than societies that have more extractiveinsti-
tutions, where a limited number of elites do well at the
expense of the majority of the population [4].
Humans have created societies that are organized, con-
trolled or coordinated on a scale not seen in other species.
Common mechanisms proposed to explain cooperation in
biological systems and how it has come to evolve, such as
kin selection [23] or classical forms of direct reciprocity
in dyadic interactions [24,25] may be important in explain-
ing some aspects of human cooperation but they run into
difficulties when trying to explain large-scale cooperation
in situations involving genetically unrelated individuals,
multiple individuals rather than dyadic interactions, or
interactions that may not be regularly repeated [6,26,27]. Insti-
tutions may play a role in understanding how cooperation
or collective behaviour is achieved [2,3] yet institutions
are not an alternative to evolutionary explanations. Rather
they provide the specific means by which general principles
that are commonly invoked in models of the evolution of
cooperation such as repeated interactions, positive assortment,
or punishment [6,22,28] can be implemented. The kind
of research carried out in social science disciplines descri-
bed above is therefore useful in understanding how
cooperative and collective behaviour can be achieved and
how this varies across different societies. However, such
research has often lacked a shared understanding of general
processes of change that shape institutional diversity
across space and time [1]. In the next section, we attempt
to connect institutions to concepts from cultural evolutio-
nary theory, and argue that this framework can play an
important role in developing and testing hypotheses about
institutional change.
(c) Integrating institutions into a cultural evolutionary
framework
Conceptually, we view culture as a system of inheritance that
enables information to be transmitted between individuals
and down generations via social learning [17]. A well-
developed body of theory argues that analogies can be
made between cultural change and biological evolution in
terms of generation of variation, inheritance, and selection,
and that there are general processes at play in the trans-
mission and adoption of cultural traits [29]. We can think of
institutions as a particular aspect of culture, and the ideas
of institutions-as-rules or institutions-as-equilibria can be
matched to this framework. The rules aspect connects well
with the generation of variation and inheritance parts of evol-
utionary thinking. Institutional rules are established and
modified through social processes, and knowledge about
rules is transmitted by social learning and inherited within
populations over intergenerational periods of time [1]. Inno-
vations can occur in institutional rules and these rules can
be consciously or unconsciously adjusted or modified. As
we discuss below, there are various ways in which this
might occur in human societies, often involving some form
of institutional mechanism itself (i.e. there are rules about
how rules are madewhat can be thought of as a consti-
tutionalprocess [30,31]). This connects to the fact that
institutions may be interrelated, and may also interact with,
or rely on, other non-institutional aspects of culture which
connects to the idea of institutions-as-equilibria [32]. This
means the effectiveness of a particular institutional rule can
play out very differently in different social or environmental
contexts, which leads to the idea that there can be coevolution
between different institutions, or between institutions and
other aspects of culture [1].
This coevolutionary/institutions-as-equilibria perspective
can have a number of implications for understanding why
societies possess the institutions that they do. Institutional
arrangements may not be straightforward to implement
and may build cumulatively on existing institutions and cul-
tural traits, as has been discussed and investigated with
respect to the development of other aspects of culture such
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as technology [33]. For example, Acemoglu & Robinson [4]
argue that developing certain legal institutions which mean
that certain individuals are not considered above the law
can be particularly important in aiding the later development
of other inclusiveinstitutions. As well as affecting how a
particular rule may play out this coevolutionary aspect also
affects whether certain institutions are adopted in the first
place. For example, in the current Covid-19 pandemic
countries have adopted a wide variety of different rules
aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, sometimes adopting
measures seen in other countries sometimes developing their
own. Anecdotally, the particular rules adopted, and the suc-
cess of those adopted, appear to have depended upon
factors such as the existing legal and political institutions
(which can affect the ability to implement or enforce things
such as stay at homeorders), personal or cultural attitudes
and beliefs (e.g. whether government restrictions were
viewed as an affront to personal liberty), demographics and
population distributions, geography and climate, and
wealth (at various different levels of a society). More gener-
ally the features of groups as well the features of
institutions themselves may affect how institutional rules
spread between groups in a manner similar to how certain
context biases in cultural evolution are thought to work
[17,34], e.g. countries that are doing well economically may
be more likely to be copied than countries that are performing
poorly. In §2b, we present an empirical example of how these
kinds of processes may be important in affecting the spread
of political institutions.
The final point we make here in connecting the idea of
institutions-as-equilibria to evolutionary thinking is that insti-
tutions are group-level features and can create emergent
properties at the group level [35]. There can be multiple
stable institutional arrangements which can represent more
or less effective equilibria [3]. If there is competition between
groups in a meta-population of groups then processes of
cultural group selection may explain why some institutions
become more common [32]. This can happen either because
groups with certain institutions are better able to replace or
incorporate other groups, certain institutions or groups
deemed to be more attractive or effective are copied, or popu-
lations vote with their feetand migrate preferentially to
groups with certain institutions [32,36].
It is important to note that the ability of humans to create
institutions is itself built upon human capacities for language,
social learning, and aspects of our social cognition involving
shared intentionality and theory of mind [8]. However,
these factors by themselves do not necessarily promote
cooperation. For example, if social learning is pay-off biased,
non-cooperators may be more likely to be copied owing to
the fact that their short-term pay-offs are higher [37]. Similarly,
the human ability to establish rules does not necessarily mean
that groups will develop efficient or effective institutions [3].
Given that there is nothing inevitable about human collective
behaviour it is important to understand under how and why
effective institutions emerge and spread, and to test hypoth-
eses about the processes involved in institutional change.
