Working paper

Do institutions evolve like material technologies?

Catherine Molho, Jorge Peña, Manvir Singh, and Maxime Derex


Norms and institutions enable large-scale human cooperation by creating shared expectations and changing individuals’ incentives via monitoring or sanctioning. Like material technologies, these social technologies satisfy instrumental ends and solve difficult problems. However, the similarities and differences between the evolution of material technologies and the evolution of social technologies remain unresolved. Here, we review evidence suggesting that, compared to the evolution of material technologies, institutional and normative evolution exhibits constraints in the production of variation and the selection of useful variants. These constraints stem from the frequency-dependent nature of social technologies and limit the pace and scope of normative and institutional evolution. We conclude by reviewing research on the social transmission of institutions and norms and highlighting an experimental paradigm to study their cultural evolution.


Institutions; norms; technology; social learning; cultural evolution;

See also

Published in

IAST Working Paper, n. 24-162, June 2024