Institutions are the second level of a group selection evolutionary system

In group selection theories of evolution, two-level hierarchies generate Slack - concept for the lower level to achieve better equilibria via competition between the higher levels. The classic example is the organism-cell dual level hierarchy, which enables cells to achieve their long run goal of replicating better than if the best strategy was to become cancerous and grow at the expense of all of the other cells. The second layer of the hierarchy enables entities to escape Thomas Hobbes.

From alexanderStudiesSlack2020 : Group selection works when the group itself has a shared genetic code (or other analogous ruleset) that can evolve.

Institutions are this analogous ruleset for groups of individuals. In Yuval Levin on A Time to Build - Econtalk, Yuval Levin literally makes that claim without the evolutionary framing: Institutions shape how individuals interact. Put differently, institutions set the rules for the game. People and organizations are all playing some game that has different ways of gaining status and power.

Framed as the second level of a group selection we could also expect institutions themselves to compete and evolve. What are they competing over? In other words, what determines their fitness? Institutions compete over who can achieve their missions the best - Institutions have implicit, explicit, and perceived missions. In an ideal world, news organizations would compete to be the best societal sense-making organization, universities would compete to be the best educational-research organizations, etc. These are all Level I institutions. Remember, There are two levels of institution. Perhaps we could think of the fitness function itself as Level II institutions - “The Press,” “Academia,” “Business,” “Government” etc. Seen through that lens, there’s actually another two-layer group selection process between Level I and Level II institutions, where the Level II institutions are the rules of the game that Level I institutions play.

Going even one step farther - is there yet another layer of the hierarchy? Could we think of ‘culture’ or ‘society’ as rules for how different Level II institutions interact? Here’s where the analogy breaks down because culture doesn’t just act on Level II institutions, but on Level I institutions and individuals as well - revealing that it’s actually a complex system that is not a modularized hierarchy.

In the same way that cells that have become cancerous stop following the rules of the higher hierarchical level for their own benefit, Most institutions have become cancerous. This note is important because it implies that the suggestion ‘abandon institutions and empower the individual’ is not a viable solution.

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