Here, we illustrate our approach to tackling these issues by
first describing empirical comparative analyses of macro-
scale institutional evolution that seek to test hypotheses
about the processes that have shaped some of the major pat-
terns we see in institutional diversity both over time and
across the world today. We then go on to describe how we
can go about modelling institutional change based on micro-
level interactions between individuals within a population.
We discuss the opportunities and challenges of both kinds
of analyses and finish by considering promising areas of
future research.
2. Macro-scale empirical analyses of institutional
evolution
We can investigate how and why institutions evolve by
empirically testing hypotheses using data on institutional
diversity from different disciplines such as anthropology,
economics and political science. These data can be produc-
tively combined with concepts and analytical approaches
from evolutionary biology. The added value of an evolution-
ary approach here is that it captures both the specific
historically contingent pathways of groups, culture and insti-
tutions, and the more general processes involved in
institutional change, as well as a consideration of how these
processes may be shaped by ecological factors [1,38]. Here
we present examples drawn primarily from our own work
examining the long-term patterns and processes involved in
the evolution of large-scale societies and associated insti-
tutional complexity, and also the spread of democratic
institutions in more recent history.
(a) Long-term patterns and processes of institutional
evolution and socio-political complexity
One of the biggest changes in human history has been the
transition from living in relatively small groups bonded by
face-to-face relationships and ties of kinship and marriage,
to the massive, anonymous societies we live in today [2,39].
Whereas individual roles within early human societies were
relatively undifferentiated beyond certain divisions of
labour owing to age and gender, more recent societies are
characterized by a diversity of different roles, and an
increased number of formal and informal institutions that
structure our interactions with others. These changes have
not been uniform and there is great variation around the
world, and over time, in the scale and complexity of human
groups [7]. Systematic comparative analyses using both
historical and ethnographic data can help test hypotheses
about the patterns and processes involved in the evolution of
institutional complexity.
Disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology have
often proposed ideas about the evolution of human societies
[40] but have not been able to test them convincingly owing
to challenges in the kinds of data and analytical techniques
available [41]. In order to more explicitly assess processes
of change, Currie and co-workers [41,42] employed phylo-
genetic comparative methods derived from evolutionary
biology to analyse ethnographic data on socio-political insti-
tutions from societies in Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
This technique enables us to use knowledge about the ances-
tral, family-tree-like relationships between societies to make
inferences about how features of past societies changed in
order to give rise to the distribution of these features we
see in the present day. These analyses showed that hierarch-
ical decision-making institutions evolve through a series of
incremental increases in levels of hierarchy, but with
decreases in hierarchy also possible (more unconstrained,
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non-sequential models of evolution did not fit the data well).
This supports the idea that in some cases socio-political insti-
tutional change can be cumulative, with institutions needing
to build on previous developments.
Related analyses [41] also showed that different insti-
tutional features evolve together, with increasing levels of
hierarchy co-evolving with institutionalized differences in
social status. Societies where decision-making extends
beyond the level of a single village are more likely to have
distinct and often inherited social classes (e.g. noblesand
commoners) than societies only organized at the village
level. Turchin et al. [39] further examined these issues by
constructing a global scale, time-series database going back
more than 10 000 years. Using data coded from historical
and archaeological information, analyses show that different
aspects of societies (roles in government, number of hierarch-
ical levels, information systems, infrastructure, economic
systems) tend to evolve together, with a greater number of
roles and more complex institutions emerging as societies
increase in size (figure 1). The coevolution of institutions
and other traits suggests that are functional relationships
between different aspects of societies that enable societies to
coordinate the actions of increasingly larger numbers of indi-
viduals. For example, Spencer [26] argues that the need for
population size
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Figure 1. Population size, governmental roles and hierarchical levels of authority show correlated increases over time, i.e. as societies get bigger they also tend to
get more complex in terms governmental and hierarchical institutions. The rows refer to the 1000-year time period prior to the dates indicated on the left. Fre-
quency distributions are calculated based on cases drawn from a global, historical database [39]. x-axis values refer to log
10
polity population size (left),
governmental roles index (proportional measure, 0: no such roles, 1: maximum possible recorded in sample), mean number of hierarchical levels (see the electronic
supplementary material and [39] for details of dataset and measurements). The red arrow highlights the shift in the mode of these distributions towards greater
scale and complexity which is indicative of a driven macro-evolutionary trend mechanism, suggesting there is some evolutionary force favouring larger, more com-
plex societies [43] (see text). Note also the reduction in the relative frequency of smallest, least complex societies. (Online version in colour.)
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differentiation in political roles is spurred when a polity
expands to control more territory and more people, meaning
that a leader is not able to perform all the necessary roles
across a large enough area by themselves. To avoid giving
too much power to subordinates a new institutional arrange-
ment needs to be created whereby leaders give subordinates
control over only certain aspects of society (e.g. land
managers, tax collectors, military officials).
These analyses also used information about the nature
and direction of institutional change in order to reveal infor-
mation about other processes involved in change. Firstly,
while the overall trend has been for increasingly complex
societies to emerge over time, both the phylogenetic com-
parative analyses and the global scale time-series analyses
reveal that reductions in scale and complexity also occur.
This fits with the idea that establishing appropriate insti-
tutions to meet a new adaptive problem is challenging, and
even with the human ability to design and plan we cannot
always find appropriate solutions [3]. The historical and
archaeological records show many instances of societies
decreasing in size because they did not develop new insti-
tutions to control larger areas, or adapt to changes in
ecological or social conditions [2730]. Societies may go
through several cycles of expansion and collapse [31], poten-
tially with new rules and systems of organizing relationships
being experimented with (sometimes building cumulatively
on previous attempts) until effective solutions are found [44].
