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Sustain Sci. 2018;13(1):49-58. doi: 10.1007/s11625-017-0508-3. Epub 2017 Nov 11.

Cultural evolution and US agricultural institutions: a historical case study of Maine's blueberry industry.

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1University of Maine, 5773 South Stevens Hall, Orono, ME 04469 USA.
2University of Maine, 200 Winslow Hall, Orono, ME 04469 USA.


This paper presents a study of the emergence of environmental management institutions in Maine's blueberry industry. We follow a cultural evolutionary approach to understand the factors that influenced the emergence of these institutions in environmental collective action problems. Specifically, we use a cultural multilevel selection framework to explore the prediction that collective action and institutions of environmental management emerge when cultural selection is the strongest among social groups positioned to solve a given collective action problem. To do this, we construct an evidence typology suited for a historical evolutionary analysis. We find that the scale of cultural adaptation responded to scale of the most pressing adaptive problem. The case study provides support for the group-level selection theory of institutional evolution, and displays patterns of institutional adaptation that respond to changing conditions over time. We argue that the dominant level of selection concept in multilevel selection theory helps to clarify how matches and mismatches between resource scale and institutional scale arise. We conclude that cultural evolutionary theory provides a general causal framework for organizing evidence, and complements the study of environmental history, which provides the temporal depth needed to examine evolutionary hypotheses.


Agricultural history; Blueberries; Cultural evolution; Cultural multilevel selection; Environmental history

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