STEINMO SH. in Complexity and Evolution Toward a New Synthesis for Economics ( MIT Press, August 19, 2016).
Some economists argue that institutions are the most important factor affecting variation in economic growth. There is a need, however, to better understand how and why institutions emerge and change. Informed by evolutionary theory and complexity science, this chapter develops a conceptual framework that follows models of cultural evolution in viewing institutions as part of a nongenetic system of inheritance. This framework is used to examine how broad historical factors (not just economic factors) influence present-day institutional arrangements and economic outcomes, as well as how noninstitutional aspects of culture (e.g., values, beliefs) interact with institutions to shape behavior in particular contexts. Overall, this framework emphasizes the processes by which institutions evolve, and how they can coevolve with other institutions and culture. This approach is illustrated using four examples to demonstrate how evolution theory and complexity science can be used to study institutional emergence and change. Explicit models of the processes of institutional evolution need to be developed and then tested and assessed with data. This framework holds promise to bring together and synthesize the findings and insights from a range of different disciplines.