Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Commentary on "The Quest for Meaning in Public Choice" by Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Commentary on "The Quest for Meaning in Public Choice" by Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom

Article excerpt

[Hiro:] "We've got two kinds of language in our heads. The kind we're using now is acquired. It patterns our brains as we're learning it. But there's also a tongue that's based in the deep structures of the brain, that everyone shares. These structure consist of basic neural circuits that have to exist in order to allow our brains to acquire higher languages."

"Linguistic infrastructure," Uncle Enzo says.

"Yeah, I guess 'deep structure' and 'infrastructure' mean the same thing. Anyway, we can access those parts of the brain under the right conditions. Glossolalia--speaking in tongues--is the output side of it, where the deep linguistic structures hook into our tongues and speak, bypassing all the higher, acquired languages. Everyone's known that for some time."

"You're saying there's an input side, too?" Ng says.

"Exactly. It works in reverse. Under the right conditions, your ears--or eyes--can tie into the deep structures, bypassing the higher language functions. Which is to say, someone who knows the right words can speak words, or show you visual symbols, that go past all your defenses and sink right into your brainstem. Like a cracker who breaks into a computer system, bypasses all the security precautions, and plugs himself into the core, enabling him to exert absolute control over the machine."

"In that situation, the people who own the computer are helpless," Ng says.

(from Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash: 369-70)

Snow Crash is a novel. It is unlikely that there is "an input side" to the machine code of the brain. But there are "deep structures" in the mind that seem adapted for language, for learning and using words. Why?

One answer might be that human beings need to be able to communicate, both between peers to organize actions and across generations to pass on the wisdom that makes life possible. Ideas are pretty common; good ideas are rare. Language, first spoken and then written, allows societies to prevent harmful changes, and to justify and explain the reasons why existing institutions are useful and good. As the Ostroms point out in the paper I am commenting on: "Languages greatly enhance human capabilities for learning that can be accrued across successive generations, but language can also be used to create false illusions, deceive, misinform, and amplify errors."

The main goal of the paper is to explain the origin, evolution, and maintenance of the "logical foundations for order in human societies." I want to suggest a meta-model for considering evolutionary change of institutions, including constitutions and laws. In doing this, I want to make the analogy to evolutionary theories of biology more explicit. The representation I want to use, which is grossly simplified but captures some of the logic of evolutionary processes, is depicted in Figure 1.


The raw material of evolutionary processes is the morphology and physiology of the particular entity being considered. This entity will have an associated level of fitness, or adapted suitability for survival and reproduction. There are two motive forces, or engines of change, that act on the raw material: (1) mutation, and (2) environmental selection. Mutation, of course, is the accumulated product of tiny mistakes in the replication of the blueprints that describe the morphology and physiology of the entity. For biological entities, mutation takes the form of small errors in the DNA, most of which are entirely innocuous, but that may affect fitness significantly.

The effects of environmental selection are apparent at two levels. The first is in determining the relative fitness of different mutations within a species population with similar but not quite identical physiology and morphology. The second is in determining the competitive fitness across species, whose physiology and morphology may differ in very large ways. The best way to conceive of the interaction of mutation and environmental selection is the use of a "fitness landscape," as depicted in Figure 2. …

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