reforms. One of the main reasons the German General Staff worked so well was that the prestigious and rather scholarly staff officers routinely served in line roles and earned the respect of line officers. In a few disciplines—engineering, economics—the flow of personnel from academic to practical line and staff roles is perhaps routine enough to resemble an informal general staff. In most disciplines academic and practitioner roles are mutually exclusive, practically speaking. The various agricultural extension services and other applied science organizations could be prospected for models. A practical scheme to “grow” innovative commons management institutions is perhaps only an inspirational innovation or two away from practicality. The two senior authors, who have had considerable, interesting, and rewarding experience as staffers in applied science and policy contexts, must admit that they found no way in the end to combine such work with an academic career.


In this chapter, we have tried to tie together the literature on the evolution of cooperation with the literature on commons management institutions. We believe an interesting parallel exists between the sophisticated bounded rationality models necessary to account for the behavior of people toward commons and dual inheritance or gene-culture coevolutionary theory. People behave in experiments and in the field as if they have strong—perhaps innate—dispositions to cooperate, although dispositions vary considerably from person to person, society to society, and time to time. The variation is best explained by the existence of complex cultural traditions of social behavior, the collective results of which we call social institutions. Our ability to organize cooperation on a scale considerably larger than predicted by theory based on unconstrained selfish rationality, or by most evolutionary mechanisms, is one of the most striking features of our species. Another striking feature is our extraordinary facility for imitation and teaching. Our main hypothesis is that the co-occurrence of culture and cooperation in our species is not a coincidence. Group selection on cultural variation provides a plausible mechanism by which large-scale cooperation might arise. Cultural group selection is a slow process, at least in some models we have studied, so supplementary processes are likely to be more important in the shorter run evolution of cooperative institutions.

The cooperative dispositions, cultural or innate, favored originally by cultural group selection or some similar process will inevitably act as biases of cultural innovation and transmission. All else equal, people will tend to favor innovations that seem fair, that are efficient producers of public goods, and that contribute to their ingroup’s position relative to competing outgroups. As team sports show, people play games of cooperation for fun. We can even organize institutions to promote desirable institutional evolution, ranging from research universities and political parties to village assemblies. Of course, people are

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement