Cultural group selection and the evolution of reindeer herding in Norway

The debate about reindeer husbandry in Norway is characterised by two contrasting views.

On one hand is the prevailing view of overstocking and rangeland degradation.

On the other hand, is the view that overstocking and overuse represents a misreading of the Arctic landscape that perpetuates a dominant crisis narrative that functions as “… an enduring ‘social fact’, whose narrative reality is in large part decoupled from its supposed scientific basis” (Benjaminsen et al. 2015:228).

While the overstocking perspective is based on a presumed ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, the other perspective argue that reindeer herding is characterised as a non-equilibrium system

“…where herbivore populations fluctuate randomly according to external influences, [and] the concepts of carrying capacity and overgrazing have no discernible meaning” (ibid.:223).

In my new paper, Cultural Group Selection and the Evolution of Reindeer Herding in Norway, I argue differently.

Through a comparative historical analysis, I argue that herding is better viewed as an assurance game with two different strategies for minimising risk:

  1. maximising quantity (i.e., increasing livestock numbers or herd size)
  2. maximising livestock quality (i.e., increasing livestock body mass)

I demonstrate that intra-group competition has led to the
adoption of (1) in the Northern parts of Norway, while inter-group competition has led to the adoption of (2) in the Southern parts.

Read the full paper here.