Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2019

Level of Access

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Economics (MSECO)




Timothy M. Waring

Second Committee Member

Caroline L. Noblet

Third Committee Member

Sandra H. Goff


Darwin’s theory of natural selection has played a central role in the development of the biological sciences, but evolution can also explain change in human culture. Institutions, mechanisms that govern behavior and social order, are important subjects of cultural evolution. Institutions can help stabilize cooperation, defined as behavior that benefits others, often at a personal cost. Cooperation is important for solving social dilemmas, scenarios in which the interests of the individual conflict with those of the group. A number of mechanisms by which institutions evolve to support cooperation have been identified, yet theoretical models of institutional change have rarely been applied to local food institutions, which may be sustained by cooperation. This thesis poses the general question, how do local food institutions and organizations evolve? Chapter one uses a macro-evolutionary framework to explore the emergence and spread of two local food policies over time and space. First, I demonstrate how the rapid proliferation of cottage food laws in the U.S. is consistent with positive selection pressure at the individual, group, and state levels. Second, I illustrate how social learning and group transmission played a key role in the spread and diffusion of a municipal food sovereignty ordinance in Maine, ultimately changing selection pressure at the state level and amplifying town-level adoption. Finally, I offer concluding thoughts about the application of this framework to similar cases, including the propagation of single-use plastic bag bans. Chapter two serves as a micro-evolutionary analysis of organizational change in food buying clubs, small organizations which use collective purchasing power to obtain bulk quantities of organic, local, and specialty foods. Since these groups require cooperation from members through order-sharing and shared work tasks, I hypothesize that successful clubs possess traits which allow them to sustain cooperation and overcome social dilemmas. I predict that club members will be cooperative toward their groups, and that successful clubs will exercise generalized reciprocity and adopt rules to stabilize cooperation. Data from online surveys, experimental economic games, and phone interviews were analyzed using mixed methods to identify patterns of cooperation in groups. My results provide general support for my hypothesis that successful clubs have adaptations suited to overcome challenges. Specifically, I find that 1) buying club members are especially cooperative toward their groups when compared to other populations, 2) clubs exercise reciprocity in order-sharing, 3) reciprocity itself may not be a group adaptation, but group size is sufficient to support reciprocity in clubs, and 4) the adoption of rules is likely a key factor in club success and longevity. Finally, I offer practical advice for buying club management and operation.