The Cultural Evolution of Political Institutions


Wednesday, April 13, 2022, 2:30pm to 3:30pm


Zoom - RSVP to for the link

The Cultural Evolution of Political Institutions

A doctoral dissertation defense by Graham Noblit, PhD Candidate in HEB


Humans, uniquely among organisms, rely on norms, or socially learned rules of behavior enforced by a community. Norms, and institutions, or packages of norms, are a major determinant of human ecological success. My dissertation studies norms and institutions using three approaches. First, I ask how norms requiring costly behaviors can be stabilized. Previous work emphasizes the role of punishment in stabilizing norms, however ethnographic work frequently describes occasions where directed punishment is absent and norm violators are instead ostracized. I study ostracism using an evolutionary game-theoretic model and find that unlike has been suggested, ostracism is not an alternative to punishment. Instead, ostracism is best understood as a form of punishment. Additionally, I show that strategies that punish defectors and then ostracize repeat defectors are far more efficient than simple sanctioning strategies. Second, kinship institutions are an omnipresent feature of human societies and, as empirical work indicates, a major determinant of human behavior and psychology. Explaining the distribution of institutions then helps us to understand human psychological and behavioral variation. I study the spatial distribution of a historically relevant kinship institution, the Chinese lineage. I hypothesize that Chinese lineages were risk-ameliorating institutions and that they grew in regions that experienced a high risk of shocks to agricultural production. I test this hypothesis using an econometric approach and find support for it. Finally, Chinese lineages were not only social institutions but political institutions; lineages often adopted state roles when they grew powerful. I argue that lineages actively competed with the Chinese state over control of lineage members' behaviors and that powerful lineage managers may have generated an anti-state culture. I test this hypothesis using a national Chinese survey and find that respondents from regions where lineages were historically prominent are less trusting of state officials, more critical of the state, and more likely to say that the state is too strong.