Commentary on “An Evolutionary Approach to Sustainability Science” by Timothy Waring and Ethan Tremblay

Thank heavens for next generations. If it weren’t for young people pressing for change, change would occur much more slowly than it does. In his book Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, Yale psychiatrist Bruce E. Wexler gives this commonplace observation a neurobiological explanation. The amazingly plastic human brain adapts to its environment and engages in niche construction during development but then rigidly clings to the status quo during adulthood. Adults who retain youthful flexibility are rare.

Timothy Waring and Ethan Tremblay’s focus article, which is based on a multi-authored article1 published in the academic journal Ecology and Society, represents the next generation of cultural evolutionists. They regard the great controversies of the previous generation, such as the legitimacy of multilevel selection as a theoretical framework, as over (go here for more) and they are eager to move on to new challenges. They are also eager to leave the Ivory Tower and use the scientific tools that they have learned to use to improve the quality of life in a practical sense.

Sustainability is an excellent example of how cultural evolutionary theory can add value to a topic that is obviously important for human welfare and has already attracted the attention of the best and brightest minds employing other perspectives. As Waring and Tremblay describe in their target article, current sustainability science is strong on ecological dynamics and complex systems thinking but light on cultural dynamics and evolutionary thinking. Evolutionary thinking is new and important in the biological realm, even before we get to cultural evolution. Most sustainability scientists do not sufficiently appreciate that genetic evolution can operate on ecological time scales, so that the parameters governing ecological dynamics cannot be assumed to remain constant over time. In addition, when genetic evolution does not keep pace with environmental change, a sophisticated knowledge of evolution is required to understand the mismatch between adaptations to past environments in the current environment (go here for more).

Cultural multilevel selection adds another layer of complexity that is essential for addressing sustainability issues. The iron law of multilevel selection is: “Adaptation at any given level of a multi-tier hierarchy of units requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels.” The reason that unsustainable practices are so common is because they benefit lower-level units at the expense of the higher-level good. Seeing this clearly can go a long way toward designing social environments at all scales that allow sustainable practices to increase in frequency in a Darwinian world, as described in a previous SEF target essay by Norwegian biologist Dag Hessen and myself, titled “Blueprint for a Global Village.”

That’s all very good in theory, but how about it practice? One of the main strengths of Waring and Tremblay’s focus article is that they apply CMLS theory to real world examples such as the conservation and exploitation of marine resources in Fiji, the enlightened social and economic policy of Bhutan, and the successful campaign to reduce littering in America. Applying the same theoretical framework to diverse examples is second nature for an evolutionist but not for most policy experts, who work in isolated communities that do not share a common theoretical framework. Since helping to start the Evolution Institute in 2007, I have interacted with hundreds of policy experts of all stripes. Most of them are open-minded about evolution but have no training and want to know how it adds value to their current perspectives. That’s a fair question and case studies such as these are beginning to provide solid answers.

I end this commentary on a somewhat pessimistic note. In their target essay, Waring and Tremblay state that “usually bad ideas don’t catch on.” I am struck by how often bad ideas do catch on for reasons that can be understood in terms of cultural evolutionary theory. In addition to ideas that are selected at lower levels and are bad at higher levels, the entire psychological machinery underpinning cultural evolution evolved by genetic evolution in the context of small groups and can break down in large-scale society. There is a “cultural system dysfunction hypothesis” comparable to the immune system dysfunction hypothesis that has begun to attract widespread attention in medical circles (go here for more).

My pessimism is based in part on a bitter experience—a program for at-risk high school students that was highly successful in a randomized control trial and still didn’t survive or spread because of instabilities in the larger public school system (go here for more). If we want best practices to spread in modern social environments, then the entire machinery underpinning cultural evolution will need to be socially constructed in a way that interfaces with our genetically evolved psychological mechanisms and past products of cultural evolution. That’s a daunting job that can’t even be envisioned without a sophisticated knowledge of evolutionary theory. The next generation of cultural evolutionists is arriving just in time.


  1. Waring, T. M., M. A. Kline, J. S. Brooks, S. H. Goff, J. Gowdy, M. A. Janssen, P. E. Smaldino, and J. Jacquet. 2015. A multilevel evolutionary framework for sustainability analysis. Ecology and Society 20(2): 34. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/

Published On: October 30, 2015

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.

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