Yasha Hartberg: Commentary on Elinor Ostrom

By Peter Turchin April 5, 2012 No Comments

I find myself once again grateful for Ostrom’s foundational work.  The systematic study of institutional change is a daunting subject with potentially countless variables, yet Ostrom and her colleagues at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis have managed to propose a framework which deftly gives this bewildering complexity empirical traction.  As Ian Lustick has already pointed out, this has been accomplished in a way that makes it possible to bring sophisticated mathematical rigor to the problem.  I would like to add that it has also been done in a way that lends itself to further refinement.  Within the current framework as I understand it only certain kinds of change are documented.  For instance, changes from default states to norms or formal rules are recorded, as are switches between common kinds of rules.  However, evolution of particular rules is seemingly not being captured.  For example, if a user group changes existing penalties from, say, contributing labor to paying fines, this presumably would not be recorded within the current table of rule configurations since both represent different varieties of the same payoff rule (Y1 in table 4).   Importantly, however, it is easy to imagine how the rule inventory could readily be expanded for more refined analysis.

While further refinement is likely not necessary or even desirable at this stage, I believe it will become important for studying cultural robustness and evolvability.  As discussed at length by Andreas Wagner in Robustness and Evolvability in Living Systems, two questions must be addressed when studying robustness.  While he was writing about biological systems, there is good reason to believe these questions apply equally to cultural robustness.  First, what is the trait that is robust?  Second, what is the trait robust to?  A set of institutional rules for an irrigation system, as Ostrom points out, may be extremely robust to variations in annual rainfall yet may crumble in the face of demographic shifts.  This has important implications for how we think about institutional change and how best to develop new policy.  Crafting robust institutional rules requires, among other things, consideration of social, environmental and technological dimensions.

At the same time, robustness is intimately related to evolvability, the capacity of a system to respond to natural selection.  This may seem counterintuitive.  Robustness, after all, is characterized by a lack of change in the face of perturbations so it is not obvious how it could actually be activated in order to make systems better able to respond to natural selection.  The key to understanding this paradox is to consider effecting change in the absence of robustness.  If a system is too fragile, then even minor changes are likely to cause that system to stop functioning in any capacity.  Fragile systems are often stuck on peaks in the adaptive landscape such that any change leads to decreased fitness even if that change would move the system as a whole in the direction of higher adaptive peaks.  Robust systems, by contrast, are able to accumulate stores of variation by virtue of their capacity to continue to function normally in the face of change.  Although certainly not without precedent, it is rare that a single, small change to a highly complex system will be of significant adaptive value.  However, combinations of changes can be quite adaptive, either by making the system better suited to its current conditions or by being favorable to new conditions.  The scalability of the rules inventory to accommodate more refined distinctions, then, is particularly important for capturing the variation across time and space that may currently be hidden beneath the simplifying elegance of its current incarnation, variation that has important implications for robustness and evolvability.

Published On: April 5, 2012

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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