An Evolutionary Theory of Commons Management

Summary of: An Evolutionary Theory of Commons Management

The ability of humans to organize collective action on a scale much larger than would be predicted by theories of egocentric rationality can be perhaps best explained in an evolutionary context by the slow and uncertain process (not necessarily leading to a desired end) of group selection on cultural variation (distinct from group selection based only on genetic kinship), facilitated by humans' special skills at imitation and teaching.

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National Academy Press


  • Modern institutions often replicate the social structures of our hunting and gathering ancestors. Action is coordinated through nested hierarchies that resemble small leader-controlled hunting tribes. "The most important feature of small-scale institutions is that they can tap most directly, free of problematic work-arounds, the tribal social instincts."
  • Finding ways to accelerate institutional evolution will give us a chance at dealing with the increasingly rapid changes in technology and economy of the modern era. Some way to accomplish this can be seen in the emergence of symbolic systems, large architecture for mass ritual performances, and a worldwide distribution of print media and now electronic media, which all serve to coordinate large-scale understanding, confidence and action.
  • Coercive dominance is not a sustainable way to buttress a large-scale cooperative venture. Although police (and bureaucracy to police the police) are necessary to protect the public interest, all long-term attempts to dominate a people and control the commons must somehow be embedded in a prosocial institution in order to gain legitimacy. This finding runs parallel to Ostrom's argument that norms which are seen as legitimate by locals and which diffuse the job of guarding the commons often work better than externally imposed and enforced laws.

A good evolutionary theory of cooperation would account for important role of institutions and the large variation in institutions in different countries. Evolutionary theories address the origin of preferences issue that is missing from rational action explanations. Explanations that include influence of cultural evolution on decisions regarding cooperation have multiple payoffs. These models can begin to answer questions about the long time-scale process of human cooperation (the rise of capitalist economies of the past 500 years, the rise of complex societies and agriculture of the past 10 millennia). Culture and institutions are a form of inheritance, subject to a process of selection influenced by and simultaneously influencing gene selection, and in both processes the time to reach any equilibria runs into the scale of millennia. Evolutionary theories are always systemic, integrating all changes happens from the scope of the biological to the ecological and social. Rapid cultural change and large variation among groups occur "whenever multiple stable social equilibria exist, due to conformist social learning, symbolically marked boundaries, or moralistic enforcement of norms."