While decreases in complexity do occur, in these analyses
increases in complexity appear to be more common than
decreases. This appears to be consistent with what macro-
evolutionary theorists in biology would label a driven evol-
utionary trend, in which there is a directed, pervasive force
that favours movement of trait values in a particular direction
[43]. This is as opposed to a passive trend, where there is no
overall bias towards changes in a particular direction but
instead an overall direction is apparent because species or
societies emerge initially at or near the lowest possible
value. Evidence for a driven trend is also apparent when
examining changes in the frequency distribution of societies
in terms of their size and institutions (e.g. number of govern-
ance roles and levels of decision-making; figure 1) [39]. This
shows not only a change in the right tail of these distributions
(which would be seen in both passive and driven trends), but
also a shift in the peak of the distribution towards increasing
complexity over time i.e. not only do larger, more complex
societies become more frequent over time, but smaller, less
complex societies become noticeably less common.
If there is a driven trend, then we can ask what the evol-
utionary process that appears to favour increasing social scale
and complexity might be. One possibility is that individuals
within groups are more motivated to expand groups and
potentially gain more resources than they are to stabilize or
down-size. Another potential explanation is that competition
between groups, particularly in the form of warfare leads to a
form of cultural group selection (CGS), with the link between
warfare and institutional complexity potentially occurring via
two processes. Firstly, when a group conquers another group
and attempts to incorporate it, this potentially leads to the
kinds of challenges in organizing individuals discussed
above which then favours the development of novel insti-
tutions to make the expanded group more stable. Secondly,
groups that have institutions which enable them to be
larger or better coordinated are better able to defeat smaller
or less efficiently organized groups. In order to test such an
idea, Turchin et al. [45] developed a spatially explicit agent-
based model in which selection favoured larger groups and
therefore also favoured the evolution of institutions that
enable groups to maintain larger size. Simulations were run
on a landscape reflecting the Afro-Eurasian landmasses
with the intensity of warfare being influenced by the histori-
cally attested spread of horse-based military technologies
from the Eurasian steppe. Outputs from the model showed
a good match to data on the historical distribution of large-
scale societies from 1500BCE to 1500CE, suggesting this
mechanism is at least a plausible explanation.
More recent statistical analyses of the historical distri-
butions of large-scale societies [46] show that in addition to
support for the predictions of the steppe-warfare hypothesis,
there is also support for the idea that regions in which agri-
culture has been practised for longer have tended to be
home to larger scale societies for longer [47,48]. This again
is consistent with the idea that the development of effective
socio-political institutions is a cumulative process, i.e. these
regions have had more time to find solutions that work and
develop the kinds of institutions that enable societies to func-
tion on a larger scale. Other comparative analyses also
suggest that these long-term historical and ecological factors
may explain some of the variation we see in the effectiveness
of societies in the modern world. Using cross-national data
and path analysis, Flitton & Currie [49] tested different
potential pathways by which ecological factors could have
affected historical development of socio-political institutions,
which in turn may have shaped modern institutions and
economies. Analyses show that countries with more inclus-
ivemodern-day institutions tend to have higher gross
domestic product (in line with ideas discussed in §1 [4]).
However, this measure of institutional quality is itself pre-
dicted by a measure of how long the region where a
country is located has had complex governance beyond the
local level. This measure of State historyis in turn predicted
by timing of agriculture (how long has agriculture been prac-
tised in the region), which is itself predicted by an ecological
variable (latitude). These analyses show the value in using
cultural evolutionary theory as a framework to bring together
different ideas about social evolution and explicitly assess
which hypotheses receive support and which do not.
(b) Coevolution and the spread of institutions
The understanding that institutions evolve within societies,
and that they co-evolve with other institutions and other
aspects of culture has implications for how institutions
might spread between societies. As discussed above, the
effectiveness of institutional rules may be supported by
other institutions, values or norms such that simply taking
a rule from one society and transplanting it to another
means the rule may not work as well or may lead to unin-
tended consequences. A prediction stemming from this idea
is that institutions may spread more easily between societies
the more closely related they are culturally. Some economists,
inspired by evolutionary theory, have employed such logic to
assess the spread of innovations that help create economic
growth [50]. This idea is similar to the ways that pathogens
can spread more easily between genetically similar hosts
[51], and here we show how we can adapt phylogenetic
methods from evolutionary biology to test such ideas.
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To illustrate the approach, we can examine the spread of
modern democratic voting institutions since the year 1800
using the POLITY V dataset [52] and match this with a phy-
logenetic tree that acts as a proxy for deep historical and
cultural relatedness between societies, i.e. societies that
speak more closely related languages will tend to be more
similar in other cultural and institutional features [53]. This
technique relies on suitable phylogenetic information being
available, so for these preliminary analyses we confine our
dataset to countries in Eurasia speaking Indo-European
(IE) languages in order to make use of a phylogenetic tree
of IE [54] that has been used in other cultural evolutionary
studies [41]. The earliest democracy in this dataset is the
USA and is considered the source of the spread of modern
democratic institutions to other countries. Figure 2 shows
that countries that have a shorter cultural distance from the
USA (time in years since the most recent common ancestor
measured on the IE phylogenetic tree) tended to adopt and
retain open and competitive elections earlier than more dis-
tantly related countries. There are several cases of countries
losing then re-adopting democratic institutions and therefore
these data only consider the last instance that democracy was
adopted. However, a qualitatively similar pattern is also
found if we use the earliest dates that democratic elections
were adopted (see the electronic supplementary material ).
