Special issue of Journal of Bioeconomics: In Memorium of Elinor Ostrom

Mark D. White

OstromThe latest issue of Journal of Bioeconomics (16/1, April 2014) is dedicated to the work of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, and features her last paper as the target article, to which a multidisciplinary assortment of scholars respond. The articles and abstracts (when provided) follow.

Elinor Ostrom, "Do institutions for collective action evolve?"

In this paper I will provide an overview of our findings from studying irrigation systems in the field so that readers who are not familiar with our prior research gain at least an initial sense of these findings. I will provide a second short overview —this time of the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework offering a general method for doing institutional analysis. I will then introduce the possibility of looking at the change of rules as an evolutionary process. The method for studying the evolution of rules will be based on the IAD framework and on our long-term study of rules related to irrigation systems. In the conclusion, I return to the question as to why it is important to authorize resource users’ relative autonomy in the development of their own rules and to learn from the resulting institutional diversity.

David Sloan Wilson, "Cultural species and their ecosystems"

The target article was written for a workshop that I organized with Lin Ostrom titled “Rules as Genotypes in Cultural Evolution”. In my commentary, I describe the background for the workshop and target article in addition to commenting on the article itself. A compelling case can be made for functionally organized human groups as like species that adapt to their local environments. A cultural inheritance mechanism is required for this to happen, which functions analogously to genetic inheritance, although the mechanistic details need not be analogous. Indeed, a diversity of cultural inheritance mechanisms are possible that need not be mechanistically analogous to each other. In addition, most modern human populations consist of a diversity of functionally organized groups, or cultural ecosystems. The distinction between “species” and “ecosystem” is important because the concept of an inheritance system applies primarily to the former. Finally, positive cultural evolution in modern large-scale society must be engineered and an explicitly evolutionary perspective will add value to the enterprise.

R. Costanza, "A theory of socio-ecological system change"

Thráinn Eggertsson, "Governing the commons: Future directions for the Ostrom Project"

Now, when longitudinal data are available or soon will be, it is important to carefully consider research strategies for the second phase of the Ostrom Project. I recommend a problem oriented approach aimed at answering questions and solving puzzles that have emerged in the last 25–30 years and a focus on the political dimensions of the commons. Reading Lin’s paper in this issue, I found her proposal valuable but too narrow. I suggest that the longitudinal phase of the Project should deal explicitly with institutions and mechanisms for solving conflicts among local participants over how to divide the costs and benefits of using common resources. I offer, as an illustration, a number of research questions that emphasize institutions in the policy and constitutional spheres rather than in the operational one.

Avner Grief, "Do institutions evolve?"

Chris Hann, "Evolution, institutions, and human well-being: Perspectives from a critical social anthropology"

The work of Elinor Ostrom is important for those who deplore the fact that the rise of ethnographic methods has led mainstream socio-cultural anthropologists to lose interest in evolution. This trend in anthropology is illustrated with reference to research on property, where Ostrom herself made notable contributions. However, it is argued that her mature work on the evolution of rules and her privileging of low-level institutions do not pay sufficient attention to local cultural notions and reflect the bias of a powerful Western ideology.

Siegwart Lindenberg, "Sustainable cooperation needs tinkering with both rules and social motivation"

Claude Ménard, "The diversity of institutional rules as engine of change"

The target paper by Elinor Ostrom in this Special Issue carries a clear message about her research agenda: be attentive to institutional diversity, be aware of the danger of ‘monoculture’ and ‘monocropping’ of rules. Although Ostrom was fully aware of the necessity to focus on relevant and simplified variables in order to build general explanations, she deliberately adopted a bottom-up research strategy that opposes the top-down approach dominating social sciences. Her framework, developed through extensive field studies, shows the central role of “clusters” of rules in defining institutions and understanding how they change. My discussion is organized around this privilege conferred to rules. Section 2 posits her contribution, particularly her IAD model, in relation to New Institutional Economics. Section 3 focuses on what I consider her main contribution: her analysis of rules as the strategic point through which changes happen. Section 4 discusses some methodological issues, and Sect. 5 concludes.

Amy R. Poteete, "How far does evolution take us? Comment on Elinor Ostrom’s: do institutions for collective action evolve?"

Elinor Ostrom’s article in this issue suggests that institutions for collective action evolve, highlights parallels between biological and institutional evolution, and describes an hypothetical example of institutional evolution related to an irrigation system. The article is provocative but not definitive in that it does not demonstrate that evolution is more than a metaphor for institutional change and that institutions actually evolve. This commentary unpacks the concept of evolutionary change and evaluates how well various aspects of institutional change fit within this model of change. The analysis supports Ostrom’s contention that evolution is not just a metaphor for institutional change, but also suggests that not all institutional change can be classified as evolutionary. The commentary highlights the need for further conceptual and theoretical development to delineate various forms and processes of institutional change, distinguish between evolutionary and non-evolutionary change, and draw out the consequences of various forms of change.

