An overarching ‘grand challenge’ for the field of cultural evolution is educating policy-makers and the public about cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is a topic that readily fascinates the public, but is often poorly understood and used too infrequently outside academia.

Through supporting and funding Applied Working Groups, the CES aims to address this deficit. The aim of the Applied Working Groups is to apply cultural evolution theory and methods to real world areas such as public health, education, politics, business, conservation and welfare. Activities of Applied Working Groups include hosting workshops uniting researchers and policy-makers, and producing policy briefs, visual summaries and infographics.

All public policies attempt to change culture. Our Applied Working Groups engage with the ethical implications of cultural evolutionary recommendations, ensuring that they are transparent to the public and use the expertise of professional policy-makers.

Currently active Applied Working Groups are listed below. If you would like to form a new Applied Working Group, please Contact us.

The Hunter Gatherer Education working group aims to promote better educational options for contemporary hunting and gathering societies. Hunter-gatherers are small scale, mostly egalitarian, societies that until recently depended primarily on food obtained directly from their natural environment, through hunting, fishing, and gathering edible and medicinal plants. Although these groups themselves are often small, globally they make up an important group, representing a significant percentage of human cultural and linguistic diversity. Furthermore, many hunter gatherer groups live in hotspots of biodiversity, and possess knowledge and adaptive strategies honed over centuries or millennia; these are communicated between generations through highly effective pedagogical approaches. Recent scientific findings support the argument that these groups have much to contribute to our search for more sustainable ways to live on this planet.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 promotes ‘Quality Education’ – with the understanding that “education enables upward socioeconomic mobility and is a key to escaping poverty”. While this may be true in some cases, individuals from hunting and gathering societies are often faced with enormous barriers to participation in schools. Furthermore, even limited participation can undermine their own effective and relevant knowledge transmission strategies.

In this project, we work with individuals from hunter-gatherer communities, educational policy-makers and practitioners, and other researchers, to identify scientifically-informed approaches to education for hunter gatherers, and to determine effective ways to communicate our findings to relevant government institutions and civil society organizations. What kind of education do such groups need and want access to? We will explore the ways in which local schools can be made more inclusive and friendly for hunter-gatherer children. At the same time we will identify the ways in which their traditional practices might be useful for educational efforts on a global scale – for more just, sustainable, effective, and engaging education for all.

Applied Working Group team

Jennifer Hays, Principal Investigator
Velina Ninkova, Co-Investigator
Edmond Dounias, Co-Investigator
Attila Paksi, Co-Investigator

How to join:

Join the HG-Edu network on their website

For more information and updates please see the Hunter Gatherer Education group’s CES Transformation Fund website page.

We live in an age when humans decide where wildlife are allowed to live and thrive. Though there are many different ways globally that people relate to the natural world, the government agencies and organizations responsible for conserving public lands, waters, and wildlife have tended to use the natural sciences and a focus on human benefit to make decisions about how the environment should be managed. These decisions rarely consider the importance of cultural beliefs and values in determining the acceptance and success of policy decisions, the value of cultural diversity for conservation goals, or the ways that those aspects of culture change over time.

Decades of research from cultural evolutionary science have great potential to inform conservation decisions and transform the processes and institutions that we use to make those decisions, leading to better outcomes for the diversity of peoples and places across the globe. The concept of cultural evolution is that the knowledge people learn about the world, and the ways that they learn it, change over time. This means that the cultures of today–and their collective knowledges, values, and practices–are all products of long histories of human interaction and lasting relationships with the lands, waters, and wildlife with which they have lived. Cultural evolution also implies that the environmental values and beliefs of today can differ from those held in the past and those of the future. An applied science of cultural evolution offers a new way of going about conservation: one centered on culture, the ways in which culture evolves and drives environmental behavior, and the impacts of conservation action on biological and cultural diversity.

Effectively and equitably managing our shared natural resources means acknowledging what the natural world represents for different people, what needs conserving, who benefits from conservation, and who bears the costs. Cultural evolution offers key insights about cultural influences on human behavior, the place of humans and human cultures in the natural world, and the cultural values embedded in our institutions and management decisions. In an uncertain future, cultural evolution is the key to anticipating and adapting to cultural and ecological change, sustaining positive relationships between humans and nature, and preserving our shared environment for future generations.

