Evolution of Sustainability

Full Title

Synthesizing social-ecological systems change using cultural evolution theory


Understanding social-ecological systems change is necessary for managing social transitions to sustainable states. However, generalizable insights have been elusive with existing approaches. Cultural evolutionary theories can integrate sustainability research across current frameworks of social-ecological system change. Undertaking this integration will allow us to create generalizable hypotheses and to generate causal explanations of change in existing studies on social-ecological systems.

Evolutionary theory can contribute to social-ecological systems research in two ways. First, evolutionary theory can explain the dynamics of endogenous cultural change (i.e., changes in norms, preferences, and institutions), which is often rapid and may affect social-ecological systems more than slow or diffuse environmental forces. Second, when resource conservation is costly, it conforms to the game theoretic definition of cooperative behavior. Cooperation in humans often evolves through cultural mechanisms. As such, cultural evolutionary models can assist in studying the emergence and persistence of social-ecological systems.

This Venture unites cultural evolution scholars with empirical social-ecological systems researchers to create an integrative evolutionary framework of social-ecological systems change. We will focus on existing datasets from widely studied forest and marine systems to document patterns produced by evolutionary processes across social-ecological systems. Metrics of success include:

  • an interdisciplinary articulation of the synthetic evolutionary framework and
  • the reinterpretation of current and historical social-ecological case studies for use with an evolutionary framework, leading to:
    • the development of novel testable hypotheses and
    • publications including a synthesis paper and a journal special issue.
Project Type
Team Synthesis Project
Principal Investigators
Jeremy Brooks, Ohio State University
Timothy Waring, University of Maine
Adrian Bell, University of Utah
Jodi Brandt, Boise State University
Michael Cox, Dartmouth College
Beatrice Crona, Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stefan Gelcich, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Vicken Hillis, University of California, Davis
Michelle Kline, Simon Fraser University
Mark Lubell, University of California, Davis
Esther Mwangi, Center for International Forestry Research
Lauren Persha, UNC Chapel Hill
Victoria Reyes-García, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona

Related Content