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The naturalness of (many) social institutions: evolved cognition as their foundation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 June 2011

PASCAL BOYER*
Affiliation:
Department of Psychology, Campus Box 1125, Washington University, 1 Brookings Drive, St Louis, MO 63130, USA
MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN
Affiliation:
Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

Abstract:

Most standard social science accounts only offer limited explanations of institutional design, i.e. why institutions have common features observed in many different human groups. Here we suggest that these features are best explained as the outcome of evolved human cognition, in such domains as mating, moral judgment and social exchange. As empirical illustrations, we show how this evolved psychology makes marriage systems, legal norms and commons management systems intuitively obvious and compelling, thereby ensuring their occurrence and cultural stability. We extend this to propose under what conditions institutions can become ‘natural’, compelling and legitimate, and outline probable paths for institutional change given human cognitive dispositions. Explaining institutions in terms of these exogenous factors also suggests that a general theory of institutions as such is neither necessary nor in fact possible. What are required are domain-specific accounts of institutional design in different domains of evolved cognition.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The JOIE Foundation 2011

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