This is consistent with the idea that societies more closely
related historically are likely to have other cultural traits
that make the adoption of new democratic institutions more
stable. Interestingly, there appears to be a stronger relation-
ship when considering the last date of adoption rather than
the first date of adoption. This suggests that cultural distance
is affecting how well new institutions play out rather than
simply being an indicator of how likely the institution is to
be adopted in the first place (although this may also be
important). This finding is consistent with analyses by
Spolaore & Wacziarg [55] who show similar effects of popu-
lation distances and differences in democratic institutions as
well as other measures of inclusiveinstitutions (Repudiation
of Contracts, Risk of Expropriation and Rule of Law) using a
global sample and controlling for other potential geographical
factors. Our current findings are still somewhat preliminary
and we will be expanding the countries and variables covered
in an attempt to assess different hypotheses in future. How-
ever, these analyses help illustrate the logic of this approach
and the potential added value of incorporating an understand-
ing of cultural evolutionary history and processes into analyses
of institutional diversity.
3. Developing micro-level models of institutional
evolution
The examples above illustrate the value in testing hypotheses
about institutional evolution using macro-scale data. The
ideas tested in such analyses relate to both processes occur-
ring within populations (micro-level) and also processes
occurring above the population-level (macro-level), e.g.
between group competition, borrowing. In many ways, the
macro-level processes are similar conceptually to existing
models of cultural evolution. However, different factors or
processes may be important at different scales [56], and
micro-level processes may have consequences for how
macro-scale processes play out. For example, if macro-
evolutionary processes like CGS depend on emergent proper-
ties of individual interactions [35], then how these emergent
properties are realized may have consequences for whether
selection at the group level is working against individual
selection or whether it is amplifying or enhancing it
[32,57,58], which can have consequences for the rate at
which traits may change in frequency in the meta-population
of groups. To date there has been relatively little development
of formal models of institutional evolution at the micro-level
that is based on behaviour of individuals and the interactions
between them [2]. Perhaps because they appear to be
peculiar to humans, institutions have received relatively
little attention in evolutionary models of cooperation. On
the other hand, most current models of cultural evolution
focus on transmission of information between individuals.
These approaches have provided many important insights
into understanding human behaviour; however, this
approach does not capture the social processes by which
rules are generated or agreed upon in the first place, and
Italy
France
Spain
Portugal
Romania
Ireland
United_Kingdom
Switzerland
Germany
Austria
Belgium
Netherlands
Sweden
Norway
Denmark
Czechoslovakia
Slovak_Republic
Poland
Belarus
Ukraine
Russia
Serbia
Croatia
Bulgaria
Macedonia
Slovenia
Latvia
India
Pakistan
Bangladesh
Iran
Afganistan
Albania
Greece
6000
6000
4000
4000
y
ears before present
time since most recent common ancestor with USA 2000
2000
1800
1850
1900
date of adoption
1950
2000
0
0
Figure 2. Countries that are more culturally distant from the earliest modern democratic country (USA) have tended to adopt open and competitive election
institutions later than culturally similar countries (data taken from [52]). Cultural distance is based on time in years since the most recent common ancestor
(MRCA) measured on a phylogenetic tree of Indo-European languages [54] (right). Where countries have adopted and abandoned elections we use the last calendar
year that democratic election institutions were adopted (y-axis). Coloured (non-black) branches on the phylogenetic tree represent groups that have the same MRCA
with the USA, which relate to the points on the left that share the same values on the x-axis. (Online version in colour.)
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the evolutionary consequences of different processes at both
the micro and the macro level.
To illustrate one way we might go about developing indi-
vidual level models of institutional change we present a
simple agent-based model. We follow the suggestion of
Powers et al. [2] by adopting a two-stage game-theoretical
approach. This approach is itself based on models developed
in economics ([31], see also [59,60]), but as of now has only
been applied relatively rarely in models of human social evol-
ution (e.g. [61]). In normal game theory models, agents play
an economic gamewith certain pay-offs for different beha-
viours. To model the role that institutions play, we have our
agents play a political gamethat sets a rule that agents
follow that has consequences for the economic game.
Here we use the familiar situation of punishment for non-
contribution in a public goods (PG) game [62]. The main fea-
ture of this model is that the system starts with no
punishment and agents have the ability to introduce this by
being able to set and agree on a punishment value that can
be updated and adjusted through agentsactions throughout
the simulation. To keep things simple, we have attempted to
minimize the presence of other institutional features such as a
centralized mechanism for punishment, status differences or
official positions of leadership (see §3c for further discussion
on this and other related points). We stress that the model
presented here is primarily for illustrative purposes and
below we discuss some of the reasons for the particular mod-
elling choices, some of the limits or challenges of such an
approach, and also the ways in which it might be modified
or updated.
(a) Model set-up
Details of the model are given in the electronic supplemen-
tary material but we summarize the key conceptual points
here. In this model, the economic game involves agents con-
tributing a set amount (10%) of their budget (10 units) to a
public pot. Any donations are then doubled and redistributed
to all agents. This presents the classic collective action pro-
blem [63]: the biggest overall benefit comes if all agents
contribute their full amount, yet individually an agent will
get a bigger pay-off by not contributing and yet still receiving
a share of the public good. If agents are able to choose their
strategy based on achieving the best individual pay-offs, or
if the game is played over multiple generations and strategies
are heritable, then those that cooperate by donating to the
public good will reduce in number compared to those who
free-ride on the contributions of others.
