Social Evolution Forum
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On the needed evolution of sustainability science

Waring and Tremblay lay a foundation for applying an evolutionary approach to sustainability science, focusing on cultural multilevel selection. The authors clearly explain the compelling logic: that if selection at the group level is stronger than selection at the individual level, then individually-costly, group-beneficial behaviors can evolve. We agree that evolutionary thinking has substantial potential to inform both sustainability science and effective environmental governance. Here we provide a caveat, confirm the importance of several points the authors raise, and close by questioning whether a multilevel selection approach can inform policy makers working on large-scale environmental dilemmas like climate change.

First, we agree that sustainability science lacks a unifying theory and typically neglects culture. This is partly historical, as much of the original impetus in sustainability research derives from natural scientists working on the limits to growth (e.g. Malthus 1798, Meadows 1972) and humanity’s overuse of resources on planetary scales (e.g. Vitousek et al. 1986). More recent strains of sustainability science, such as Elinor Ostrom’s work on common-pool resource governance (e.g. Ostrom 2014), do include aspects of endogenous cultural change, sometimes in an evolutionary framework, but also linked firmly to “external” drivers. Overall, however, we concur that most efforts to consider culture in sustainability science are fragmented, partial, and inchoate.

We worry, however, that the authors’ focus on culture will appear to swing the pendulum to the other side. Economic forces reflect ecological flows of energy and materials, as they have throughout human evolutionary history, from barter among traditional foragers with different resource endowments to the characteristic coupling of energy use and economic growth among modern industrial nations (Brown et al. 2011). Waring’s parable of changes in the Fijian fish-based system, in which market forces changed the likely dominant level of cultural selection from the chiefdom to the individual, supports this link. What we need, then, is neither better models of culture nor better models of the environment, but rather better integration of the state of the art in both fields. Genuinely coupled models with endogenous social and environmental dynamics promise to improve our understanding of these systems, guide the collection of new data and the use of existing data, and ultimately to inform policy making around environmental governance.

We second Waring and Tremblay’s well-placed caution not to conclude that group selection necessarily promotes good environmental outcomes and societal well-being. Corporations, for example, are often under strong selection to maximize resource extraction. Military units are group selected to maximize destructive efficiency. Whether or not higher-level selection leads to environmental conservation thus depends on the details of a given case, as Waring and Tremblay illustrate in their examples. This caveat, then, underscores the importance of understanding both the general logic of evolution and the particulars of the specific case in question.

Cultural multi-level selection theory holds two key promises: 1) of bridging social and environmental systems in a consistent fashion using tested principles, and 2) of bridging scales, something many efforts fail to do. Consider the dangerous conundrum of migration to coastal cities amid rising sea levels and intensifying storms. Taken separately, the coastal climate system and social system seem at complete odds. But selection on behavior to maximize income, and associated consumption, favors urban living because earnings typically increase, on average, upon moving to an urban center. Pressures at larger scales, such as poorly conceived disaster relief, often compound the problem. A CMLS approach would suggest asking what forces are acting at different socio-environmental scales and how strongly. The promise of cultural evolutionary theory, generally, is to provide an inclusive framework tailor-made for crossing scales of socio-environmental patterns and processes, which historically have been difficult both to understand and to influence.

The greatest challenges are applying this framework to global-scale environmental issues and using it to inform specific policies. In the absence of planetary-scale competition, what higher-level competitive force can motivate cooperation among countries around the world on issues like climate change? Adopting an evolutionary perspective doesn’t imply that we have to (re)evolve cooperation from scratch in any particular instance. Our evolutionary history has already equipped us with a strong tendency towards conditional cooperation. This is evident from a large and growing body of behavioral experiments and observational case studies in the field. Put a group of individuals in a cooperative dilemma under the right conditions, and they very may well come together to form a well-functioning collective managing environmental resources sustainably. But global-scale interactions are different in a number of ways than the relatively small-scale (village or tribal) institutions studied by Ostrom (1990). To what extent Ostrom’s design principles can be scaled up effectively to the global level remains an open question, but one that we desperately need to continue to address, as some scholars have begun to do (Dietz et al. 2003; Wilson and Hessen 2014).

We recently heard from an academic colleague back from a meeting of policy makers around the governance of the California Delta, a region struggling to manage the conflicting demands of water supply and ecosystem protection. Our colleague had been greeted at the meeting as “the guy with the answers,” despite the fact that he had warned them in advance that he had more questions than answers. Our own experience supports the notion that policy makers don’t want more questions; they want answers—clear and effective, delivered quickly. In today’s world, where the challenges seem ever more pressing, who can blame them? Unfortunately, evolutionary thinking isn’t a panacea to be waved like a magic wand over any and all issues, instantly resolving them. It does, however, provide a time-tested perspective that can inform any policy maker’s decision-making.


Brown, J.H., Burnside, W.R., Davidson, A.D., Delong, J.P., Dunn, W.C., Hamilton, M.J.,Mercado-Silva, N., Nekola, J.C., Okie, J.G., Woodruff, W.H., Zuo, W. 2011. Energetic limits to economic growth. Bioscience 61, 19–26.

Dietz, T., E. Ostrom, and P. C. Stern. 2003. The struggle to govern the commons. Science 302:5652,(1907-1912).

Malthus, T.R., 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Oxford University Press. Oxford, U.K.

Meadows, D.H., Randers, J., Meadows, D., 1972. The Limits of Growth. In: A Report for The Club of Rome.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, U.K.

Ostrom, E. 2014. Collective action and the evolution of social norms. Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, 6(4), 235-252.

Vitousek, P. M., Ehrlich, P. R., Ehrlich, A. H., Matson, P. A. 1986. Human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis. BioScience, 368-373.

Wilson, D. S. and D. O. Hessen. 2014. Blueprint for the global village. Cliodynamics 5(1).




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