Teaching Tools

Population Thinking

Populations are all around us, and within us. We are a part of large populations of humans and of multi-species ecosystems. We as individuals are also made up of many different cells and organ systems, and of many different processes and behaviors.

Understanding how these populations change over time requires population thinking.

This entails understanding and noticing the processes that create variation in populations, and understanding and noticing processes that change the frequency of variants.

Applying population thinking to human evolution

Many different hominid and hominin groups existed throughout the evolutionary history of our species. They all differed a bit in their behavior, perception, brain, body, genetic make-up, social life. Some of them survived better and had more offspring than others. Offspring have inherited certain traits from their parents, e.g. through the inheritance of their genes or through imitation of behaviors. Their populations persisted and continued to evolve. They are among our ancestors. Others could not survive so well or have not had many offspring, and their populations gradually became extinct.

As biotic and abiotic environmental conditions change, so do the advantages and disadvantages of having certain behavior and other characteristics for the survival of organisms. One speaks of the function or consequences of a trait: What functions or effects does a trait have under given environmental conditions for the survival and reproduction of an organism, its offspring, or its group?

For example, depending on environmental conditions, certain dietary habits or modes of locomotion are more beneficial than others. Many organisms can change their behavior quickly in response to new conditions, learn new behaviors, and can thus adapt to changing environmental conditions to a degree. However, living beings can not substantially change morphological and physiological features, or their genes during their lifetime. The change in these traits occurs only at the level of a population - those whose traits allow them to survive and reproduce better than others will have more offspring, and if they inherit these traits to their offspring, these traits will become more prevalent in the population.

Applying population thinking to individual learning and culture

With the help of analogy maps, we can transfer processes of population change to other domains beyond populations of biological organisms.

  • See more here on transferring to cultural evolution

  • See more here on transferring to the behaviors of our mind that allow us to create beharioal variation and that allow us to choose (selection) the behavioral variants based on what we care about


Hayes, S. C., Sanford, B. T., & Chin, F. T. (2017). Carrying the baton: Evolution science and a contextual behavioral analysis of language and cognition. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 6(3), 314–328. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2017.01.002

Mesoudi, A. (2011). Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Rosenbaum, D. A. (2014). It’s a Jungle in There: How Competition and Cooperation in the Brain Shape the Mind. Oxford University Press.

Shtulman, A. (2006). Qualitative differences between naïve and scientific theories of evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 52(2), 170–194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2005.10.001

Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(4), 395–460. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X13001593