The rapid, human-induced changes in the Earth system during the Anthropocene present humanity with critical sustainability challenges. Social-ecological systems (SES) research provides multiple approaches for understanding the complex interactions between humans, social systems, and environments and how we might direct them towards healthier and more resilient futures. However, general theories of SES change have yet to be fully developed. Formal evolutionary theory has been applied as a dynamic theory of change of complex phenomena in biology and the social sciences, but rarely in SES research. In this paper, we explore the connections between both fields, hoping to foster collaboration. After sketching out the distinct intellectual traditions of SES research and evolutionary theory, we map some of their terminological and theoretical connections. We then provide examples of how evolutionary theory might be incorporated into SES research through the use of systems mapping to identify evolutionary processes in SES, the application of concepts from evolutionary developmental biology to understand the connections between systems changes and evolutionary changes, and how evolutionary thinking may help design interventions for beneficial change. Integrating evolutionary theory and SES research can lead to a better understanding of SES changes and positive interventions for a more sustainable Anthropocene. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Evolution and sustainability: gathering the strands for an Anthropocene synthesis’.

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. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 379 (1893). ISSN 0962-8436

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