Humans stand out among animals in that we cooperate in large groups to exploit natural resources, and accumulate resource exploitation techniques across generations via cultural learning. This uniquely human form of adaptability is in large part to blame for the global sustainability crisis. This paper builds on cultural evolutionary theory to conceptualize and study environmental resource use and overexploitation. Human social learning and cooperation, particularly regarding social dilemmas, result in both sustainability crises and solutions. Examples include the collapse of global fisheries, and multilateral agreements to halt ozone depletion. We propose an explicitly evolutionary approach to study how crises and solutions may emerge, persist, or disappear. We first present a brief primer on cultural evolution to define grouplevel cultural adaptations for resource use. This includes criteria for identifying where group-level cultural adaptations may exist, and if a cultural evolutionary approach can be implemented in studying a given system. We then outline a step-by-step process for designing a study of group-level cultural adaptation, including the major methodological considerations that researchers should address in study design, such as tradeoffs between validity and control, issues of time scale, and the value of both qualitative and quantitative data and analysis. We discuss how to evaluate multiple types of evidence synthetically, including historical accounts, new and existing data sets, case studies, and simulations. The electronic supplement provides a tutorial and simple computer code in the R environment to lead users from theory to data to an illustration of an empirical test for group-level adaptations in sustainability research.
Read the full paper in Sustainability Science.
Find the R code for "Data analysis for cultural multilevel selection research: a tutorial" at the Harvard Dataverse.