There is So. Much. To Do!

The Sustainability Applied Working Group met at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany from 6th-8th February for their in-person workshop. Lorna and Sarah attended on behalf of the grant team to observe (and participate a little), resulting in this blog.

Growing an applied science of cultural evolution for a sustainable human planet – workshop blog

Sarah Wright, Lorna Winship, and Rachel Kendal

The Sustainability Applied Working Group, led by PI Rebecca Koomen, met at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany from 6th-8th February for their in-person workshop. Lorna and Sarah attended on behalf of the grant team to observe (and participate a little), resulting in this blog.

This was our last but certainly not least Applied Working Group workshop. It brilliantly captured the unique strengths that come from bringing together academics and practitioners to work on an issue, as well as the unique challenges. Below, we explore in more detail the learnings of the workshop, emphasising the particularities which made this workshop different to purely academic discussions, and how those differences are building towards an applied science of cultural evolution that can help accelerate the spread of sustainable behaviours, enhance the ability of groups to adapt to new challenges, and assist in the emergence of new levels of cooperation for a more sustainable society. As recently highlighted by Fletcher et al., (2024), there is an urgent need to act to improve human sustainability, since the climate crisis, caused by human behaviour, is rapidly unfolding, leading to more extreme weather (Williams et al., 2022), higher rates of species extinction (Wiens, 2016), and significant losses in Arctic ice sheets (Kacimi & Kwok, 2022). This applied working group is using a multi-faceted approach to explore how cultural evolution can be used to increase human sustainability and combat these pressing issues.

Prior to the workshop, members of the Applied Working Group (AWG) drew up a set of frontiers around which to base the research and efforts from the group. Frontiers here refers to the nature of the concepts being on the boundaries of academic research and applied sustainability work, relevant and useful to both groups and therefore to the aims of the AWG. The frontiers formed the basis of much of the workshop, including in pre-workshop meetings and in the co-production of a poster for each frontier in collaboration with the AWG’s resident artist, Antonia Lara.

Frontier 0 lays out the groundwork for the subsequent frontiers, giving an overview of how cultural traits evolve and influence the environment.

Frontier 1 addresses the transmission of environmental cultural traits: how they spread and what influences the shape and success of their transmission.

Frontier 2 turns the focus to adaptation and cumulative cultural evolution, examining the ways in which cultural evolution mimics biological evolution by natural selection, with adaptive traits such as effective drought-resistant practices becoming more successful than their neutral or maladaptive alternatives.

Frontier 3 explored the cultural evolution of cooperation and governance as it pertains to sustainability. The difficulties of engaging in and maintaining cooperative practices when individuals could defect and benefit from the effort of others has vast applications to environmental cultural traits, and this frontier (similarly to another of our projects, led by Nichola Raihani) addresses those issues and lays the groundwork for interventions to promote cooperative environmental governance.

Finally, Frontier 4 looks to the future, speculating about a sustainability transition on the scale of other grand transitions in human history, such as the advent of agriculture. This final frontier is a call to action, bringing together the other frontiers to enact change on a global scale.

With these frontiers in mind, and the evidence from the pre-workshop meetings, we got to work.  

A woman stands next to a poster in front of a room of seated people, facing her.
The seminar room in which the majority of workshop sessions took place. Susan Hanish presents feedback on one of the Frontiers posters to the rest of the AWG. Photo credit: Rebecca Koomen.

In the first day of the workshop, we began with introductions, emphasising the expertise and range of backgrounds in the room, including academics, community stakeholders, grassroots activists, and NGO professionals (including Environmental Defense Fund and We were treated to an invigorating talk from Adam Seth Levine concerning increasing the impact of research by connecting with other researchers, policymakers, community leaders, and practitioners. This was followed by an interactive collaborative art session which involved suggesting changes to the Frontiers posters – first in groups and then by circulating freely among the five posters. Across the whole session there were evident tensions that arose due to the difficulty of describing cultural evolutionary concepts, tools, and problems to a wide audience without losing sight of the scientific basis of the field, with many debates about where the line should be drawn between accessibilty  and accuracy. Academics pressed the need to define culture and use the correct terminology whilst practitioners highlighted the audience’s expected preference for less text and more accessible language on the infographics.

Five people are gathered around a table, which has a large poster covering it, with post-it notes placed on the poster. The group are discussing and looking at the poster.
A group discusses Frontier 2 in the interactive art collaboration session (top to bottom and left to right: Natalia Fedorova, Anne Pisor, Peter Sørgaard Jørgensen, Wendy Chávez-Páez, and Erik Thulin). Photo credit: Rebecca Koomen

