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Tribal Social Instincts and the Cultural Evolution of Institutions to Solve Collective Action Problems

29 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2009 Last revised: 18 May 2010

Peter Richerson

University of California, Davis

Joe Henrich

University of British Columbia; Harvard University - Department of Human Evolutionary Biology

Date Written: March 26, 2009

Abstract

Human social life is uniquely complex and diverse. Much of that complexity consists of culturally transmitted ideas and skills that underpin the operation of institutions that structure our social life. Considerable theoretical and empirical work has been devoted to the role of cultural evolutionary processes in the evolution of institutions. The most persistent controversy has been over the role of cultural group selection and gene-culture coevolution in early human populations the Pleistocene. We argue that cultural group selection and related cultural evolutionary processes had an important role in shaping the innate components of our social psychology. By the Upper Paleolithic humans seem to have lived in societies structured by institutions, as do modern populations living in simple societies. The most ambitious attempts to test these ideas have been the use of experimental games in field settings to document human similarities and differences on theoretically interesting dimensions. These studies have documented a huge range of behavior cross-culturally, although no societies so far examined follow the expectations of selfish rationality. These data are at least consistent with operation of cultural group selection and gene-culture coevolution operating in the deep tribal past and with the contemporary importance of cultural evolution in the evolution of institutions and institutional diversity.

Suggested Citation

Richerson, Peter and Henrich, Joe, Tribal Social Instincts and the Cultural Evolution of Institutions to Solve Collective Action Problems (March 26, 2009). Context and the Evolution of Mechanisms for Solving Collective Action Problems Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1368756 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1368756

Peter Richerson (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis ( email )

One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616
United States

Joseph Henrich

University of British Columbia ( email )

2053 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2
Canada

Harvard University - Department of Human Evolutionary Biology ( email )

11 Divinity Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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