Commentary on Humans: The Species That Changed Earth

In the target article, E.C. Ellis outlines a theory of sociocultural niche construction as part of a broader extended evolutionary synthesis of anthropogenic change1,2. Just as ecological niche construction describes how creatures have both a biological inheritance (genes) as well as an ecological inheritance (the shaped environment), so too sociocultural evolution can be seen from this broader inclusive inheritance perspective.

Understanding the historical evolutionary dynamics of sociocultural niche construction provides a foundational understanding for the ultimate causes of changing biospheric dynamics in the Anthropocene. Ellis argues on a practical note that:

“… as contemporary societies advance in their ability to understand the ultimate causes, not just the consequences, of their transformation of the Earth, this knowledge has the potential to enable societies to seek and implement social strategies aimed towards sustaining both themselves and nonhuman species more successfully and to make progress toward more desirable futures”.

I want to focus my commentary on this important claim of translating our understanding of ultimate causation in human ecology, into social strategies for global sustainability. Can understanding the origins and deeper patterns of sociocultural complexity help us become wise managers of evolutionary processes3 as some scholars now advocate? There is good reason to be skeptical of this claim under current conditions, and yet optimism may well be in order if society can embrace the extended evolutionary synthesis described by Ellis. Particularly salient examples of sociocultural niche construction can be found in classrooms engaged in teaching the approaches of big history4 and education for sustainable development5. Respectively, these education innovations engage students in ultimate causation of the Anthropocene and sociocultural strategies for sustainability.  I’ll argue that we must expand the developmental conditions for collaborative problem-solving through classrooms that strategically connect these two emerging educational trends.

Sociocultural Niche Construction in the Classroom
Can societal understanding of the ultimate causation of the Anthropocene really lead to effective social strategies for sustainability? Let’s examine formal education as a globally distributed environment in which sociocultural niche construction is an explicit aim (even if the language of cultural evolution is not commonly evoked to describe that aim). Classrooms are environments designed through a complex blending of vertical and horizontal sociocultural inheritances. Classrooms are environments specifically designed (in theory) to cultivate citizens that can behave adaptively at personal and societal scales. Classrooms are the primary environments where citizens may learn about the serious consequences of human transformation of the biosphere. Equally so, classrooms are the primary environments where citizens may learn about the ultimate causes that have placed our species in the planetary driver’s seat.

Against this context of education as sociocultural niche construction lie two important cultural genomes that are now globally proliferating: big history and education for sustainable development. Big history is a field of education using scholarly methods to understand the universe, earth, life, and humanity as an interconnected historical narrative. Big history is the most popularized and professionalized curriculum design approach I know of that seeks to connect ultimate causation with the evolving modern challenges of the Anthropocene. Alternatively, education for sustainable development seeks to teach the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to solve the modern challenges of social, economic, and environmental health. In practice, however, education for sustainable development overwhelmingly ignores ultimate causation in the pursuit of proximate solutions.

We might translate Erle’s claim about the utility of understanding ultimate causation into a question for the education sciences: can big history contribute to education for sustainable development?

Reasons for Skepticism
Education research directly linking big history to the development of social strategies for the Anthropocene does not, to my knowledge, exist. As such, skepticism is in order and any positive argumentation should be framed accordingly.   I’ll highlight some of the arguments against the value of big history perspectives in education for sustainable development in terms of a concept called transfer of learning6.

At the general level of education innovation, there is a reasonable doubt that current scientific progress will not transfer into most global classrooms (an issue of large-scale sociocultural transmission and inheritance). The transfer of learning from the global collective knowledge-base into classroom practice is notoriously challenging for a complex of reasons. At the level of individual students, there is also reason to be skeptical that teaching about ultimate causation of the Anthropocene in the classroom will produce students that transfer this learning into relevant applied situations throughout the rest of their lives.

I won’t review the expansive transfer of learning literature here, only to say it has been an enduring failure of education sciences for over a century. Most schools and teachers are not prepared to translate the latest scientific thinking into classroom curriculum. Most students learn facts or skills in very context-specific situations, and fail to transfer this learning into other areas of their life where it may be relevant. Therefore, to talk about how our societal understanding of ultimate causation of the Anthropocene can lead to solutions for managing the consequences of future change, we must directly address the transfer of learning challenge at social and individual scales.

Society is amassing an incredible storehouse of collective knowledge about the ultimate causes and future potential of the Anthropocene. The question remains to be seen if this knowledge can be transferred into action.  This is a challenge that a rigorous science of sociocultural evolution should be prepared to address.

The Need for a Unified Education for Sustainable Development
Respecting the arguments for skepticism above, transfer of learning does, in fact, observably occur in classrooms and communities around the world. Teachers do sometimes bring current science in the classroom, and students do sometimes apply what they have learned outside the classroom. The key is to understand the conditions under which such transfer of learning occurs at different scales. While there are no quick fix shortcuts, integrative approaches to curriculum design may allow for progress. There may be effective suites of strategies for schools to transfer global insights about the ultimate causation of the Anthropocene into classroom instruction, and for students to further transfer that learning into applied social strategies for change. I’ll highlight just some key approaches for each scale of transfer.

