Evolution for Everyone

Consilience, or the unity of knowledge, is the Nirvana of science, where everything interlocks consistently with everything else. Neoclassical economics is not consilient with other branches of knowledge and the strongest argument on its behalf is that it doesn’t need to be (e.g., Milton Friedman’s classic paper discussed in E&E III). In contrast, when I read Lin Ostrom’s work (see E&E VI-VII), I had a moment of consilient bliss. The ingredients that she identified for successfully managing a commons interlocked with branches of knowledge that seem far removed from economics and public policy. Here are two examples of what I mean.

Early human evolution: In Evolution for Everyone, I recount how human evolution represents a major evolutionary transition, whereby selection within groups is suppressed, causing selection among groups to be the primary evolutionary force. In most other primate species, members of the same group cooperate to a degree but also compete fiercely with each other for resources and social dominance. In our ancestors, a shift in the balance of power enabled would-be subordinates to gang up on would-be dominants, creating a form of guarded egalitarianism. See Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest for a book-length exploration of this thesis.

In essence, the reason that we evolved into such a cooperative species in the first place is thanks to the same ingredients required to manage our commons today. Our ancestors lived in well-identified groups (Ingredient 1). They achieved a proportional equivalence between benefits and costs because shirking and exploitation could be easily punished (Ingredient 2). They insisted on collective choice arrangements (Ingredient 3) for the same reason. Monitoring (Ingredient 4) was easy and graduated sanctions (Ingredient 5) began with gossip and escalated when necessary. Conflict resolution (Ingredient 6) was part of the daily discourse of consensus decision-making. The 7th and 8th ingredients weren’t necessary because society didn’t exist at a larger scale back then. These ingredients were operational for so many generations that we became genetically adapted to them.

The nature of religion: The same ingredients that come easily in small human groups are more difficult to achieve in larger groups. Large cooperative groups are only possible thanks to the cultural evolution of mechanisms that interface with our genetically evolved psychology of guarded egalitarianism. When religions are viewed from this perspective, they can be seen as highly adapted to promote cooperation by providing the ingredients that would otherwise be lacking at a large scale. Belief in an all-seeing moralistic god tends to be restricted to large-scale societies, for example, suggesting that it is functioning as a monitoring device (Ingredient 4). The following passage from a Hutterite document written over 350 years ago is worth quoting in detail to show how explicitly a religion can provide rules for graduated sanctions (Ingredient 5) and conflict resolution (Ingredient 6):

The bond of love is kept pure and intact by the correction of the Holy Spirit. People who are burdened with vices that spread and corrupt can have no part in it. This harmonious fellowship excludes any who are not part of the unanimous spirit…If a man hardens himself in rebellion, the extreme step of separation is unavoidable. Otherwise the whole community would be dragged into his sin and become party to it…The Apostle Paul therefore says, “Drive out the wicked from among you.”

In the case of minor transgressions, this discipline consists of simply brotherly admonition. If anyone has acted wrongly toward another but has not committed a gross sin, a rebuke and warning is enough. But if a brother or a sister obstinately resists brotherly correction and helpful advice, then even these relatively small things have to be brought openly before the Church. If that brother is ready to listen to the Church and allow himself to be set straight, the right way to deal with the situation will be shown. Everything will be cleared up. But if he persists in his stubbornness and refuses to listen to the Church, then there is only one answer in this situation, and that is to cut him off and exclude him. It is better for someone with a heart full of poison to be cut off than for the entire Church to be brought into confusion or blemished.

The whole aim of this order of discipline, however, is not exclusion but a change of heart. It is not applied for a brother’s ruin, even when he has fallen into flagrant sin, into besmirching sins of impurity, which make him deeply guilty before God. For the same of example and warning, the truth must in this case be declared openly and brought to light before the Church. Even then such a brother should hold on to his hope and his faith. He should not go away and leave everything but should accept and bear what is put upon him by the Church. He should earnestly repent, no matter how many tears it may cost him or how much suffering it may involve. At the right time, when he is repentant, those who are united in the Church pray for him, and all of Heaven rejoices with them. After he has shown genuine repentance, he is received back with great joy in a meeting of the whole Church. They unanimously intercede for him that his sins need never be thought of again but are forgiven and removed forever.

Religions are not the only cultural systems that provide the ingredients required to manage a commons, but they often do an admirable job, as we can see in this case. To pick another example, the Catholic principle of Subsidiarity, which states that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority, perfectly embodies the 7th ingredient, as does the principle of federalism in secular governments.

What does it mean for branches of knowledge as different as early human evolution, the nature of religion, and managing a commons in modern life to be explained by a single set of principles? It means that all of them are manifestations of the fundamental problem faced by all social species, whereby group-level adaptations are vulnerable to free-riding and exploitation from within. If that’s not consilience, what would be?


  1. #1 Daryl McCullough
    April 6, 2010

    Very interesting. What worries me is that the kind of social cohesion that is needed to make for successful management of the commons in small groups doesn’t generalize to groups so large that the members don’t know each other.

  2. #2 Troy Camplin
    July 29, 2010

    I would argue that Austrian economics in general, and Hayek’s spontaneous order theory in particular, is consilient. The fact that neoclassical economics is not says a lot about it.