In our model, we consider a population of agents with
fixed strategies in the economic game (i.e. they cannot
change their behaviour), who will either donate to the
public good (cooperators) or not (free-riders). Our agents
play the economic game and receive their portion of the
public good. In our political game, agents have an ability to
set a value for a fine for being a free-rider. Our simulation
starts with this value being zero, which is equivalent to no
punishment. If fines are introduced by the population (i.e.
punishment is decided to be set greater than 0), free-riders
are punished by selecting an equal number of other agents
from the population to act as obligate punishers (both coop-
erators and free-riders in the economic game can be chosen as
punishers). Those selected as punishers for that round pay
the cost of punishing and free-riders pay a cost that is twice
this amount. In the political game, at each generation one
new value for the level of punishment is proposed, with a
number drawn randomly from a normal distribution with a
given standard deviation. The group of agents then vote
to decide on whether they will accept the new level of pun-
ishment or stick with the previous level. Their decision is
based on assessments about the long-term difference in
pay-off they will receive as individuals under both scenarios.
After playing the PG game and performing any punishment
pay-offs are calculated. These pay-offs then affect individuals
probability of reproducing and forming part of the next gen-
eration (group size is fixed). Increasing punishment values
above a certain level decreases net pay-offs to free-riding
and will reduce the proportion of free-riders in the popu-
lation over time. Here we want to show what happens
when we start with a zero level of punishment and a very
low proportion of cooperators in the population (5%) to see
if punishment can be introduced, leading to cooperators
increasing in frequency over time.
(b) Model results
Figure 3 shows the output from 100 iterations of the model
and shows how the mechanism works. Punishment values
start at 0, until such point that a value is proposed that
leads to (i) an immediate higher pay-off to cooperators, and
(ii) a better predicted long-term pay-off for free-riders (who
are in the majority at that point) compared to the prediction
based on the current cost. The increased relative pay-off to
cooperators means that free-riders are removed from the
population over time. Over time the pay-offs to cooperators
and free-riders increase (the remaining free-riders benefit
from the fact that there are more cooperators around so the
PG is greater). Once cooperators have been established as
the majority in the population occasionally punishment
values are accepted that lead to free-riders increasing in fre-
quency until a new value is proposed that restores the
relative advantage to cooperators. This particular mechanism
(with its associated assumptions) is therefore able to promote
and stabilize cooperation under these conditions. In the elec-
tronic supplementary material, we present the results of some
sensitivity analyses which show that as long as agents are
able to propose punishment values that are sufficiently high
then free-riders will be removed from the population.
(c) Model discussion: limitations and future extensions
This model is not intended to be a complete or even a realistic
description of how real-world institutions work but it
does serve to illustrate some important points. The model
demonstrates the logic of the two-step political-game-then-
economic-game process, and the ways that institutions can
be socially determined and go about altering pay-offs. In
our example, agents were able to overcome the default
set-up of the PG game, and its associated collective action
problem, by adopting values of punishment that are suffi-
cient to reduce the frequency of free-riders but are not so
high that they outweigh the benefit this brings. Constructing
the model helps bring focus to various issues around the
nature of the political game and how agents use information
and make decisions. Here we discuss some of the limitations
of the current model and outline ways that the approach will
be developed in the future.
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Firstly, in this model individuals that are selected to
punish have to carry out punishment (i.e. we do not allow
individuals to decide whether they can punish, or have
fixed strategies of punisheror non-punisher). This means
that we are in-effect side-stepping the second-order free-
rider problembecause punishment is costly individuals
would receive a higher pay-off if they did not punish. Such
automatic, reflexive behaviour can potentially come about
through some kind of internalized norm, but that would
simply beg the question of how such a norm came to be.
More realistic models of punishment will be developed in
the future that allow for the possibility of non-punishment.
Similar to mechanisms such as strong reciprocity[64]
some form of group selection where in groups with higher
frequencies of non-punishers would be more likely to go
extinct is one possible solution to the problem [22]. However,
as Powers et al. [2] point out this is not the only solution and
in fact examples from the real world (such as the examples
described in §1) show that certain institutional rules can
lead to direct benefits for punishers (see also [58]). In contrast
to the peer-punishment system we have used here other
models of institutionalized punishment have employed a
pool-punishment system whereby a proportion of an
agents returns from the public good goes into a central pot
that is used to finance punishment [61,65]. We chose to
start with a peer-punishment mechanism as this arguably
requires fewer additional elements in comparison to a popu-
lation that lacks any form of institutionalized punishment
(see also [66] which has a peer-punishment mechanism
but incorporates individual heterogeneity). An additional
consideration is that a centralized punishment mechanism
has to be financed which may be more or less difficult
under different conditions. A centralized, pool-punishment
system is often associated with formal offices of leadership,
which is not a common feature of the kind of egalitarian, for-
ager groups that characterized much of human history.
This discussion also raises issues about the decision-
making process and set-up of the political game aspect of
our model. Here we chose a majority-rule voting mechanism
in order to have acceptance of a new punishment value,
which we envisaged abstractly as capturing discussions that
groups might have in order to gather individual viewpoints
as seen in many small-scale group situations, rather than
necessarily a formal vote that we see in modern, democratic
settings. Although we feel it would be unlikely to dramatically
affect the results of the current model, more explicitly delibera-
tive decision-making processes may be relevant for many
informal institutions, e.g. Perret et al. [67] and Gavrilets et al.
