Conflict Resolution as Evolution

Posted: 15 May 2010 Last revised: 30 Aug 2010

See all articles by Doug Yarn

Doug Yarn

Georgia State University - College of Law

Date Written: May 15, 2010


Life began only once some three billion years ago as a replicating molecule. There were two basic challenges - repair and adaptation. The strategy of replication successfully addressed both challenges; however, it also created competition. Without some mechanism for cooperation molecules could not successfully replicate over time and would die out.

The emergence of a successful strategic mechanism that managed conflict and competition either produced or allowed an evolutionary transition to a more complex form. Thus, the major evolutionary transitions - from individual genes to gene networks to bacteria-like cells to eukaryotic cells with organelles to multicellular organisms to societies - share three common themes: (1) cooperation among lower-level units making the higher-level unit functional, (2) the management of conflict among lower-level units, and (3) encapsulation that excludes others. So, conflict and the need for conflict resolution mechanisms are present at the beginning of life and explain major transitions in evolution that lead to increasing complexity in nature. In addition, the creation of "boundaries" sets the stage for continued conflict (in-group v. out-group), the resolution of which requires another evolutionary transition.

The CR mechanisms responsible for these transitions are, respectively, the hypercycle, localization of genes, chromosomes, meiosis, uniparental inheritance of cytoplasm, kin selection, reciprocation, and group selection. In this context, the human social behaviors associated with conflict and its resolution, such as those in our “reconciliatory cycle schema,” are essential for the reciprocal mechanism inducing cooperation and altruistic behavior among non-related individuals within the same group. The efficacy of this mechanism, when relying solely on individual behavior, is limited to small groups in a regularly-connected, degree-homogeneous network. Larger groups with differently structured networks become possible through the emergence of culture (replicating ideas or “memes”) and social institutions that extend the functionality of reciprocation, of which legal institutions are a current example and, in our view, are biological phenomena.

This biological perspective provides a different lens through which to analyze human conflict resolution behavior and institutions.

Suggested Citation

Yarn, Douglas Hurt, Conflict Resolution as Evolution (May 15, 2010). Gruter Institute Squaw Valley Conference 2010: Law, Institutions & Human Behavior, Georgia State University College of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2010-13, Available at SSRN:

Douglas Hurt Yarn (Contact Author)

Georgia State University - College of Law ( email )

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