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Farewell, Lin Ostrom
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

The world lost a great human being in the passing of Elinor Ostrom. It was part of her humanity to prefer the informal “Lin” as her name. I was privileged to work with her during the last few years to integrate the body of her work, which originated within the field of political science, with evolutionary theory.

I first met Lin at a 2009 workshop in Italy titled “Do Institutions Evolve?” I am in the habit of writing mini-biographies of scientists, so I asked her to tell me her story, which is included in the chapter of The Neighborhood Project titled “Evonomics”. It is a rags-to-riches story, starting with a shy girl who received little encouragement from her parents and a young women who helped put her husband through law school, only to have him resist her desire to attend graduate school after he was established. She divorced him and later married one of her professors, the political scientist Vincent Ostrom, accompanying him to Indiana University when he was offered a faculty position there. Typical for the times, there was no talk of offering a position for Lin, and she was forced to make do with unwanted departmental duties such as teaching early morning classes. It was only when she was asked to serve as graduate advisor for the department that she became a full-fledged faculty member.

Lin’s research addressed down-to-earth subjects such as how stakeholders cobbled together an agreement to regulate groundwater use in southern California and the economies of scale for police departments in the Midwest. In the 1980’s, she was asked by the National Research Council, a branch of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, to join a committee on common property resources such as irrigation systems, forests, and fisheries. She helped to create a worldwide database that became part of her legacy. Her analysis of the database identified eight design principles that enabled groups to effectively manage common-pool resources. It was the first convincing demonstration that common-pool resource use need not result in the tragedy of overuse.

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Lin’s best-known work, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990), used the word “evolution” in the subtitle, but Lin had no formal training in evolution and had read only a little on her own. She was using the word informally, which was common practice in the field of political science. She was centrally involved in the emergence of game theory in economic and political thought, which itself became integrated with evolutionary theory. By the time I met her in 2009, she was part of the melting pot of disciplines studying human behavior and culture from an evolutionary perspective. Tellingly, she was largely unknown among orthodox economists. On the day after she received the Nobel Prize, the economist Steve Levitt wrote on his “Freakonomics” blog in the New York Times that four out of five economists had probably never heard of her or what she worked on—and that he was chagrinned to count himself among them. He had to look her up on Wikipedia and “even after reading the entry, I have no recollection of ever seeing or hearing her name mentioned by an economist.”

My own intellectual journey intersected with Lin from the opposite direction. I was trained as an evolutionary biologist and have studied human behavior and culture from an evolutionary perspective throughout my career, but always inside the Ivory Tower. In 2006 I decided to leave the Ivory Tower to see if evolutionary theory can be used to improve, rather than merely understanding, the human condition. I became involved in community-based research in my hometown of Binghamton, New York, and helped to create the Evolution Institute, the first think tank to formulate public policy from an evolutionary perspective. After the economic crash of 2008, I received funding from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) to organize a conference titled “The Nature of Regulation: How Evolutionary Theory Can Inform the Regulation of Large-scale Human Social Interactions”. When I met Lin in 2009, I was giving myself a crash course in economics to prepare for the conference.

Lin’s work was like a breath of fresh air compared to the forbidding world of neoclassical economics, which was top-heavy with theory and required assumptions about human preferences and abilities that were manifestly unrealistic. In contrast, Lin’s work was empirically well grounded and her eight design principles were highly congruent with the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species and the biocultural evolution of our own species. Her work might have originated within the field of political science and been applied primarily to common-pool resource groups, but I realized that it could be generalized in two senses. First, it could be placed on a more general theoretical foundation suitable for all human-related disciplines. Second, it could be applied in a practical sense to most human endeavors that involve working in groups to achieve common goals—which means most human endeavors.

Since my first meeting with Lin, I initiated several projects with her that I am proud to continue as part of her legacy. The first is a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation that examines the role of religion in the management of common-pool resources. With the help of my graduate student, Yasha Hartberg, and her post-doctoral associates, Michael Cox and Sergio Villamayor Tomas, we are assembling a database of 50 common-pool resource groups with sufficient information to assess “what religion has to do with it” for each of the design principles.

The second project was a workshop that we organized together titled “Rules as Genotypes in Cultural Evolution”, which was held at Indiana University’s Workshop for Political Theory and Policy Analysis in April 2012. Lin was undergoing cancer treatment at the time and had to be absent during the second day to receive a blood transfusion, but her spirit was strong despite her frail appearance. The subject of the workshop illustrates how much her thinking had become explicitly framed in terms of evolution—no longer just a word to be used informally. The manuscript that Lin wrote for the workshop was titled “Do Institutions for Collective Action Evolve?” and I will be sure to see that it is published in a timely fashion.

The third project is a manuscript titled “Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups”, which is co-authored by Lin, Michael Cox, and myself. It is characteristic of Lin’s modesty that she rejected the phrase “the Ostrom design principles” for “the core design principles”. The article will be published as part of a special issue of the Journal of Behavior and Economic Organization (JEBO) titled “Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy”, which is a product of the collaboration between the Evolution Institute and NESCent that began with the conference that I was preparing for when I first met Lin.

The fourth project will develop a framework for working with groups of all sorts to improve their efficacy in a practical sense. It will simultaneously create a scientific database for studying the groups, inspired by the one that Lin helped to assemble for common-pool resource groups. I can think of no better way of honoring Lin’s memory than by using her work to help groups of people everywhere successfully manage their own affairs.

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  1. David Currie says:

    What an inspiration.

    Thank you for introducing me to Elinor Ostrum’s work which continues to inform and deepen my understanding of sustainability.

    As we embark on what Joanna Macy refers to as the Great Turning, the eight principles lay a foundation to better understand and share with each other how humankind might cooperate more mindfully today and in the increasingly perilous future.

    I count myself among the many who feel blessed by the illuminating gift she has bestowed on a needy world.

    May her continuing path be one of serenity and peace.