[68] explicitly model consensus decision-making processes. It
is also worth pointing out that having a recognized system
for agreeing upon rules is an institutional feature itself and
so our model assumes this mechanism is in place. Furthermore,
in our model institutional change occurs via deviations in a
single, continuous parameter. However, institutional changes
may occur in other ways that could be modelled in future
work such as introducing a new type of rule, changing who
a rule applies to or other conditions about the rule, or adding
additional rules. We return to this point in the conclusion.
Other key assumptions in our model are that all individ-
uals have the same ability to influence the outcome of the
political game
voting on
punishment
cost value
public goods
game
agent strategy
economic game
generations
proportion of agent type
0
0
0.25
0.50
0.75
1.00
final budget punishment cost value
9
10
11
250 500 750 1000
generations
0 250 500 750 1000
generations
0 250 500 750 1000
Figure 3. Output from an agent-based simulation implementing an institutional form of punishment in a public goods game. A schematic (top left) shows how the
model works. Agents have a fixed strategy of either being cooperators or free-riders in the economic game, and vote to decide on a level of punishment for free-
riders (the political game). Pay-offs from the economic game determine agent fitness and thus feedback to affect the proportion of different strategies in the next
time step of the simulation. The median cost value (black line) over 1000 generations of 100 simulation iterations is shown (top right), with an examplefromone
iteration (grey line) to illustrate the kinds of dynamics seen in the model. The punishment cost value affects the pay-offs to agents in the economic game, giving
cooperators (blue) higher pay-offs than free-riders (red) (bottom right), leading to changes in the proportion of cooperators such that they become the most
common strategy (bottom left). Agents vote for punishment values that although they lead to lower pay-offs in the short term, in the longer term lead to
pay-offs that are better for cooperators and any free-riders in the population (bottom right). Values shown in bottom graphs are medians from 100 simulation
iterations.
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political game, and that the agents playing the political game
are the same as those playing the economic game. Both con-
ditions are probably present in small-scale, egalitarian groups
such as those that characterized much of human history. Fur-
thermore, as we discussed in §1 the ability of resource users
to set their own rules is a feature of groups that are able to
effectively manage commons. However, as discussed above
some of the most striking patterns of institutional evolution
we see in human history involve changes in hierarchical
decision-making processes and the degree to which different
individuals within a society are able to influence institutional
rules. An area that will be explored in future will be to build
on some existing models of the evolution of inequality and
hierarchy [6973] to model situations where different agents
have different levels of influence or power in deciding insti-
tutional rules. These differences in socio-political systems
may have a number of important effects on the nature and
dynamics of social evolution including the stability of
groups, or the effectiveness of collective action either in
different realms such as resource management or between-
group competition.
Finally, we can consider the nature of the agents them-
selves and the potential effects this has on institutional
evolution. Our agents can only play fixed strategies in the
economic game and thus the proportion of agents playing
cooperatecan only change via selection when agents repro-
duce. Given the fixed-strategy nature of our agents, in order
to make decisions about how to vote in the political game
that would allow them to receive higher future pay-offs
they were imbued with an ability to make accurate long-
term predictions about the consequences of different punish-
ment values. While fine for illustrating the logic of the
two-stage modelling process, these assumptions are not
very realistic for humans. In reality, people have the ability
to modify behaviour according to circumstances, but do not
have perfect information or unbounded cognitive abilities.
Some degree of foresight in assessing the likely consequences
of different outcomes seems a reasonable assumption for
many situations in which groups may decide on institutional
rules. Recent models [65,66,70] have shown how limited fore-
sight mechanisms which individuals use to account for future
pay-offs and how others are likely to respond to onesown
strategy can help groups to solve collective action problems.
The knowledge, abilities, biases and other features of agents
are things that can be incorporated into future models, and
a valuable aspect about taking an evolutionary approach is
that these properties do not have to be treated as fixed but
can themselves be modelled as evolving either genetically
or culturally depending on the context being addressed.
4. Conclusion
Incorporating institutions more explicitly into cultural evol-
utionary theory is an important challenge for establishing a
more complete understanding of human collective behaviour
and the diversity of human societies. Here, we have dis-
cussed the logic behind the evolutionary function of
institutions, the processes involved in shaping some of the
broad patterns we see in institutional evolution, and illus-
trated how we might model the evolution of institutions
based on interactions between individuals. Many key issues
relating to understanding institutional evolution remain for
future research. We have argued that the social processes
involved in institutions are somewhat different to most exist-
ing models of cultural evolution. However, we have also
stressed that knowledge about rules is transmitted by social
learning processes as are other norms, beliefs and values
that can affect how institutions work. Understanding how
these different processes interact is an important area of
research especially as some existing models suggest that
pay-off biased social learning may work against cooperative
behaviour [37]. Furthermore, we have not focused here on
the proximate mechanisms that affect how individuals
decide on or interact with rules, or how they learn these
rules during their lifetime but these are worthy of future con-
sideration and are important to address within an integrated
evolutionary framework [1,3,74].
Institutions are group-level feature of human societies,
and here we have attempted to outline how we can approach
the study of institutions both by examining between-group
features in institutions and understanding the social inter-
actions between individuals that give rise to institutions
and their group-level effects. The simple model we intro-
duced in §3 deals with gradual changes in a narrowly
defined aspect of a particular type of institution. However,
the ability to consciously design or plan new institutions or
amend rules in a targeted way means that larger, or more fun-
damental changes in institutions and social systems can be
introduced that do not rely directly on the kinds of micro-
level evolutionary processes that cultural evolutionary
theory has traditionally concerned itself with. For example,
in the late nineteenth century Japan dramatically changed
its institutional arrangements dramatically from those of a
feudal system with the Shogun at its head, to those that
seemed more aligned with a European industrialized political
and economic system [75]. In future research, it will be impor-
tant to model other kinds of processes of institutional change.
