Social Evolution Forum
FIND sef:
The complexity of social groups and sustainable development

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the dynamic and relatively new field of sustainability science, and Waring and Tremblay have made a strong case for placing evolutionary approaches at the center of this field. As an environmental social scientist who still considers himself to be fairly new to the world of CMLS, I appreciate Waring and Tremblay’s distillation of a complex framework and their efforts to demonstrate its usefulness as a tool for analyzing global sustainability problems. This article is yet another contribution to early efforts (e.g., Beddoe et al. 2009; Safarzynska et al. 2012; Wilson 2011) to apply cultural evolutionary thinking to important local and global issues.

In my opinion, the authors’ most valuable contribution is not necessarily their articulation of what CMLS theory is (which was nicely aided by Joe Brewer’s commentary) but their illustration of what CMLS can do as a tool for understanding sustainable social-ecological system dynamics. Waring and Tremblay’s straightforward application of the CMLS framework is an effective step towards demonstrating the utility of cultural evolutionary frameworks for scientists, practitioners, and policy makers who are open to the application of evolutionary thinking but are uncertain about how to use it to inform policy or to design robust empirical studies. However, it is also important to note that we are still in the early stages of developing a more complete and clear understanding of CMLS and providing useful tools for scholars, practitioners, and policy makers at multiple scales of human organization. Waring and Tremblay’s short historical analyses are a necessary first step at this stage of the development of the CMLS framework and it is an important step towards making CMLS one of—if not the—foundational framework for the emerging applied science of sustainability.

As Waring has noted in personal communications, CMLS is a “data-hungry” framework that involves understanding complex social and ecological interactions that occur over time and across multiple scales of organization. As such, careful thought and resources will need to be devoted to developing empirical studies and modeling approaches (e.g., Safarzynska 2013) that allow for tests of hypotheses derived from this framework. There are, however, challenges to moving towards a forward-looking, predictive science of sustainability that is informed by CMLS. With this commentary, I discuss two such challenges related to the importance of group structure and group dynamics. I finish with one additional insight about sustainable development in Bhutan.

As Waring and Tremblay note, group dynamics are critically important. Group structure is a foundational feature of human social life, which can facilitate cooperation when individuals sort themselves in ways that allow them to share the benefits of cooperative action with likeminded others. We use cultural markers to signal membership in, and distinction from, social groups, and we conform to the norms that are common in a given group. The features associated with group structure ultimately guide our social interactions and, in some ways, shape who we learn from and imitate and how cultural variants are transmitted and change.

But social group dynamics are incredibly complex, particularly in modern societies. We are all members of multiple social groups that exist at multiple scales of human organization. Our social identity is context dependent and multi-dimensional (Smaldino forthcoming), greatly complicating our understanding of how behaviors and norms spread. Which social identity is salient for which behaviors? How does divergence among the norms that are prevalent in the different groups with which we identify affect our behavior and the spread of norms? How do group structures, social signals, behaviors, social norms, physical infrastructure, and economic forces co-evolve and what does this mean for sustainability (Brooks and Wilson 2015)?

Developing robust empirical applications of CMLS theory for sustainability science is daunting in the face of such complexity. Progress in this field will require us to confront this complexity but it is by no means an insurmountable obstacle. This is not a new point and it is one that Waring and Tremblay certainly recognize. I simply want to be explicit about this challenge and I present it as an opportunity for future work. For those who suggest that true progress towards a more sustainable society will require broad cultural change, working with the complexity of social groups and exploring the dynamics and mechanisms of cultural evolution is critical.

A second comment related to group structure and dynamics pertains to the potential dark side of group identity. The Bhutan case presented by Waring and Tremblay illustrates how within-group cooperation can emerge from between-group conflict. External entities (some of which were nation states and some of which were ethnic groups) were perceived to be threats to Bhutan’s existence as a sovereign nation. These perceived threats lead to a clear articulation of the need for a shared national identity:

“Our independence, sovereignty and security will continue to be dependent upon the assertion of our distinctive Bhutanese identity […] The emergence of Bhutan as a nation state has been dependent upon the articulation of a distinct Bhutanese identity, founded upon our Buddhist beliefs and values, and the promotion of a common language…This identity, manifest in the concept of ‘one nation, one people’, has engendered in us the will to survive as a nation state as well as the strength to defend it in the face of threats and dangers.” (Planning Commission Secretariat 1999a: 8)

However, solidification of this distinct identity came at the expense of certain freedoms for ethnic communities in Southern Bhutan that did not share many of the cultural traits of other Bhutanese groups. Efforts to promote unity and a shared cultural identity included designating a national language (Dzongkha), reemphasizing an ancient set of cultural standards that included a national dress code and standard forms of etiquette (Rinzin 2006; Ura 2004), and removing Nepali language instruction from Bhutanese schools (Schappi 2005). These reforms lead to ethnic conflict and violence in Southern Bhutan and the subsequent eviction of Nepali immigrants and, allegedly, Bhutanese citizens of Nepali ethnic descent (Hutt 2003; Priesner 1998; Schappi 2005). I raise this point not as a critique of CMLS or of Waring and Tremblay’s focus article, but instead to note that emphasizing group identity as a means of generating cooperation can have severe consequences. Indeed, in the original article, Waring et al. (2015:9) note the need to avoid ethnocentric solutions/institutions and suggest that the “…CMLS perspective gives us a means to explain their (ethnocentric institutions) emergence and persistence, and to strategically avoid situations that could lead to their emergence.”

