An evolutionary theory of commons management

Abstract

Our aim in this chapter is to draw lessons from current theory on the evolution of human cooperation for the management of contemporary commons. Evolutionary theorists have long been interested in cooperation but social scientists have documented patterns of cooperation in humans that present unusual problems for conventional evolutionary theory (and for rational choice explanations as well). Humans often cooperate with nonrelatives and are prone to cooperate in one-shot games. Cooperation is quite dependent on social institutions. We believe that this last fact is the critical clue to understanding human cooperation. Models of cultural evolution suggest that group selection is a more potent force on culture than on genes. Evolutionary theory is in essence a theory of preferences in terms of rational actor theory and is thus complementary to the bounded rational choice models that underpin so much theorizing in the social sciences. Thus, the theory suggests a source for prosocial impulses, and leads to predictions about the limits of human altruism and constraints likely to be imposed upon the evolution of social institutions. We also consider the dynamics of genes as they coevolved with increasingly sophisticated cultural institutions over the long course of human evolution in the Pleistocene. We hypothesize that the long exposure of human populations to group selected cultural norms and preferences is likely to have resulted in an innate psychology adapted to living in egalitarian, cooperative societies of a few hundred to a few thousand people. We call this the tribal social instincts hypothesis. The evolution of complex societies in the past few thousand years constitutes a series of natural experiments that test this hypothesis. If it is correct, the institutions of complex societies must somehow take advantage of the prosocial elements of the tribal instincts while finessing the problem that the tribal social instincts are ill adapted to life in large, hierarchical, inegalitarian societies with extensive dominance of subordinates by elites..

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