state to another and that within each state, the behavior of the system is relatively predictable. The trick is to predict the state shifts. He argues that this can be accomplished by matching the span of control of management and monitoring institutions to the scope of the system. If the complex whole is composed of less complex parts, then the behavior of the system might be understood by developing institutions focused on the understandable parts rather than the impenetrable totality. As Wilson notes, we can’t know in advance that any particular institutional arrangement will work. Indeed, presuming we know what will work is part of the hubris that led to the tragedy of the commons in marine fisheries. But he offers some design hypotheses that should prove useful in guiding both institutions and researchers.
McCay (Chapter 11) examines why commons institutions might emerge in some circumstances and not in others. She outlines the many conditions that must be in place for an institution to emerge and engage commons users. This provides a rich set of hypotheses for future research. In addition, she notes that in many cases, commons management institutions may emerge for reasons that are quite distinct from any desire to manage the commons in a sustainable way. She offers the provocative idea that groups may learn to manage commons more to minimize conflict than to conserve a resource. In the last half of the chapter, she examines theoretical stances in human ecology. Students of the commons should not take this as an academic exercise. McCay notes that researchers who go to the field with strong preconceptions about what they are studying and what might explain it may miss what is really happening. She acknowledges that theory and problem selection are essential parts of the research enterprise. But epistemological naïveté can lead to research designs that yield far less than could be obtained by deeper theoretical thinking at the outset. Ideas drawn from the economics of flexibility and event ecology provide the base for a more sophisticated approach to conceptualizing research problems around the commons.
Richerson, Boyd, and Paciotti (Chapter 12) draw on recent work in the Darwinian theory of cultural evolution to suggest why human groups may be able to manage commons and what the limits to such efforts may be. The approach they advocate, contra sociobiology, suggests that in organisms with culture, altruism may be quite common. Rather than the tragedy of the commons, we would expect a comedy of the commons in which people cooperate. But concern for the common good may not extend to all others—there is reason to believe that altruism may extend only to individuals perceived as members of the same social group. Culture determines who is “in” and who is “out.” So the problem in designing institutions to manage commons is a problem of creating a shared definition of the “in” group and eliciting solidarity toward it. Like Wilson and McCay, the arguments in this chapter draw on some rather deep currents in contemporary theory. The ideas that emerge are not esoteric but provide guidance for both empirical research and institutional design.