The Adaptive Evolution of the Co-operative Principles
28 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2019 Last revised: 7 Mar 2019
Date Written: February 27, 2019
The ‘co-operative principles’ are a set of operating and aspirational guidelines for co-operative businesses that originated in England in the 1840s and are used worldwide today. We evaluate the proposition that the co-operative principles constitute institutional adaptations by helping co-operative businesses survive and spread. The principles might contribute to group success, be adaptively neutral, or they might spread fad-like between co-operatives even hampering cooperative survival. We use two empirical rubrics to identify signatures of adaptive evolution in the co-operative principles in their 170-year historical record. Historical analysis provides compelling evidence of the variation, transmission and selection of the co-operative principles through time. We document that the principles arose and have been modified via intentional innovation, that they facilitate cooperation among the members of a co-operative, and that they have spread due to the beneficial effects on the co-operatives which adopt them. Historical evidence further reveals a clear pattern of descent with modification, and adaptive radiation into worker co-operatives. We conclude that these principles likely constituted institutional adaptations in 1840s England and 1950s Spain. Despite their near ubiquity, it is more difficult to assess the adaptive value of the principles today.
Keywords: co-operatives, co-operative principles, cooperation, cultural evolution, group cultural adaptation
JEL Classification: N01, N20, P51, J5, Q13
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation