Explaining Universal Social Institutions: A Game-Theoretic Approach

Topoi 35 (1):291-300 (2016)
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Universal social institutions, such as marriage, commons management and property, have emerged independently in radically different cultures. This requires explanation. As Boyer and Petersen point out ‘in a purely localist framework would have to constitute massively improbable coincidences’ . According to Boyer and Petersen, those institutions emerged naturally out of genetically wired behavioural dispositions, such as marriage out of mating strategies and borders out of territorial behaviour. While I agree with Boyer and Petersen that ‘unnatural’ institutions cannot thrive, this one-sided explanation of universal social institutions in terms of genetic human nature is unsatisfactory. Drawing on the literature on multi-level selection and gene-culture coevolution, I argue that universal social institutions are first and foremost the products of cultural selection. They occupy fitness peaks in the landscape of cultural possibilities, much in the same way that biological adaptations occupy fitness peaks in the landscape of biological possibilities. To show this, I use game-theory. By modelling the domains of social interaction in which marriage, commons management, and property emerged as Prisoner’s dilemma situations, it becomes clear how an institutional framework allows the group to move to an interactive equilibrium with a larger payoff. Institutions do so by incentivising all parties to adopt a cooperative strategy. They are culturally selected ways of optimising genetically constrained domains of human social interaction

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Michael Vlerick
Tilburg University

Citations of this work

the cultural evolution of institutional religions.Michael Vlerick - forthcoming - Religion, Brain and Behavior.
The Evolution of Social Contracts.Michael Vlerick - 2019 - Journal of Social Ontology 5 (2):181-203.
Explaining human altruism.Michael Vlerick - 2020 - Synthese 199 (1-2):2395-2413.

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