Aside from having too many different disciplines at the table to make much progress in two days, I think the workshop went off course primarily because no one wanted to get his or her hands dirty hammering out the messy details of vocabulary. For instance, I don't recall anyone asking what a genotype was or what rules were or what aspects of a genotype rules were supposed to emulate. Yet these are fundamental problems that have to be overcome if there's to be any hope of progress on this idea.
Thankfully, there a number of thinkers who are taking the idea of universal Darwinism seriously and who have done at least some of the basic groundwork. I need to become far more familiar with this camp, but I believe Hodgson and Knudsen may have already answered this question in Darwin's Conjecture. I don't want to try to summarize their entire argument here, or at least not now. However, key to their argument is something they call a generative replicator. For them, replicators require four conditions:
- Causal implication: The source must be causally involved in the production of the copy, at least in the sense that, without the source, the particular copy would not be created.
- Similarity: the replicated entity must be or contain a replicator. The conditional generative mechanisms in the copy must be similar to those in the source. Errors or mutations in these mechanisms must also be copied with some degree of fidelity.
- Information transfer: During its creation, the copy must obtain the conditional generative mechanisms that make the copy similar to its source from that same source.
- Conditional generative mechanisms: Generative replicators are material structures that embody construction mechanisms (or programs) that can be energized by input signals that contain information about a particular environment. These mechanisms produce further instructions from a generative replicator to their related interactor that guide its development. (pp. 122-123)
So, are rules a kind of generative replicator? Before answering that, it's worth asking of genotypes are generative replicators. According to Hodgson and Knudsen the answer is yes. DNA cannot be replicated without the template, fulfilling the causal implication. the replicated entity, the nascent strand of DNA, most certainly fulfills the similarity and information transfer requirements. Moreover, the resulting daughter strands of DNA are capable of responding, through a variety of epigenetic mechanisms, to environmental inputs in order to guide development.
If we can accept Hodgson and Knudsen's definitions, then it seems the question we should have been asking at the workshop was, really, are rules generative replicators? Scanning the bibliography of Darwin's Conjecture, it looks as though Hodgson at least has already written a lot in this area that I should become more familiar with. Unfortunately, the closest they come to discussing rules in the institutional sense is their exploration of judicial law as a major transition (Section 8.5 and assorted other places within the book). For a variety of reasons I was unhappy with this particular discussion. Perhaps the most glaring disagreement I had with them was their insistence that judicial law requires writing. This simply flies in the face of historical fact, perhaps best exemplified in Icelandic law. None of that, however, is particularly relevant to the concerns here.
The authors argue that judicial law does constitute a generative replicator. The causal implication requirement is a bit vague, but it seems to be met at some level either when laws are copied to new states (one form of replication) or when new laws are written which tend to rely on existing legislation. It seems the argument here would be stronger if they included laws being passed from one generation to another, but I don't believe they consider this process in their formulation. At any rate, these same processes, along with judicial review, which tends to clarify and refine laws, ensure that the similarity condition is met. Undoubtedly, laws contain information so the copying of laws involves information transfer. Conditional generation occurs because laws are typically invoked under specific circumstances and because they guide the development of the state institutions of which they are a part.
The hard work, then, seems to have already been done in answering the question of whether rules can be considered cultural genotypes. It would be almost trivial to map Hodgson and Knudsen's argument onto Ostrom's formal conception of institutional rules. For now I'd feel comfortable concluding that rules, like laws, could be considered conditional replicators. A question that remains unanswered in my mind is what would be the cultural "phenotype" associated with rules. In other words, what is the interactor that rules respond to? An even bigger question, though, is so what? If rules are generative replicators, then what are the implications for research or policy development? In what ways might this formulation of rules provide new insights or help to organize existing knowledge? These, too, were questions that didn't get addressed at the workshop and I think they are perhaps the most important questions of all.