The ability to consciously plan or design institutions
does not necessarily mean they will be effective, persist and
lead to stable social systems. As discussed above groups
may try different institutional arrangements before they
find something that works. Approaches to modelling more
discontinuous institutional change will also benefit from a
broader understanding of the context in which such changes
take place, as this may affect the success of new institutions.
For example, even when change does appear to be discon-
tinuous it may be owing to the adoption of pre-existing
institutions from other societies and thus not be completely
novel. The success of adopting particular institutions may
involve repurposing or adapting existing institutions. For
example, in the case of Japan, Western societies acted as a
template for the system but they also used and built upon tra-
ditional Japanese institutions such as installing the Emperor
as a head of state in a manner similar to many European
countries [75]. Our example above of the spread of demo-
cratic institutions illustrates the potential application of
cultural evolutionary theory and methods to understand
some of the general processes that may influence the
adoption of new institutions from other groups and this
approach can be extended in many ways to address different
hypotheses not just those based on cultural similarity. As the
ways in which institutions change is large, one approach to
modelling may be to develop models that are inspired by cer-
tain, specific types of institution. For example, Aktipis and
colleagues have developed models based on the institution
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of risk-pooling in East African Maasai communities known as
Osotua, that not only provides insights into this specific fea-
ture but also cooperation and risk-pooling in variable
environments in general [76].
This discussion also draws attention to an important dis-
tinction between institutional change in terms of the
processes by which change occurs within a society, and the
consequences of these changes in any meta-population of
groups that might lead to certain institutions increasing in
frequency over time. An area of debate that is of particular
relevance to institutional evolution is the importance of
CGS as a mechanism for achieving collective action [3,77].
Theoretical work has demonstrated the logic of the idea,
and empirical work has shown that many of the assumptions
of such models are met [32] (but cf. [78]) making it a plausible
explanation. However, conversely there is recognition that
term CGS has been used in slightly different contexts [79],
which is important as different mechanisms can result in
different evolutionary dynamics [36]. Furthermore, as dis-
cussed above, institutions can lead to solutions to
cooperation or coordination problems without an explicit
mechanism involving differential group death, copying or
migration [2]. We will be developing agent-based models as
a means of explicitly addressing some of these debates, and
as we describe in §2 it is also important to formally test the
predictions of CGS hypotheses against potential alternative
explanations in order to assess how well they might explain
real-world examples of institutional evolution [80].
This focus on processes of change and the ability to link
micro-level processes and macro-level processes and out-
comes is where an evolutionary perspective can potentially
be most informative to approaches developed in other disci-
plines. For example, the kinds of approaches taken in
sustainability science described in §1 have had many impor-
tant insights into the functional design features that make for
effective institutions, yet have paid less attention to how these
features emerge in the first place, or what affects their
dynamics over time [81,82]. Currently, we are working with
communities in northern Kenya to understand how the insti-
tutions for collective action in a pastoralist system are playing
out across a landscape of different cultures and environments
[83]. Given the highly variable nature of rainfall in this
environment, individual private ownership of small areas
of land is not effective, and traditionally pastoralist commu-
nities had collective systems of land tenure [84]. Over the
past couple of decades, in response to increased pressure
on the rangelands, communities in this region have been
establishing new organizations (conservancies) designed to
manage their land in a more sustainable manner [85]. The
aim of the governance institutions of these new conservancies
is to improve the collective-choice arrangements by making
them more inclusive and improve the representation of
women and young men. We are working with the commu-
nities and associated organizations to understand how
cooperation is achieved in these communities, how effective
the new institutional rules are at achieving collective action,
and what social and environmental factors affect the success
of conservancies. One prediction, which is related to the ideas
about the coevolution and spread of institutions discussed
above, is that new institutions may be more likely to be
adopted and work effectively when they more closely
match existing social norms and institutions. Understanding
such processes may help in efforts to more efficiently
spread effective approaches to natural resource management
by suggesting ways they can better fit with social and ecologi-
cal contexts. Increasing our understanding of how and why
institutions evolve is therefore not only of theoretical interest
but has important implications for a range of applied
issues too.
Data accessibility. NetLogo and R code relating to simulation model are
available from the University of Exeter RepositoryOpen Research
Exeter http://hdl.handle.net/10871/125446. The modified Indo-
European Language tree discussed in §2b is included in the electronic
supplementary material. Other data are described in the electronic
supplementary material and are freely available from existing sources
referenced therein.
Authorscontributions. T.E.C. collated the data and conducted the statisti-
cal analyses. T.E.C. and M.C. developed the simulation model, M.C.
wrote the version in NetLogo, T.E.C. wrote the version in R. T.E.C.
drafted the manuscript and all authors helped in developing the con-
cepts, writing the paper and revising it critically for important
intellectual content.
Competing interests. We declare we have no competing interests.
Funding. T.E.C., M.C., C.P. and L.W. are supported by funding from
the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Unions
Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (project title:
The Cultural Evolution & Ecology of Institutions, Grant Agreement
716212). T.E.C., E.O., T.N. and L.W. are supported by an Arts and
Humanities Research Council GCRF grant (project title: A cultural
landscape approach to improve governance of pastoral food systems
in East Africa and Beyond, ref.: AH/T004282/1). A.F. was supported
by an ESRC South West Doctoral Training Partnership Studentship
and supervised by T.E.C. (project title: The cultural evolution of
economic development).
