Collective behaviour, uncertainty and environmental change

R. Alexander Bentley*, Michael J. O'Brien

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


A central aspect of cultural evolutionary theory concerns how human groups respond to environmental change. Although we are painting with a broad brush, it is fair to say that prior to the twenty-first century, adaptation often happened gradually over multiple human generations, through a combination of individual and social learning, cumulative cultural evolution and demographic shifts. The result was a generally resilient and sustainable population. In the twenty-first century, however, considerable change happens within small portions of a human generation, on a vastly larger range of geographical and population scales and involving a greater degree of horizontal learning. As a way of gauging the complexity of societal response to environmental change in a globalized future, we discuss several theoretical tools for understanding how human groups adapt to uncertainty. We use our analysis to estimate the limits of predictability of future societal change, in the belief that knowing when to hedge bets is better than relying on a false sense of predictability.

Original languageEnglish
Article number0461
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2055
Publication statusPublished - 28 Nov 2015


  • Big data
  • Crowd sourcing
  • Decision-making
  • Fitness landscapes
  • Social learning
  • Social-media networking


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