The Biocultural Evolution of Institutions and Power

The evolution of language has involved a niche-adaptation co-evolutionary process, in which learned, arbitrary symbolic tags–in the form of bodily gestures or vocalizations–help us to point to, conceptualize and incorporate into narrative thought relevant aspects of the cultural environment. Thus, the arbitrary symbolic tag “The Larch” cognitively evokes and helps one to focus on a background-setting aspect of the lumberjack number (ok, those aren’t larches in the background of the Lumberjack sketch, but you get the point). But another relevant tag might be “the logging camp,” an institution–in the anthropological sense defined below–that evokes all of the joy and aspiration (sort of) emphasized in the Monty Python sketch. Yet another relevant institution tag might be “The RCMP.” Noting that the late Leslie Nielsen’s father was a member of the RCMP, it may be unavoidably cognititvely evoked that Canada’s contribution to television and film comedy may be characteristically modest but is also quite formidable, at least when at its best (think Nielsen’s work in the original Police Squad series or Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick). Read the main text of this post for a real discussion of symbolic power and institutions. (Figure modified after Leach 1976)
by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Can institution formation and power production in human societies be understood as fundamental biocultural evolutionary processes? I would suggest that a biocultural evolutionary perspective is useful for understanding the durable institutionalization of power relationships and power inequalities. It can further clarify how long-term Pleistocene natural selection and niche construction for evolutionarily derived, symbolically mediated social-judgment and cooperative behaviors led to the Holocene emergence of institutionalized power inequality and sociopolitical complexity.

In my previous post about the Edward Snowden story (at least the story as reported on 25 June 2013), I contrasted “face-to-face linguistic communication–which is the first kind of communication humans learn as part of our co-evolved niche and adaptations” with modern electronic communication, which “is technologically structured to separate as a discrete sequence the encoding-transmission-receiving-decoding-re-encoding process.” This difference highlights the complexity involved in human linguistically mediated social judgment and story formation. I continued:

[W]hen we flesh-and-blood humans are involved in linguistic communication with other humans, we are conspicuously acting as dual senders and receivers in real time; we use recursive embodied cognitive operations to form non-verbal thoughts while simultaneously encoding them as linguistically sensible ideas, and just as importantly, we speed up the decoding process by making usually pretty good inferences about what message content we might be receiving in the coming seconds. There is a lot of parallel thinking, multi-sensory perceiving and inferring that accompanies the uttering and hearing in any human linguistic back-and-forth.

One of the weirdest outcomes of human evolution–through the non-equilibrium dynamic of biocultural niche-adaptation co-evolution that I have described in this blog’s initial overview posts–is how much our embodied formation and commitment to beliefs and values is shaped by symbolically encoded stories. Language allows us to create, think about, share, and reform stories. And these stories often have a non-nested hierarchical structure, so that we can zoom in and amplify implicit stories within the story. That is because we are particularly interested in stories about human interaction, where we can speculate or discuss actors’ motivations–that is, where we can expand on the story’s backstories. And one of the most important theoretical legacies of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work in cultural anthropology is how the symbolic structure of commonly told and retold stories excites and commits us to basic beliefs about the constitution of society. Moreover, as Lévi-Strauss emphasized, mythical stories impact cultural structures in a society so subtly and pervasively that we are not aware of their effect on our beliefs and values. In future posts, I will talk more about Lévi-Strauss, but for now, let is simply focus on the importance of stories as an instrument for focusing on what values, beliefs, and actions are most relevent in a given social setting. I further stated in my previous post, “A major part of human social action is in using the representation of stories to convince yourself, to convince others, about what’s really relevant–among multiple conflicting rationales for concluding that a certain value or belief is really worth acting on … now, in the past, or in the future.” As Lévi-Strauss might have said, stories are not just good to tell to an audience; they are good to think. And from a biocultural evolutionary perspective, that is because they facilitate both rational consideration of what’s relevant and worth saying or doing in a complex situation, and also dramatic emotional commitment to enacting an ongoing storyline, in terms of asserting or eliciting a particular social judgment about yourself and others. Sharing and thinking in terms of stories helps us make decisions about cooperation, judgment and punishment of first, second, or multi-order freeloaders and cheaters.

We can reconsider the idea of symbolic reinforcement–now that we are focusing on the role of stories in thought and action, or the narrativizing of the cultural process. It is how we think through, tell, and consume stories–which often recursively evoke stories within or beyond the story–as holding together the symbols that encode representations of action, values, beliefs, and the rationales for their past, present, future, or hypothetical relevance.

And acting and interacting through stories contributes to the formation of social institutions, because institutions can be recursively thought of–and described in stories–first, as a kind of collection or network of humans, and then, as actors in and of themselves, with characteristic pasts, goals, and interests. Thus, we can define an institution in biocultural terms as a symbolically defined, “narrativized” category of human (usually a group, but sometimes an individual category) that is relevant to people in a particular societal setting, where that kind of group–be it family, married partners, siblings, lineage groups, gift-giving partners, families linked by marriage reciprocity, shamans, spirit mediums, chiefs, ethnic groups, castes, city or nation states, empires, guilds, armies, militias, priesthoods, bureaucracies, firms, mafias, gangs …–is associated with particular characteristics and interests. The effect is that institutions, of course, can be experienced by humans not only as metaphorical actors, but also as real actors. So that key human individuals in those institutions themselves recursively act in the interest of the institutions, as defined by culturally shared stories involving the institution. So much of material production, exchange, and consumption involves adults thinking in terms of stories and telling each other stories, in order to mobilize cooperative action and negotiate exchange, credits and obligations with one another. Although the material basis of social interaction–and its effects on health, reproduction, and transfers to offspring–is critical to the human niche and adaptation, so are stories as the symbolic basis of institution formation, constraining and guiding those very social interactions. And because institutions can incorporate durable alliances, not only for production and exchange, but also for information management and the mobilization of violence against individuals and groups, we have to consider the role that institutions have had in the emergence of power inequalities in prehistoric human societies.

Thus, in the figure to the right, which I have already posted on the Culture-An Overview page, we can consider the symbolic basis of belief and value formation as involving thinking and telling stories, including stories in which institutions become defined as effective actors.


Leach, E. (1976). Culture and Communication: The Logic by which Symbols Are Connected. An Introduction to the Use of Structuralist Analysis in Social Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.