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Integrating evolution and social-ecological systems, in theory

Evolutionary research has not focused much on the complexity of human-environmental systems. Meanwhile social-ecological systems research was developed for that purpose, but lacks a theory set for complex change, which evolutionary theory might provide. A new paper from the KLI working group led by Dr. Tim Waring and Dr. Maja Schlueter aims to bring these two fields and theories closer together, with the hope of sparking productive interdisciplinary research on pressing global sustainability challenges.

The working group pushed beyond disciplinary differences to map the problem areas and opportunities embedded in the terminologies the two fields use. Shared terminology with different meanings can cause communication problems. For example, in evolutionary theory, ‘adaptation’ is population level process of differential reproduction and survival that leads to a fit between organisms and their environment, while in social-ecological systems, ‘adaptation’ often means intentional change in a social-ecological system to address a problem. There are also cases of the opposite: different terms in different fields that hold similar meaning. For example, in evolutionary theory ‘evolvability’ refers to the capacity of a population to undergo adaptive evolution. This is closely related to ‘resilience’ in social-ecological systems theory, which typically denotes the ability of a system to persist in the face of changes and shocks, often requiring some kind of change. The paper highlights the importance of these differences and similarities.

Lead authored by Dr. Thomas Currie, the paper is an attempt to build a more integrated and effective science for sustainability by integrating the systems thinking of resilience and social-ecological research with the population thinking of evolutionary theory. Every social-ecological system must be considered as a system with structural factors and system-level properties which might constrain or promote sustainable outcomes. And all social-ecological systems are populations of living organisms that evolve both genetically and culturally over time. With this conceptual and terminological map in place, other researchers may find interdisciplinary sustainability research a little less complex and challenging.



Currie Thomas E., Borgerhoff Mulder Monique, Fogarty Laurel, Schlüter Maja, Folke Carl, Haider L. Jamila, Caniglia Guido, Tavoni Alessandro, Jansen Raf E. V., Jørgensen Peter Søgaard and Waring Timothy M. 2024 Integrating evolutionary theory and social–ecological systems research to address the sustainability challenges of the Anthropocene. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 3792022026220220262

The paper is part of a theme issue “Evolution and sustainability: gathering the strands for an Anthropocene synthesis” compiled and edited by Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, Timothy M. Waring and Vanessa P. Weinberger. Available here: