Monday, February 27, 2012

Institutions Similar Because Brains Similar?

The naturalness of (many) social institutions: Evolved cognition as their foundation

Pascal Boyer & Michael Bang Petersen
Journal of Institutional Economics, March 2012, Pages 1-25

Abstract: Most standard social science accounts only offer limited explanations of institutional design, i.e. why institutions have common features observed in many different human groups. Here we suggest that these features are best explained as the outcome of evolved human cognition, in such domains as mating, moral judgment and social exchange. As empirical illustrations, we show how this evolved psychology makes marriage systems, legal norms and commons management systems intuitively obvious and compelling, thereby ensuring their occurrence and cultural stability. We extend this to propose under what conditions institutions can become ‘natural’, compelling and legitimate, and outline probable paths for institutional change given human cognitive dispositions. Explaining institutions in terms of these exogenous factors also suggests that a general theory of institutions as such is neither necessary nor in fact possible. What are required are domain-specific accounts of institutional design in different domains of evolved cognition.

Hmmm. That's not my first, or second, intuition. Why do steam engines all look the same? Because form follows function, and the rules of physics are universal, at least in the domain where steam engines are possible and useful. That's a kind of determinism, but it is an optimized determinism: the best form for a steam engine doesn't depend on who is designing it.

The thesis in this paper is that limits on human cognition shape institutions. No reason to expect ANY institutions, anywhere, to be optimal. No optimality in common law, no evolutionary process toward efficiency. Because our brains all have the same limits, and we all come up with the same screwed up institutions. In linear programming terms, the binding constraint is not functionality, but cognition. Hmmm....

Nod to Kevin Lewis


nweller said...

Hmm, I read their article as making a similar point. Human cognition evolved to solve certain problems -- its form followed its function. And the brain/cognition may not be good at solving problems that differ from its original purpose.

No idea if they are correct, but there's some symmetry in their argument and your response, I think.


Road to Surf Bum said...

I've liked Boyer's previous work on religion. He's a sharp E.P. thinker. Will read this with interest.

Anonymous said...

Are the implications of this thesis racist, or am I? It would seem to suggest that cultures with really backward, ineffective, poorly-designed institutions are stuck with them because people there were lacking the brainpower to do any better.

That might not be the problem in every case, and of course there are a gazillion complicating factors, but if institutions across cultures share some similar features because of similarities in human cognition, differences in institutions might be caused by differences in cognition, also.

Road to Surf Bum said...

I don't see racism implied. The standard analogy (originating from the leftist tool Richard Lewontin I believe): If two beds of grass have different outcomes it's not necessarily explained by genetic differences, but rather variable expression of uniform biological potential based on local circumstances. Take H. sapiens from Africa and put one group on coast of Mediterranean and one in the Congo and you're going to get different societal outcomes. One may look "primitive" and the other a powerful state empire, but genetic/cognitive distance not required. Guns, Germs, and Steel stuff basically. From there, it gets complicated and richly debated in anthropology and evolutionary psychology (EP).