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The cultural evolution and ecology of institutions: An integrated evolutionary approach to the interrelated rules that regulate human social organization and cooperation

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - EVORULES (The cultural evolution and ecology of institutions: An integrated evolutionary approach to the interrelated rules that regulate human social organization and cooperation)

Reporting period: 2022-03-01 to 2023-08-31

What is the problem/issue being addressed?
Humans live in groups of huge numbers of genetically unrelated individuals due to culturally-inherited social rules (“institutions”) that structure groups and provide solutions to coordination and collective action problems. Existing approaches to understanding cooperation coming from evolutionary biology have not appreciated the importance of institutions, while studies in the social sciences have not always appreciated the evolutionary processes involved in understanding the variation we see in institutions in the world today. This project aims to synthesize these different approaches in order to answer many fundamental questions about the evolution of institutions. In this project we addressed such topics as: how have complex institutions that enable the control and coordination of large numbers of people evolved over the last 10,000 years of human history, what historical, geographical, ecological processes have shaped the evolution of inclusive institutions and productive economies, and what social and ecological processes enable the emergence and spread of large-scale, complex societies.

Why is it important for society?
All human societies are structured by institutions, and they govern the way in which people are able to come together to cooperate to solve collective action problems. Therefore, understanding how effective institutions emerge, how they are shaped, and how they are spread underpins many of the most important challenges we face in the world today. In this project, we examined why some societies have developed more “inclusive” institutions (e.g. democratic governance, the rule of law) that enable the majority of the population (not just elites) to participate in economic and political activities, which creates more productive economies. We have also examined data from community-based natural resource management projects in Kenya in order to understand how governance institutions are evolving and how these institutions are enabling people to use their natural resources in a sustainable manner.

What are the overall objectives?
In this project employed an overarching cultural evolutionary framework to address a number of important issues relating to the evolution of institutions. We developed a modelling framework and used computer simulations that examined how institutions solve cooperation problems in comparison to non-institutional processes, and investigated the social and ecological processes involved in the evolution of complex, hierarchical institutions. The project assessed how important different theories are in explaining real-world systems by applying innovative statistical techniques to analyse cross-cultural, cross-national, and historical data on institutions and other relevant variables. This integrated approach taken in this project used evolutionary theory as an organizing framework to bring together different hypotheses, disciplinary perspectives, datasets, and analytical approaches to develop to a more complete approach to investigating institutional change. In doing so we aimed to enhance our understanding of the evolutionary and ecological processes that have shaped the kinds of societies we live in today, and to explore how we might use this knowledge to address some of the most important sustainability challenges we now face.
Using a global and long-term dataset of coded information from historical societies we published a paper in PNAS examining how institutions that enable the control and coordination of large numbers of people have changed over the last 10,000 years of human history. We also used a novel analysis framework to examine the historical and geographical/ecological processes that have shaped institutions and economies over time using cross-national data, which was published in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior. We have also published analyses of comparative data from community conservancies in Kenya to show how governance institutions cause people to cooperate and create successful outcomes for these projects.

We have also developed and tested different hypotheses concerning the emergence and spread of large-scale, complex societies in human history. We published a paper that showed that agriculture and distance from the Eurasian steppe (a driving force of competition between societies) explained the distribution largest states and empires during the period 1500BCE - 1500CE. We have been examining these processes in more detail by analysing a new dataset on the emergence and spread of complex, hierarchical societies in Japan. We have published a paper that used novel statistical techniques imported from evolutionary biology to show how cultural similarity between countries can affect the spread of institutions between countries.

We have developed other mathematical and simulation models of institutional evolution to provide a more mechanistic understanding of the kinds of patterns and processes described above. In one published model we showed how individuals can develop punishment institutions to overcome collective action problems if they have the foresight to establish rules that are costly but which will ultimately reduce free-riding. We have also published a model that examines how ecology and geography accelerate the evolution and spread of hierarchical institutions through constraining the movement of subordinates. In another published model we showed how hierarchical institutions can evolve to reduce the costs involved in decision-making as groups increase in scale. We have also developed a general modelling framework that we are using to examine the changing nature of inequality throughout human evolutionary history (from our primate ancestors to the present day).
Our analyses of the evolution and spread of institutions and complex societies provide a conceptual advancement in showing how general evolutionary processes of institutional change can be tested using comparative data. The project was interdisciplinary at its conception and the work we have done has involved working closely with data and researchers from other disciplines. Working in this way has meant that the work has been well received even though the kind of quantitative and comparative approach we have taken has not traditionally been common in some fields.

Our work on modelling the evolution of hierarchy and institutions represents an important advancement on previous work, and is helping to integrate perspectives from evolutionary theory, economics, political science, anthropology and other related disciplines. Our approach has been to develop a flexible framework so that we can more easily compare different processes and understand how different ideas connect with one another. This approach will help us better understand, theoretically and empirically, which processes have been most important in shaping institutional evolution.

This research project is also providing insights in understanding to real-world sustainability challenges. Our work with natural resource management institutions in Kenya is helping to understand how processes of cultural evolution and institutional change affect success of community-based projects. Our work has also been useful in demonstrating how evolutionary thinking can be applied to research in understanding Social-Ecological Systems and how we can use our planet’s resources in a sustainable manner.