A final note on sustainable development in Bhutan is that the challenges Bhutan faces as it attempts to maximize Gross National Happiness (GNH) are not just a result of political change (the transition from monarchy to democracy). Important social and economic changes are also emerging as part of the development process. In past 10-15 years, the pathways for cultural transmission have increased in Bhutan as a result of the growth of tourism, international travel by Bhutanese, and access to television and internet. The Bhutanese are now much more likely to be exposed to different values systems, ideals, and lifestyles that may oppose the ideals promoted by GNH. These ideals include achieving “…a balance between the spiritual and material aspects of life…” and deliberately choosing “…to give preference to happiness and peace, even at the expense of economic growth, which we have regarded not as an end in itself, but as a means to achieve improvements in the well-being and welfare of the people” (Planning Commission Secretariat 1999b: 19).

As the Bhutanese become exposed to consumer culture, the question is whether their social identity as Bhutanese citizens, and the degree to which this identity is linked with the philosophy behind GNH, can persist in the face of consumerism and materialism (Brooks 2013). The adoption of “Western” lifestyles and ideals and the potential erosion of traditional Bhutanese cultural norms and practices may reduce the cultural differences between Bhutan and other nations which could shift the dominant level of selection and reduce the efficacy of GNH as a sustainable development approach.

Conversely, and Waring and Tremblay allude to this, at the same time that individuals may be adopting and modifying “Western” values, lifestyles, and consumption patterns, the ideals of GNH are spreading at the policy-level. Several nations have taken notice of GNH and its emphasis on well-being and sustainable development including the French, British, German, Canadian, and Chinese governments. The Bhutanese government has also worked to place GNH on the global agenda through international meetings on well-being and a resolution for the United Nations General Assembly (see Brooks 2013).

In short, Waring and Tremblay have provided a very useful primer on the application of CMLS theory to understanding the emergence and persistence of sustainable social-ecological systems. They have taken a first step and the opportunity exists to make substantial progress in applying evolutionary perspectives to the numerous challenges related to sustainability.


Beddoe R., Costanza R., Farley J. et al. (2009) Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: the evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 106, 2483-2489.

Brooks J.S. (2013) Avoiding the limits to growth: gross national happiness in Bhutan as a model for sustaianable development. Sustainability 5, 3640-3664.

Brooks J.S., Wilson C. (2015) The influence of contextual cues on the perceived status of consumption-reducing behavior. Ecol Econ 117, 108-117.

Hutt M. (2003) Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan. Oxford Univeristy Press, New York, NY.

Planning Commission Secretariat (1999a). Bhutan 2020: A Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and Happiness Part II; Royal Government of Bhutan: Thimphu, Bhutan.

Planning Commission Secretariat. (1999b). Bhutan 2020: A Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and Happiness Part I; Royal Government of Bhutan: Thimphu, Bhutan.

Priesner S. (1998) Bhutan in 1997: striving for sustainability. Asian Survey 38, 155-160.

Rinzin C. (2006) On the Middle Path: The Social Basis for Sustainable Development in Bhutan. Labor Grafimedia b.v., Utrecht.

Safarzynska K. (2013) The coevolution of culture and environment. Journal of Theoretical Biology 322.

Safarzynska K., Frenken K., van den Bergh J.C.J.M. (2012) Evolutionary theorizing and modeling of sustainability transitions. Research Policy 41, 1011-1024.

Schappi D. (2005) Cultural plurality, national identity, and concensus in Bhutan. CIS Working Paper No 6. Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.

Smaldino P. (forthcoming) The Evolution of the Social Self: Multidimensionality of Social Identity Solves the Coordination Problems of a Society. in W.C. Wimsatt, A.C. Love editors. Beyond the Meme: Articulating Dynamic Structures in Cultural Evolution. University of Minnesota Press.

Ura K. (2004) Dieties, Archers, and Planners in the Era of Decentralisation. Karma Ura, Thimphu, Bhutan.

Waring T., Kline M.A., Brooks J.S. et al. (2015) A multilevel evolutionary framework for sustainability analysis. Ecology and Society 20, 1-34.

Wilson D.S. (2011) The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City One Block at a Time. Little, Brown, and Company, New York, NY.

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