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Commentary on “An Evolutionary Approach to Sustainability Science”

It is such a breath of fresh air to read Timothy Waring and Ethan Tremblay’s article An Evolutionary Approach to Sustainability Science. Let me begin by saying that I consider cultural evolution to be essential for tackling the global ecological crisis—for all the reasons laid out in their writings and a few more I would like to elaborate here.

But first, I couldn’t help noticing that Waring and Tremblay’s writing style was a bit more academic and technical than a lot of blog posts read by mainstream audiences. For readers who are less familiar with the terminology of cultural evolutionary studies, I offer a brief recap of what they said in concise form:

Human societies are made up of stories, beliefs, practices, knowledge, and tools. These things can vary within groups and between groups, creating all the conditions necessary for evolution to unfold in time. All that is needed is variation, inheritance, and selection for culture to be “Darwinian”—meaning that among the variety of possibilities some are passed on and others aren’t from one generation to the next. Take this key insight and apply it to environmental problems and you’ll see how important the level of selection is for making sense of policy solutions for managing environmental resources.

Why does this matter? Because every real-world human setting has motivations and incentives playing out at different scales. Individuals, families, neighborhoods, municipalities, chiefdoms, nation-states, etc. A powerful tool from cultural evolution is known as Multi-Level Selection and it comes with clear ways to measure how much each level contributes to the evolutionary patterns of a given situation. Waring and Tremblay offered several examples of this to show how powerful Multi-Level Selection is for managing fish stocks, promoting societal well-being, and keeping litter off the streets.

I have also been developing a framework for the ecological crisis that makes use of cultural evolution, that I flesh out fully in Tools for Culture Design: Toward A Science of Social Change?. The definition I give for culture design is this:

Culture design is the integrated practice of (a) treating cultural change as a complex adaptive system; (b) studying the mechanisms and drivers of cultural change, including trend analysis and emergent social behaviors; (c) applying design frameworks based on this approach to identify operating parameters for social systems and (d) guiding the evolutionary process of social change toward safe zones within these operating parameters.

Clearly this is resonant with the perspective offered by Waring and Tremblay. What I would like to offer in this commentary is an extension of their argument by describing how the related field of cognitive linguistics offers additional granularity into the “selection criteria” for specific policy frameworks. Several years ago, I co-authored an article with Evan Frisch called Why Environmental Policy Needs a Cognitive Dimension that shows how this works.

We offered an imagined scenario where comprehensive climate regulations were adopted by the United States. Since the policy was created in the standard manner—what George Lakoff and I call “material policy” (as contrasted with the often invisible and unacknowledged component of “cognitive policy”)—no consideration was given to the social norms, mythic narratives, tribal identities, and shared beliefs that make up different political camps.

These semantic features of culture give people meaning and help structure how they perceive, comprehend, and navigate their social worlds. As such, they are very important! When we unpack the semantics of culture as it relates to public policy, it becomes clear that some ideas are a better fit to a given context than others. This is another place where all the criteria are met for Darwinian evolution to take place—variation of ideas, heritability differences between the ideas, and some kind of selection mechanism that causes some ideas to persist and spread better than others.

As an example, consider two different ways of thinking about markets. One common way to think about markets is that they are completely natural and operate according to the laws of nature. Another common way to think about markets is that they are tools created by people to serve an economic purpose. These are different “semantic frames” for the meaning of markets.

The success of a climate policy will depend in part on which conception of markets is used and how people in the society where the policy is implemented think about markets. One idea may be more fit than the other. And it might not be the case that the same policy works in different places—even if the Multi-Level Selection criteria laid out in Waring and Tremblay’s article holds, i.e. that the appropriate level of selection has been identified for proposing an effective solution, it may be rejected by society. Even a good idea won’t work if people refuse to adopt it. And their willingness to adopt an idea requires that it fit with the cultural ecology of shared meaning-making.

What we get when we combine cognitive linguistics with cultural evolution in this way is a much richer approach to cultural studies. It becomes possible to treat culture as a complex adaptive system (a requirement for both my approach and that advocated by Waring and Tremblay). And it also lets us look at selection criteria in levels of governance AND as cultural understandings. Meld the two approaches and we see how powerful this can be.

I don’t claim this is a full account of what is needed. It is merely one extension of the strong case made in Waring and Tremblay’s article to show that a great deal is known about the evolution of social systems. And we are going to need to integrate and synthesize this knowledge in order to navigate the many systemic threats now confronting humanity.


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