Acknowledgements. We thank Sergey Gavrilets and Eric Alden Smith for
comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.
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Leadership can be effective in promoting cooperation within a group, but as the saying goes “heavy is the head that wears the crown”. A lot of debate still surrounds exactly what motivates individuals to expend the effort necessary to lead their groupmates. Evolutionary game theoretic models represent individual’s thought processes by strategy update protocols. The most common of these are random mutation, individual learning, selective imitation, and myopic optimization. Recently we introduced a new strategy update protocol - foresight - which takes into account future payoffs, and how groupmates respond to one’s own strategies. Here we apply our approach to a new 2 × 2 game, where one player, a leader, ensures via inspection and punishment that the other player, a subordinate, produces collective good. We compare the levels of inspection and production predicted by Nash Equilibrium, Quantal Response Equilibrium, level-k cognition, fictitious play, reinforcement learning, selective payoff-biased imitation, and foresight. We show that only foresight and selective imitation are effective at promoting contribution by the subordinate and inspection and punishment by the leader. The role of selective imitation in cultural and social evolution is well appreciated. In line with our prior findings, foresight is a viable alternative route to cooperation.
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Cultural group selection and human cooperation: a conceptual and empirical review - Volume 2 - Daniel Smith
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Human behavior and collective actions are strongly affected by social institutions. A question of great theoretical and practical importance is how successful social institutions get established and spread across groups and societies. Here, using institutionalized punishment in small-scale societies as an example, we contrast two prominent mechanisms - selective imitation and self-interested design - with respect to their ability to converge to cooperative social institutions. While selective imitation has received a great deal of attention in studies of social and cultural evolution, the theoretical toolbox for studying self-interested design is limited. Recently Perry, Shrestha, Vose, and Gavrilets (2018) expanded this toolbox by introducing a novel approach, which they called foresight, generalizing standard myopic best response for the case of individuals with a bounded ability to anticipate actions of their group-mates and care about future payoffs. Here we apply this approach to two general types of collective action – “us vs. nature” and “us vs. them” games. We consider groups composed by a number of regular members producing collective good and a leader monitoring and punishing free-riders. Our results show that foresight increases leaders' willingness to punish free-riders. This, in turn, leads to increased production and the emergence of an effective institution for collective action. We also observed that largely similar outcomes can be achieved by selective imitation, as argued earlier. Selective imitation by leaders (i.e. cultural group selection) outperforms self-interested design if leaders strongly discount the future. Foresight and selective imitation can interact synergistically leading to a faster convergence to an equilibrium. Our approach is applicable to many other types of social institutions and collective action.
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A manifest trend is that larger and more productive human groups shift from distributed to centralized decision-making. Voluntary theories propose that human groups shift to hierarchy to limit scalar stress, i.e. the increase in cost of organization as a group grows. Yet, this hypothesis lacks a mechanistic model to investigate the organizational advantage of hierarchy and its role on its evolution. To fill this gap, we describe social organization by the distribution of individuals’ capacity to influence others. We then integrate this formalization into models of social dynamics and evolutionary dynamics. First, our results demonstrate that hierarchy strongly reduces scalar stress, and that this benefit can emerge solely because leaders and followers differ in their capacity to influence others. Second, the model demonstrates that this benefit can be sufficient to drive the evolution of leader and follower behaviours and ultimately, the transition from small egalitarian to large hierarchical groups.
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The northern California town of Mendocino, which was the shooting background for the film “East of Eden” starring James Dean, retains some of the air of its late nineteenth century role as a harbor to ship out lumber cut from the mountainsides. Ex-hippies-turned-farmers and artists live in the surrounding area. In the latter half of the 1990s, we rented a house facing the Pacific Ocean from an artist every summer. My wife and daughters went back and forth to Stanford for their activities, but I burrowed myself there for the summer with our dog Robin, brought back with us from Japan, and focused on writing my survey on comparative institutional analysis: Toward a Comparative Institutional Analysis (MIT Press, 2001). Mornings and evenings I took Robin for a walk on the cape where there was a greater than 180 ° view. In the morning, the horizon was veiled in fog, while in the evening the ocean was tinted red by the setting sun. It was the perfect place for rethinking problems and reorganizing chapters. Robin was a small mixed breed with some Shikoku-ken, but she was stubborn and at times got into fights with a large Coast Guard officer’s watch dog. My family enjoyed meals made from the organic produce we bought at the farmers’ market (so many varieties of tomatoes); we also went to the harbor to buy albacore tuna and fresh sea urchin still in its thorny shell.
Preprint
A huge number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain the substantial diversity in economic development. There is growing appreciation that cultural evolutionary processes may have played an important role in this emergence of this diversity. Historical factors such as the length of time societies have had experience with centralized political governance, or how long they have employed agricultural subsistence strategies have been presented as explanatory factors that have contributed to present-day economic performance. However, it is not clear whether duration of agriculture and ancestral statehood have exerted a direct effect on modern productivity, or whether they influence economies indirectly by shaping the evolution of norms or formal institutions. Here we use structural equation modelling and a global nation-level dataset to test between hypotheses involving a range of direct and indirect pathways. We show that the historical timing of agriculture predicts the timing of the emergence of statehood, which in turn affects economic development indirectly through its effect on institutions. Ecological factors appear to affect economic performance indirectly through their historical effects on the development of agriculture and by shaping patterns of European colonization. These results support the idea that cultural evolutionary processes have been important in creating effective institutions that enable large-scale cooperation and economic growth in present-day societies.