Applied Working Group team

Richard Berl, Principal Investigator
Co-Investigators: Michael Gavin, Jonathan Salerno, Eleanor Sterling, Ugo Arbieu, Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Christopher Williams, Lily van Eeden, Kirsten Leong, Jonathan Fisk, Lisa Lehnen, Jonathan Long

How to join:

Membership in the working group is open on a continuing basis to all researchers, practitioners, and local affected groups with an interest in applying cultural evolutionary science to issues in natural resource management and conservation. As a group focused on cultural diversity, we value diversity at a deep structural level, and so we welcome and support a diverse global membership and diverse ways of knowing. Please contact Richard Berl at [email protected] for more information or to become a member of the working group.

For more information and updates please see the Natural Resource Management group’s CES Transformation Fund website page.

Human activities around the world have escalated environmental crises from pollution, overfishing, deforestation, and species extinction to the existential threat of global climate change. Our species has never faced such incredible challenges. It is now clear that, to minimise harm to our health, livelihoods, and habitats, we will have to change our behaviours, our economies, our laws, international agreements, and cultures. Such societal change could usher in a new era of human cooperation, equality, and sustainability. But how do we make such societal and cultural changes?

One of the central problems is that sustainability efforts often focus on changing the behaviour and choices of individuals rather than groups. Examples include encouraging people to switch to LED light bulbs or smart meters and incentivizing the purchase of electric vehicles. What this approach overlooks is the importance of human sociality, normativity and interdependence. These interconnected aspects of human nature are the central focus of cultural evolution science. Cultural evolution research examines how behaviours spread through society, how cooperation can emerge to solve problems, and how societies adapt to new circumstances through cultural change and evolution. The science of cultural evolution 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.

Our working group will help accelerate positive cultural change for sustainable outcomes at many levels through a year-long global engagement between sustainability experts, conservation leaders, policy makers, and scientists of cultural evolution from around the world. Together, we will gather the best approaches for applying cultural evolution to promote sustainable outcomes. We will then create a set of outreach materials (e.g., policy briefs, infographics, perspective paper) for each approach. Finally, we will cultivate a network to share these materials among conservation and sustainability organizations, government agencies, and grassroots organizations around the world.

Applied Working Group team

Rebecca Koomen, Principal Investigator
Timothy Waring, Co-Investigator
Vanessa Weinberger, Project Manager

How to join:

Join our open network Evolve & Sustain

For more information and updates please see the Sustainability group’s CES Transformation Fund website page.

Culture is a tool. It is used by scientific disciplines to categorize, study, and intervene on human diversity. At the same time, it is used by policymakers, state administrators and activists who leverage it for political aims. Used for all these purposes and projects, ‘culture’ evades definition. Efforts to nail it down lead to another problem: defining culture often aligns it with racial or ethnic classifications of human diversity—and feeds into larger structures of oppression and stigmatization.

Tools have history, and ‘culture’ as a tool is no different. Looking at how culture has been used is important for understanding its role in contemporary scientific and policy-oriented work, and the risks involved in defining and operationalizing it. Looking at the history of how the culture concept has been used reveals multiple instances where it has led to unintended and harmful downstream consequences. Reckoning with these histories is important if we wish to keep using culture as a tool in the present.

This project is organized around three focal domains where culture has been used: in economic development, state administration, and biocultural diversity. Examining historical case studies in these areas, the project will address three core aims: (i) to establish a historically- and philosophically-informed collaborative network of researchers and policymakers; (ii) to reckon with the histories where culture has been used as a tool, and (iii) to develop ethical and impactful Cultural-Evolution-informed policies and methods, calibrating these through examination of relevant histories and best practices of other fields.

Applied Working Group team

Andrew Buskell, Principal Investigator
Azita Chellappoo, Co-Investigator
Robin Nelson, Co-Investigator
Natália Dutra, Co-Investigator
Solène Boisard, Co-Investigator

For more information and updates please see the Culture as a Tool group’s CES Transformation Fund website page.