What can evolution tell us about governance and the COVID-19 crisis?

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

By Velibor Jakovleski
Head of Research, Global Governance Centre,
The Graduate Institute

Synopsis: The COVID-19 pandemic has increased speculation about what the future of the global order will look like. This piece attempts to makes sense of prevailing scenarios and showcases what evolutionary theory can contribute to our understanding of stability and change.

Keywords: COVID-19, evolutionary institutionalism, institutional change, rationalism, historicism

Like the latest iteration of the “crisis of multilateralism” debates, the crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic – and what is to come after it – seems to be splitting opinions.

Some analyses propose that the post-pandemic world order will be fundamentally different than today. For better or worse, COVID-19 is shaking the foundations of the current order. Optimists see an opportunity for substantively and procedurally renewed global cooperation. Others predict escalating geopolitical conflict, closing borders, and a surge in nationalism. As actors, both resurgent and declining, jockey for power and influence over global affairs, international institutions– like the World Health Organization (WHO) – will suffer the collateral damage. A fundamental shift in interests – especially of major powers – and the shirking of international norms suggest existing governance structures are in crisis, and something different is to come.

On the other hand, some commentators do not foresee fundamental changes to the current state of affairs. Joseph Nye, for instance, has predicted that not much will change geopolitically as a result of the crisis. Recent events are the latest stress test, and existing institutions should be resilient enough to weather them, making wholesale changes unlikely. Neither the pandemic nor Donald Trump might be as disruptive as first thought.

From an institutionalist perspective, these voices could be grouped into a rationalist and historicist camp, respectively. For rationalists, institutions are efficient solutions to collective problems. Actors’ behaviours are informed by strategic considerations and rules are followed based on utility calculations not a sense of obligation. Institutions change when in disequilibrium, usually caused by something external – like a crisis or altered actor preferences – that requires negotiating a new equilibrium.

From a historicist angle, institutions are viewed as locked-in paths. They endure over time – despite a possibly altered environment – and increasingly mediate actors’ preferences and behaviours. If an institution were to change, it is thought to be because of factors internal to the institution. Change is likely to be gradual and not stray too far off the existing path.

How would each perspective play out in practice? Let’s take the example of the Trump administration’s tendency to challenge existing multilateral institutions, having most recently turned its sights on the WHO as the pandemic unfolded.

Through a rationalist lens, these actions can be interpreted as a (still powerful) actor with altered preferences attempting to renegotiate the status quo. An extreme outcome might be setting up a new organization to replace the WHO. More realistic would be renegotiating entirely the WHO’s mandate or funding model.

Through a historicist lens, international institutions lock-in certain rules and privileges, from which actors like the US arguably still benefit. As a result, the current “crisis” will likely blow over. If change comes about, it is likely to be incremental, like adjusting standard operating procedures or realigning some programmatic activities.

It is too early to tell which take will prevail, but we can see a predisposition by rationalists to predict change and historicists to explain relative stability. Evolutionary institutionalism can provide a complementary perspective.

Evolutionary perspectives on stability and change

Evolutionary institutionalism (EI) draws on the work of Charles Darwin, who argued famously that species evolve from earlier ancestors by “natural selection”. This does not  mean “survival of the fittest” but simply the survival of the species that is best adapted to its environment and thus able to produce more offspring.

Applied for our purposes, it means the institutional form that is best adapted to its socio-political context will be able to transmit collective norms and behaviours across “generations” of socialized actors, across space or time.

While evolutionary approaches have gotten some traction in the social sciences – prominent examples being Thorsten Veblen and Friedrich Hayek in economics – they have been mostly absent from disciplines like political science.

Evolutionary Institutionalism can make (at least) two contributions to our understanding of institutional stability and change:

  1. Mechanism of evolution

Richard Dawkins abstracted the core tenants of biological evolutionary theory, summarized by the so-called algorithm of Universal Darwinism:  variation, selection, retention. He argued that this algorithm can be even applied to life in outer space (should it exist) or other academic disciplines. By that logic, both the coronavirus pandemic and the institutions that are meant to govern the response to it are subject to the same laws.

If the unit of change in biological evolution is the gene (e.g. which determines whether a butterfly has patterned or mono-coloured wings), the unit of change in political science is the institution, because both genes and institutions are essentially “rules that determine form or function.”

A simplistic example: A committee within an international organization (IO) proposes a new convention (variation). The IO’s general assembly then votes and passes it (selection) while rejecting other proposals. The convention remains in place over successive assemblies (retention).

Analysts can also zoom in on each stage of this mechanism for a more nuanced application of concepts from evolutionary biology to political phenomenon. For example, variation can occur due to imperfect replication. In biological terms, this means some information is lost when genes are reproduced. In political terms, decision-makers can vary both in their conception of the content and implementation of rules, leading to (un)intended consequences.

  1. Awareness of environmental factors

In biological systems, both the selection of a particular gene and how that gene interacts with its environment matter for the evolution of species. The same holds for social institutions. They do not operate in a vacuum and do not evolve independently. As Robert Cox argued nearly 30 years ago, the dominant trends should be examined within a broader system composed of: a global political economy, an inter-state system, and the global ecosystem.

By considering wider environmental factors, evolutionary institutionalism can help clarify the distinction between stasis and change and their underlying processes. Take the evolution of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Many view the establishment of the WTO in 1995 as an example of “punctuated” and major institutional reform to replace the GATT. However, the GATT years were marked by underlying incremental changes, for instance the informal and gradual development of dispute settlement via panels. When that coincided with changes in the broader environment (e.g. proliferation of globalization, fall of communism), the earlier incremental changes place the establishment of the WTO in wider perspective.

The same might well apply to what we are witnessing today. What might appear as stasis at first could be an acceleration of trends that have already been underway, leading to tipping point and more transformative change.

So, will the Trump administration’s latest moves globally in response to COVID-19 result in institutional evolution? At this stage, it appears to be a singular effort to shape behaviour according to revised rules of the game (variation). According to the algorithm, it will need to be followed by other countries (selection), consistently (retention). And any ensuring institutional change would have to be put in context (e.g. an increasingly influential China, long shadow of the 2008 global financial crisis).


Processes of biological and institutional evolution are not identical, and conceptual borrowing should always be applied with caution. For example, the fact that human agents design social institutions – and thus affect selection, variation, and retention – suggests that biological evolution does not transfer seamlessly to social systems. Nevertheless, EI can help provide fresh perspectives on current affairs and complement our more established ways of understanding attempts at, and processes of, change.

Three related implications follow:

First, institutions are always evolving. Attempts at institutional change, irrespective of their source and form, are arguably a good thing. More open governance systems are more likely to result in more variation. EI proponents would leave it to the evolutionary algorithm to determine which are beneficial and thus retained.

Second, by also taking environmental factors into account, EI helps clarify the often-superficial distinction between institutional stability and change. It can work with  rationalist and historicist approaches and provide hints about why gradual or punctuated change has occurred.

Third, the “fitness” of any institution can only be determined after it has been put into practice. This also means an awareness of how new rules interact with their broader environment (including novel viruses) which itself is likely to be constantly changing.


This article is part of the series “Governance, in crisis”.  To read the other articles, click here.

Image credit: Gerhard Gellinger (Pixabay)

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