I recall reading a poster hung in the community hall of a small village in the South Pacific. On the poster were listed “development goals” sponsored by an external agency, one which suggested that locals should change and not value large numbers of children anymore. I was floored at the audacity of the foreign organization suggesting the Pacific Islanders change the way they viewed families, especially since family and the extent of kin relations are paramount to local social identity and notions of self-worth. Who are they to demand such things?

Well-meaning advocates may be tempted to do exactly the above—demand through various means for others to change norms, opinions, and preferences to be more in line with sustainable practices. These demands, at least in small-island states, fail in large part because of my immediate reaction—that they (the proposers) are not local or do not have a good reputation in local society, nor are they part of significant cultural interactions. That is, who are they (and who are we) to propose and expect coordination to happen?

Waring and Tremblay claim that CMLS theory can help explain and address this human side of the socio-ecological equation. They can make this claim because CMLS derives from modern cultural evolutionary theories that make explicit the transmission of information (or culture) of which much of human behavior is based (Boyd & Richerson, 1985; Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981). I believe they are on the right track, yet there is much empirical work to be done for their approach to become validated. Waring and Tremblay have scratched the surface of a larger, long-term empirical agenda. To illustrate, I would like to highlight the particular issue of identity formation, which Waring and Tremblay explicitly mention.

Understanding the dynamics of identity formation is important because they present a solution and a challenge. By identifying with an ethnic, business, or other type of group, an individual adheres to group norms and expectations. As part of these group norms and expectations, sustainable practices may be a central characteristic or “core” of a cultural group, or may be a secondary trait riding on the group’s success or growth. The issue then becomes how we promote sustainable practices to be a part of the relevant religious or secular groups. Figuring this out represents a solution.

The challenge, however, is noting that identity and thus group membership is dynamic. In small-scale groups, we see that ethnolinguistic membership may be flexible (Moya & Scelza, 2015), and so it is with modern groups of religious, political, and secular types. The crux of their analysis of the Bhutan, Fiji, and U.S. littering cases revolves around the strength of groups to solve cooperation problems. In essence, strong groups promoting cooperation are good for sustainability, weak groups yielding to individual-level competition are bad. So how do you get individuals to identify with strong groups who push the sustainability agendas? The anthropological problem hence becomes explaining and predicting the conditions by which individuals shift identities. Further, under what conditions are new identities created that may support institutions promoting a sustainability agenda? Much has been written about identity formation, yet strong empirical tests of evolutionary hypotheses are few. These are the types of empirical agendas CMLS theorists should promote.

A specific obstacle in much of the developing world is that the sustainability agenda is challenged by modern patterns of migration. Developing countries experience significant amounts of out-migration to urban centers or other nations (Castles & Miller, 2003). In the very areas where strong leadership and local connections to ecological contexts are needed, high emigration rates are stretching the effectiveness of the often ephemeral leadership of relevant groups. While a resulting remittance economy often results in development back “home,” a culture of migration also shifts individual concern far beyond the local ecological context.

These “micro” types of concerns are eventually what Waring and Tremblay claim CMLS will address because current theories do “not consider or include endogenous cultural dynamics.” Ambitious empirical vision is needed to validate CMLS in this way, including an agenda that tackles the many dimensions of cultural multi-level selection at both the scale of large institutions and the scale of individual-level patterns of identity formation and group membership. Heeding such cultural dynamics would likely make working with small-scale ethnic groups more effective, at least softening the reactionary push-back from minority ethnic groups who view their culture as a ruler by which their behaviors are judged.


Boyd, Robert, & Richerson, Peter J. (1985). Culture and the Evolutionary Process. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Castles, Stephen, & Miller, Mark. (2003). The Age of Migration. New York: Guilford Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., & Feldman, Marcus W. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution : a quantitative approach. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Moya, Cristina, & Scelza, Brooke. (2015). The effect of recent ethnogenesis and migration histories on perceptions of ethnic group stability. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 15(1-2), 131-173.

Published On: November 30, 2015

Adrian Bell

Adrian Bell

The spread of the human species is largely due to the development of complex culture early in our evolutionary history. Culture, like genes, is inherited, exhibits variation, and can be favored by natural selection and influenced by other evolutionary forces. Unlike genes the transmission of culture can come from many individuals and occurs magnitudes faster. To fully understand human evolution and behavior, culture alongside genes must be a part of the same formula. My mathematical modeling, ethnographic fieldwork, empirical studies, and experiments are motivated by cultural evolutionary theory to answer two major questions:

  1. Can evolutionary favored social learning strategies explain the cultural variation we see among today’s immigrant communities?
  2. Can we explain the degree of cultural complexity using demographic variables, such as group size and migration patterns?

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