Evolution & Sustainability on the Computer
The themes of evolution and sustainability are associated with several learning difficulties, because they are the result of complex interrelationships between organisms and their environments, and evolutionary processes usually take place over larger dimensions of space and time. These processes are far removed from our everyday experience, in which we experience more short-term and direct interactions, and in which we perceive individuals rather than changing populations.
Computer simulations or dynamic models can help to overcome these learning difficulties - similar to telescopes and microscopes, they allow us to see things that are not visible to the "naked eye". Computer simulations can model processes over larger scales of time and space and are therefore particularly suitable for observing, investigating and understanding ecological relationships, population patterns, and evolutionary processes.
We develop computer simulations around evolution and sustainability with the free modelling software NetLogo.
The presentation on the right gives an introduction to NetLogo and agent-based modelling.
Feel free to contact us with questions or ideas for linking NetLogo and sustainability science in your classroom or school!
Selected models and teaching materials
Evolution and competition for resources
These models let us explore what happens when agent behaviors have outcomes for their reproductive success. It makes us ask: If the greedy guys always take over, how can sustainable resource use evolve in a population?
Download NetLogo-Model (.nlogo file)
Download html file (runs in the browser)
Discussion guide and lesson materials (Google doc)
This model introduces population dynamics in a structured world. It lets us explore some conditions under which groups of sustainable resource users can do better than, and eventually outcompete, groups of greedy guys. But it still makes us ask: How can these groups of sustainable guys protect themselves from take-over by cheaters from within?
Evolution of resource use with monitoring and punishment
This model lets us explore how the appearance of certain social behaviors can affect evolutionary population dynamics. If greedy guys are noticed and kept at bay by being punished for their behavior, they are prevented from taking over the population.
In fact, monitoring of behaviors and the existence of graduated sanctioning mechanisms are also important elements of governance in the sustainable use of common pool resources.
Evolution of resource use through behavior imitation
This model is similar to the Evolution and competition for resources models above, but it adds cultural evolutionary dynamics through behavior imitation. Several imitation biases are simulated: imitating the majority, the minority, the most successful, the most experienced, or the parents. Depending on the imitation bias, rate of behavioral innovation, and the mobility of agents, one can observe the emergence and spread of norms and traditions of sustainable or unsustainable resource use.
Dickes, A. C., & Sengupta, P. (2013). Learning Natural Selection in 4th Grade with Multi-Agent-Based Computational Models. Research in Science Education, 43(3), 921–953. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-012-9293-2
Goldstone, R. L., & Wilensky, U. (2008). Promoting transfer by grounding complex systems principles. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(4), 465–516. http://doi.org/10.1080/10508400802394898
Jacobson, M. J. (2001). Problem Solving, Cognition, and Complex Systems: Differences between Experts and Novices. Complexity, 6(3), 41–49. http://doi.org/10.1002/cplx.1027
Wilensky, U. (1999). NetLogo. http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/. Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
Wilensky, U., & Centola, D. (2007). Simulated Evolution: Facilitating Students’ Understanding of the Multiple Levels of Fitness through Multi-Agent Modeling, 1–17. Retrieved from http://ccl.northwestern.edu/2007/SimulatedEvolution-clean.pdf