Viktor J. Vanberg, "Collective action, institutional design and evolutionary 'blindness'

Not so sweet: Crossing the line from science to opinion in the sugar wars

Mark D. White

In a New York Times op-ed this morning, Daniel E. Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, makes a strong case for our strong attraction to sugar, but a weak case for paternalistic action on the part of the government to limit our consumption of it.

The problem is captured by the question he poses after he lays out the scientific reasoning: "What should we do?" Professor Lieberman somehow makes the leap from "people are eating too much sugar" to "the government should do something to stop this" without appreciating the size of the chasm he's jumping. (Just ask David Hume.) He fails to explain why this is a problem that justifies government intrusion into the choices of individuals--he simply takes it for granted that because we have evolved to crave more sugar than he thinks is optimal, the government is entitled to adjust our sugar consumption to bring it in line with what he thinks is optimal.

This is yet another example of the most offensive aspect of paternalism: value substitution. We are lucky to have access to Professor Lieberman's scientific insights regarding why we crave sugar so much. But then he asserts his opinion that we eat too much sugar, based on his opinion regarding our optimal diets (based on our ancestors' nutritional nirvana long before Coca-Cola and Nabisco). This much is fine--everyone is entitled to his (or her) opinion, and he is fortunate that The New York Times gives him a platform to express it. But like all who endorse paternalism based on what they think we can do better, Professor Lieberman crosses a line when he shifts from expressing his opinion regarding our behavior to endorsing government action to adjust our behavior based on that opinion.

But isn't it commonsense that we should eat less sugar (and salt, and trans fats) and more healthy foods? Of course. But is that all our only concern? Is it our only interest? Should it be? Not only does value substitution mispresent our true interests, but it only greatly oversimplifies them. I know I shouldn't eat too much sugar. But I also think a sugary treat or drink is a fine complement to a meal, or the cornerstone of a celebration, or a nice way to acknowledge a job well. People's interests are complex, and while they do include health, they also include a myriad of other things, things that are ignored when a scientific expert or government regulator proclaims, "Too much! Too much!"

After making a reasonable case for limiting unhealthy foods in schools--a proposal I have very little problem with--Professor Lieberman proclaims that "adults need help too." This is the paternalistic mindset in a nutshell: you need help because we know better than you how you should run your life. Again, he makes a tremendous leap, from "you are being tempted by cheap sugar from the food industry" to "you need the government to step in and counter this influence." First, there is no way to know how much sugar consumption is due to "irresistible temptation" and how much is due to open-eyed choice. Paternalistic regulation--whether in the form of prohibition, taxes, or nudges--is a blunt tool that misses the nuances of human decision-making.

Second, this treats people as slaves to their passions--there's Hume again--which must be manipulated by the state to counter manipulation by industry. Professor Lieberman devotes just two sentences to spreading information, but decides that it hasn't done enough--"enough," of course, based on his opinion regarding what should have happened. But here's another possibility: people know how bad sugar is from them, and armed with that information plus all of their multifaceted interests, they nonetheless choose to eat more sugar than Professor Lieberman would like them to.

Professor Lieberman concludes with this: "We have evolved to need coercion." I hope he's not making that claim on the basis on his scientific expertise, because science cannot tell us what we need. Science can help explain why we do what we do--as Professor Lieberman well details in the early part of his article--but it has nothing to contribute to what we need. Such a proclamation requires knowledge of our goals, interests, or "purpose"--the last one a teleological notion which scientists normally disavow--and none of which science or government knows better than people themselves.

Virtue ethics, evolutionary psychology, and human nature

Mark D. White

The latest Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement (70, 2012) examines a number of issues concerning human nature. From the editors' introduction:

The study of human nature has always been of central importance to philosophy. ... Questions such as ‘what is human nature?’, ‘is there such a thing as an exclusively human nature?’, ‘through what methods might we best discover more about our nature?’, and ‘to what extent are our actions and beliefs constrained by it?’ are of central importance not only to philosophy and science, but also to our general understanding of ourselves as people who belong to the human species.

The essays collected in this volume collectively address key issues and taboos surrounding the theme of human nature by bringing together philosophers working in a multitude of areas including the philosophy of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, the philosophy of biology, psychoanalysis, ethics and moral psychology, developmental psychology, the philosophy of mind and action, the philosophy of psychology, the philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy.