Transfer of Learning from Science to Society
The global education landscape is notoriously fractured along multiple cross-cutting lines based on differences in content area, pedagogical theorizing, pedagogical preference, sociocultural, economic, and political diversity. Diversity of thought is, of course, generally positive. However, when everyone has their own favored framework for science and education, we must expend more effort to generalize across frameworks if we expect to benefit from collective learning.

If we view the fields of big history and education for sustainable development each as a specific framework for teaching, then it is no surprise that adoption of these approaches is fragmented in competition within the jungle of other curricular frameworks available. If we instead view these two approaches in generalized terms, from a cultural evolution perspective, we might see greater opportunity for global consensus. While a multitude of specific curriculum resources exist to teach big history, at its core, this field is about understanding ultimate causation of complexity in the universe. Equally, while a multitude of specific curriculum resources exist to teach education for sustainable development, at its core, this field is ultimately about developing citizens and societies with greater adaptive flexibility.

Understanding ultimate causation of complexity and cultivating adaptive flexibility at multiple scales of complexity are essential functions of 21st century education. This is an important generalized insight that is almost universally agreed upon, but gets lost in the shuffle of specific educational frameworks.  If educators and policy makers could appreciate these generalized functions of all educational systems, stronger global consensus could emerge around strategies for improvement. On this view, connecting big history and education for sustainable development approaches, in the general sense, becomes an obvious and essential foundation for solving the challenges of the Anthropocene, rather than merely one more suggested framework.

Transfer of Learning from Student to Society
Getting classroom teachers to connect ultimate causation with social strategies for sustainability is only the first step. That progress will only matter in so far as students transfer that learning into applied contexts throughout their life. As I’ve noted, this is one of education’s greatest challenges and one of it’s enduring failures. I won’t claim to solve this dilemma here. Instead I’ll highlight one key concept connecting the transfer of learning literature to cultural evolution, and that is Robert Haskell’s notion of cultures of transfer.

What this means, in short, is that if we want to teach students about ultimate causation of the Anthropocene and then expect them to transfer this learning into applied social strategies in their communities, we must embed them in communities making these connections consistently and explicitly. Schools and communities must develop a culture in which a foundational understanding of the big history of our species is a normative part of everyday problem-solving. Big history can not be a stand alone lesson in high school. Education for sustainable development can not be a one time community service experience in college. If we want students to effectively utilize the best of what humans know about our most complex challenges, they need an environment rich in role models doing just that.

Conclusion: A Global Coalition Built on Generalized Principles
Education itself is among the grand challenges of the Anthropocene. We are facing a crisis situation in which we simply do not have the resources needed for achieving global education goals 7. Humans have never before been able to collaborate and cooperate on the global scale we can today. Yet the very institutions designed to steer our sociocultural evolution towards greater collective learning, our schools and universities, are mired in a fragmented landscape of specific frameworks that don’t seem to generalize.

In the target article, Ellis suggests that societal understanding of ultimate causation of the Anthropocene may lead to social strategies for a more desirable future. To achieve this transfer of collective learning into social strategies, we must broadly recognize many generalized functions of global education systems. Two of these critical functions include (1) fostering an understanding of ultimate causation of complexity across society, and (2) cultivating adaptive flexibility at multiple scales of sociocultural complexity. If we can build consensus among educators and policymakers around these ultimate functions of education, we can begin to build a global education coalition rooted in deeper common understandings of what it means to be human in today’s world.

The suggestion to connect big history with education for sustainable development is not a marketing ploy for specific curricular resources. Rather, it is a plea to recognize an escalating need for global cooperation across the education sector. Only when our schools and universities become networked cultural hubs for utilizing our understanding of big history in service of big problems, will society begin to benefit from this base of knowledge.


  1. Ellis, E. C. (2015). Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere. Ecological Monographs 85: 287–331.
  1. Steffen, W., P. J. Crutzen, and J. R. McNeill. (2007). The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36: 614-621.
  1. Wilson, D. S. (2011). The Neighborhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at a time. Little, Brown.
  1. Grinin, L., Baker, D., Quaedackers, E., & Korotayev, A. (Eds.). (2014).Teaching & Researching Big History: Exploring a New Scholarly Field.
  1. Wals, A.E.J. (2009). Learning for a Sustainable World: Review of contexts and structures for ESD.
  1. Haskell, R. E. (2000). Transfer of learning: Cognition and instruction. Academic Press.
  1. Education for all, & UNESCO. (2015). Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Pricing the right to education: The cost of reaching new targets by 2030. Paris, France. Retrieved from http://www.globaleducationfirst.org/files/232197E(1).pdf

Published On: March 7, 2016

Dustin Eirdosh

Dustin Eirdosh

Dustin is the co-founder of the non-profit sustainability education organization GlobalESD.org, and a researcher / education outreach coordinator at the Department of Comparative Cultural Psychology of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Together with his wife, Susan Hanisch, Dustin works through teacher-researcher collaborations and student-led community science projects to advance teaching and learning at the intersection of evolution, behavior, and sustainability science. By linking scientific perspectives on social change with students and classrooms seeking to make the world a better place, the aim of this work is to foster a more global discussion about where we are going in the light of where we all have come from. 

Dustin tweets about evolutionary approaches to sustainability education from @GlobalESD and about teaching evolution in early education from @EvoKidsGlobal


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