Day two began with a round of talks from each of 6 focus group leaders (groups featuring members of the applied working group and non-academics in relevant domains) regarding their pre-workshop working group meetings. The Grassroots group spoke about the potential use of cultural evolutionary theory for helping to shape the cultures of activist groups to improve them in accordance with their specific needs, such as by introducing measures to promote inclusivity of often unheard accounts. They also cautioned us about the need to have a decolonial mindset and to pay attention to the ideologies and culture of cultural evolution itself.  The NGO group criticised the five Frontiers for being too jargon-heavy, echoing concerns from the day before regarding the infographics. An additional concern raised was the lack of clarity concerning the added value that cultural evolutionary theory could bring to existing efforts in sustainability. The Business group had similar concerns and indicated that many businesses they’d spoken with in Vietnam as a rapidly developing nation, weren’t particularly oriented towards  environmental sustainability. The Community group fed back that they understood many of the core concepts of cultural evolutionary theory expressed in the Frontiers; suggesting that the Frontier concepts had done their job by meeting practitioners at the boundaries of the shared language between practitioners and academics. The Education group addressed the progress they’d made on exploring how cultural evolutionary theory can be taught and learned, and why it’s valuable that this happens. Finally, the Government group advised that institutional inertia could be a problem that cultural evolution would be well-suited to address, a topic which was raised by the Transformation Fund’s Natural Resource Management AWG as well, explored in our blog post about the workshop here. After a session on impact specifically pertaining to policy from Rebecca Koomen, we broke off into groups based on the existing focus group structure, and discussed reflections on the problems our group encounters which cultural evolutionary theory might be able to address, such as the uptake of new practices.

After lunch, we turned to the future of the working group and the next steps that would be necessary to create and sustain an Applied Research Network – who it should be for, how it should be managed, and what activities it could involve. The discussion returned to the issues brought up previously regarding identifying the added value of cultural evolutionary theory, and we agreed that a unique strength of the cultural evolutionary approach is in showing why people aren’t adopting new sustainable solutions. The technology is there, and sometimes the lack of uptake is attributed to human irrationality. Yet, cultural evolution can show that’s not the case while providing solutions to the problem of uptake or adoption of new sustainable practices.

A large group of people pose for a photo on a set of steps in front of a building.
International workshop on growing an applied science of cultural evolution for a sustainable future. From left to right, bottom row: Jeremy Brooks, Tim Waring (Co-II), Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, Connor Davis, James Liu. Second row: Rebecca Koomen (PI), Dustin Eirdosh, Susan Hanisch, Wendy Chávez-Páez, Anne Pisor (obscured), Moh. Abdul Hakim, Rainer Romero-Conyas (obscured). Third row: Sarah Wright Lorna Winship, Danielle Wood, Antonia Lara Gómez, Karl Frost (far right). Top row: Erik Thulin, Douglas Rogers.

The final day was largely dedicated to writing. We began with an introduction from Tim Waring with feedback on the workshop so far, followed by check-ins with each workshop member, allowing people the opportunity to reflect on their experiences so far (a practice the AWG ‘adopted’ from one of the Grassroots practitioners!). We split off again into the 6 focus groups, each tasked to put together some public-facing worksheets, and information which would later contribute to a policy White Paper (summary of the groups’ findings and suggested guidance) .

Throughout the workshop, discourse arose repeatedly between academic preferences for accurate language and especially accurate (often lengthy) description of terms versus practitioners’ advice that such jargon was difficult for most people to process and therefore alienated readers and potential collaborators. Similarly, the various terminologies of different groups and individuals caused confusion, whether due to having multiple terms to describe the same concept, or multiple concepts covered by a single term. These difficulties, and the noted costs involved with establishing and maintaining relationships between academics and practitioners in the focus groups, were outweighed significantly by the benefits of bringing so many different forms of expertise together to tackle a single, albeit vast and complex, problem. NGO workers, business liaisons, and grassroots campaigners alike reminded the academics of the necessity of remembering their audience and designing outputs that identified and met that audience’s need, whilst academics highlighted the strengths of cultural evolution and its theoretic potential to produce the sustainability solutions Without both perspectives, we would have ended up with either posters packed with dense academic language and definitions, counterproductive for communicating the concepts to a wider audience, or  sleek and user-friendly but ultimately theory-lacking posters, neither of which would have put the working group in a position to be able to enact societal change.

As the the slide below says, there is “so much to do!”, but this workshop was an immense step forward in the working group’s efforts to  gather the best approaches for applying cultural evolution to promote sustainable outcomes. The Transformation Fund team are delighted to be able to support, and take part in, such important and exciting projects using cultural evolution to tackle issues of global concern.  

A man stands in front of a screen giving a presentation. The slide next to him displays the text "So. Much. To Do!" in large font on a plain black background.
Tim Waring presenting during the AWG Workshop. Photo Credit: Rebecca Koomen.


Fletcher, C., Ripple, W. J., Newsome, T., Barnard, P., Beamer, K., Behl, A., Bowen, J., Cooney, M., Crist, E., Field, C., Hiser, K., Karl, D. M., King, D. A., Mann, M. E., McGregor, D. P., Mora, C., Oreskes, N., & Wilson, M. (2024). Earth at risk: An urgent call to end the age of destruction and forge a just and sustainable future. In PNAS Nexus (Vol. 3, Issue 4). National Academy of Sciences.

Kacimi, S., & Kwok, R. (2022). Arctic Snow Depth, Ice Thickness, and Volume From ICESat-2 and CryoSat-2: 2018–2021. Geophysical Research Letters, 49(5).

Wiens, J. J. (2016). Climate-Related Local Extinctions Are Already Widespread among Plant and Animal Species. PLoS Biology, 14(12).

Williams, A. P., Cook, B. I., & Smerdon, J. E. (2022). Rapid intensification of the emerging southwestern North American megadrought in 2020–2021. Nature Climate Change, 12(3), 232–234.

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