The  papers all looks fantastic, but because of my interests in both virtue ethics and evolutionary psychology (or biology), I found Rosalind Hursthouse's contribution, "Human Nature and Aristotelian Virtue Ethics," most intriguing:

Given that it relies on claims about human nature, has Aristotelian virtue ethics (henceforth AVE) been undermined by evolutionary biology? There are at least four objections which are offered in support of the claim that this is so, and I argue that they all fail. The first two (Part 1) maintain that contemporary AVE relies on a concept of human nature which evolutionary biology has undercut and I show this is not so. In Part 2, I try to make it clear that Foot's Aristotelian ethical naturalism, often construed as purporting to provide virtue ethics with a foundation, is not foundationalist and is not attempting to derive ethics from biology. In Part 3, I consider the other two objections. These do not make a misguided assumption about Aristotelian ethical naturalism's foundational aspirations, nor question AVE's use of the concept of human nature, but maintain that some of AVE's empirical assumptions about human nature may well be false, given the facts of our evolution. With respect to these, I argue that, as attempts to undermine AVE specifically, they fail, though they raise significant challenges to our ethical thought quite generally.

I may suck, but not as much as you

Mark D. White

Please excuse the flippant title, and get ready for a bit of a rant. (Listen--it's almost Friday, and it's been a rough couple of weeks.)

I'll start with a old joke: Two campers are in the woods when they spot a bear heading toward them. One camper starts running while the other bends down to carefully tie his shoes. The first camper yells back to his friend, "do you really think that will help you outrun the bear?" The second camper yells back, "I don't need to outrun the bear--I just need to outrun you."

I was reminded of that joke when reading a Real Time Economics blog post at The Wall Street Journal's site a couple weeks ago about a recent study on "last-place aversion." In the paper (available here), the authors report on experiments in which the participants were found more likely to take gambles that might boost their social ranking (rather than certain payoffs of equivalent expected value), and to forego costless action to help those worse off than themselves, the lower in the ranking they were to begin with. The authors use these results to support individuals' aversion to being at the bottom of the social ranking, preferring to have at least one person or group to look down upon.

I don't doubt the findings or the interpretation, but they sadden me. In fact, the entire concept of relative preferences and well-being disturbs me and always has. The idea that many (perhaps most) people base their feelings of satisfaction and happiness on what the folks next door have rather than on their own needs and desires--assuming they even have their own needs and desires--is ironically and tragically counterproductive in the aggregate. (On this I agree with Robert Frank, though not on his policy recommendations based on it.)

Maybe this unconscious desire to one-up our peers has an evolutionary basis--it would certainly seem to inspire a striving for material (and thereby reproductive) success--but it also seems to vary widely on cultural grounds (being much more pronounced in the U.S. than in Europe, for instance). (I thank Dr. Maryanne Fisher for her insights on this point.) But just because it's natural doesn't make it good or right--thank you, G.E. Moore--and just as we strive to counter other hardwired inclinations toward prejudice and oppression toward others, I would hope we would reject those which represent an attitude of disrepect toward ourselves.

It strikes me as horribly inauthentic to subsume your own standards of well-being, happiness, and satisfaction for other people's, especially if it leads to a counterproductive "race to the top" in which no one's intrinsic preferences are satisfied. I said as much here about two years ago (focusing on status goods like Starbucks coffee, which I now drink regularly, thanks to the same Dr. Fisher), so I won't rehash those arguments. Nonetheless... argh.

Don't get me wrong, researchers in psychology and economics do us a great service in highlighting these unconscious dispositions. But where are the voices crying out to restrain them, to orient our decision-making more towards activities that will satisfy our desires rather than simply make us feel good compared to our neighbors? Dr. Frank decries what Thorstein Veblen termed conspicuous consumption, certainly, but he focuses policy changes such as steeply progressive tax rates to "solve" the problem. This is to treat the symptoms rather than the disease (as behavioral economists are wont to do). Once we recognize our flaws we don't have to take them as given--but we have to make the effort.

And we shouldn't want for the people next door to do it first.

Morals without God

Jonathan B. Wight

Frans de Waal, in “Morals without God,” argues against the view of some people of the cloth that without God there would be no morality.  Rather, morality arose for evolutionary purposes and is thus more ingrained in the human psyche than cultural and religious conceptions of right and wrong.  The evidence for this is in fellow primates.  De Waal states:

I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary….DeWaal

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others….  A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick.

While God isn’t needed for morality, according to de Waal, religions serve important purposes in society that should not be dismissed.  Hence, de Waal is sympathetic to religions and their morals, which provide a framework for social advances over the centuries: Monkeys

And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch….

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality….It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion.

Hence, this leads to the conclusion:

[W]hat would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

De Waal thus provides a defense of religion as a foundation for justice, which it certainly is.  But there are other defenses that rely on the pleasure created by religious practice itself—as in mysticism.  That is a topic for another day.



Nature or Nurture?

Jonathan  B. Wight

My previous post on bin Laden highlighted Jonathan Haidt’s argument that contradictory human instincts (for self, for others, against others) can help explain the outpouring of sentiment at the death of bin Laden. 

Jason Antrosio of Hartwick College disagrees:  “Haidt's commentary is a diversion from the real issues and real reasons for the celebrations” about Osama bin Laden’s death. 

Antrosio points us to a fuller account of his critique at his Living Anthropologically blog. 

In this post, Antrosio argues that the study of natural instinct is something anthropologists have to fight against:  “What is disturbing is all the people who call themselves social scientists trotting out to claim such celebrations express ‘natural urges,’ whether as bedrock human instincts or as shaped by human evolution.” 

Antrosio says that anthropology needs to “deny any instincts exist outside the current of history.” 

This is an intriguing but difficult claim—particularly as advances in human brain imaging, experimental economics, and other techniques bring out a more nuanced understanding of human behavior across cultural boundaries. 

One can commiserate with anthropologists who are feeling the sting of budget cuts and the intrusion of other disciplines into their domain.  Yet that doesn't let them off the hook.  By failing to engage with new science, will anthropologists be left behind over the next few decades?

Below, the first two points (I hope) celebrate Antrosio’s key point:  that human behavior is greatly shaped by human institutions, including culture. 

1. Institutions

 Since Douglass North won the Nobel Prize in 1993 there is scarcely any economist who is unaware of the importance of human constructs: 

Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction.... [they] create order and reduce uncertainty in exchange (1991, 97).

North, Douglass C. 1991. ―Institutions,‖ Journal of Economic Literature 5(1):97-112.

2. Experiences

Human experiences -- rather than innate biological differences – are the distinguishing factor determining many outcomes and behaviors, at least according to Adam Smith, who notes:

The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education…. (Wealth of Nations, 1776, Chapter I.ii).

Hence, the world of an isolated tribesmen studied by anthropologists is different from the world of London, but the differences observed are largely due to experiences and human constructs, not to differences in human nature or capabilities.

3. Instincts

Having thus identified institutions and experiences as key factors shaping human behaviors, is there anything left for instincts?  Antrosio seems to argue no.  In this, is he passing up the opportunity to flesh out the key interactions between human instincts and institutions?

Paul Zak, for example, a neuroeconomist, is doing fascinating work identifying how the experience of market interaction releases the same kind of hormone (oxytocin) as does breast feeding.  In both cases oxytocin serves as a bonding agent to create long run trust needed for group success.

The release of hormones in certain circumstances is an autonomous reaction—not under one’s direct control.  This is not to say that cultural practices cannot create circumstances that reliably trigger certain instinctual responses.  Anthropologists could be uniting with researchers like Zak to ask: what kind of rites or ceremonies reliable produce certain hormonal responses, and what is the origin or evolutionary purpose of these? 

Further, scientists may have identified a "mirror-neuron" system in the brain that instinctively (again that dreaded word!) allows humans to imagine experiencing what others feel--which is a strong endorsement of Adam Smith's theory of moral sentiments. 

There can be deep criticism of the experimental methods used--which in psychology and economics often relies on 20-year old college students in Western countries--making inter-cultural (or inter-generational) comparisons suspect.  Much work will have to be redone to overcome these biases. 

But understanding the interplay between nature and nurture seems exactly the direction that social scientists should go.  Why would anthropologists wish to avoid being part of this exploration? 

(Thanks again to Jason Antrosio for his comment.)

Jonathan Haidt on the Reactions to bin Laden’s Death

Jonathan B. Wight

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at UVA offers insights in today’s New York Times into the celebrations surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Does joyous revelry indicate that vengeance is the motive for these reactions?  Haidt says no:

For the last 50 years, many evolutionary biologists have told us that we are little different from other primates — we’re selfish creatures, able to act altruistically only when it will benefit our kin or our future selves. But in the last few years there’s been a growing recognition that humans, far more than other primates, were shaped by natural selection acting at two different levels simultaneously. There’s the lower level at which individuals compete relentlessly with other individuals within their own groups. This competition rewards selfishness.

But there’s also a higher level at which groups compete with other groups. This competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense.

Early humans found ways to come together as well, but for us unity is a fragile and temporary state.

What Haidt doesn’t say is how Adam Smith’s theory of unsocial behavior (hatred, resentment) leads to human institutions of justice.  In that context, the bringing to account a mass attacker of civilians provokes feelings not so much of unity as of satisfied revenge.  Still, Haidt’s point is a good one—that a complex psychology of feelings and instincts is at times contradictory—and a better account and predictor of human behavior needs to be nuanced. 

Why did we evolve to reason? (in Behavioral and Brain Sciences) [UPDATED]

Mark D. White

The new issue of Behavioral and Brian Sciences (34/2, 2011) focuses on the nature of the evolutionary advantages of reasoning; the target article, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, is titled "Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory":

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

As usual, many short comments follow, in what seems like a fascinating discussion.

UPDATE: I discuss the paper in a little depth at this post at Psychology Today.