Landscapes of Change, Inertia, and Species Coexistence

April 7, 2017

Joanna E. Lambert

Humans are adapted to change. I’ll illustrate this point using feeding and diet as an example.[1] Our nutritional niche is arguably among the broadest on the planet, rivaling most other species in its eclectic omnivory and diverse patterns of food consumption; we are gustatory generalists extraordinaire, flexible, and adapted to shifting landscapes of food availability. Such biological flexibility has been the subject of lively discussion among biological anthropologists and evolutionary biologists. The Variability Selection Hypothesis (Potts 1998), for example, posits that humans (and our hominin forebears) are best adapted not to any particular sort of ecological circumstances but instead to change itself. This makes sense from a climatological and ecological vantage: the most dramatic and frequent climate oscillations in the past 27 million years have occurred recently, in the past 5 to 6 million years—dates corresponding with the evolution of our lineage. We continue to adapt as new foods have been introduced, with continually shifting gut microbiomes and new alleles. The phylogenetic inertia[2] of our biological and ecological flexibility has clearly served us well over evolutionary time: we are a true cosmopolitan species, occupying virtually every habitat type on the planet.

Clearly, the cultural component of our niche contributes immensely to our inherent flexibility as well—perhaps even more so than our biology because, at least theoretically, there is no lag time in cultural response to novelty. Cultural innovation does not require a new mutation, cross-generational transmission of alleles, or the vagaries of natural selection.


Wolf (Canis lupus) in an anthropogenically modified habitat (photograph courtesy of Shutterstock).

Given this inherent biological and cultural flexibility, encountering trenchant attitudes toward any number of environmental issues—including perspectives on climate, use of pesticides, and, to the point of this essay, coexistence with other species—is deeply frustrating to conservation biologists such as myself. Because, in fact, culture is not without its own inertia. Numerous examples exist in which cultural lag inhibits response to local and current exigency. A classic example—one that has received enormous attention, and continues to be played out in political arenas, particularly in the western United States—is that of sharing landscapes with wolves, Canis lupus, another cosmopolitan and flexible species (Treves et al. 2013). Multiple scholars (e.g., Flores 2016) have suggested that much of this inherent bias against wolves (and other carnivores, including coyotes—Canis latrans) is in part a function of human experience with wolves in Europe, ideology brought over from the Old World to the New by early settlers of the frontier United States, and resulting in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century policies for controlling predators that remain today in the form of governmental agencies such as the USDA’s Wildlife Services. (As an aside, but pertinent to the subject of species coexistence, the Wildlife Services’ stated mission is to “resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and animals to coexist.” Ironically, and tragically, they accomplish this by killing them—more than 34 million animals in the last decade; USDA APHIS 2016).

But, cultural inertia is shaped by the interplay among demographics, history, socioeconomic status, and personal experience. Moreover, attitudes toward coexistence with other species differs by landscape and, importantly, the degree to which that landscape has been anthropogenically modified. Building on earlier work (e.g., Manfredo 2008; Manfredo et al. 2009, 2016), Alia Dietsch and colleagues (2016) recently evaluated human values toward species coexistence in general and toward some taxa (e.g., wolves) in particular, and explore implications of these values for conservation tactics. They demonstrate that where one’s family hails from (over many generations), where and how you live, and whether you are an urbanite (“modernized”) influences those attitudes. Most significantly (I think): being urban increases tolerance to sharing space with our nonhuman Anthropocene neighbors—probably because of an overall need to accommodate life in tight quarters.[3]

I view this last insight as a reason for hope. The world’s population is now more urban than rural—one of the many indices of life in the Anthropocene. “Does urbanization, which contributes to contemporary conservation challenges, also foster increased support for actions aimed at addressing those challenges?” (Dietsch et al. 2016: 2). Maybe. But, it’d better happen quickly, and make some inroads into rural landscapes as well.[4]

Because while phylogenetic inertia of our biology has served us well as a species, it’s likely to be cultural inertia that gets us in the end.

Joanna E. Lambert
 is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has a deep passion for our wild and natural world, resulting in a career spent publishing and teaching about the evolution, ecology, and conservation of wild primates and, more recently, carnivores. You can learn more about her work at


[1] My choice of example derives from the fact that I have spent the vast majority of my research career investigating the evolutionary ecology of diet and feeing in mammals, mostly primates, with implications for interpreting our own dietary niche

[2] As with most concepts related to evolution, it was Charles Darwin who first discussed the idea of phylogenetic inertia, although it was not operationally defined until the twentieth century. In short, phylogenetic inertia is a term to describe the fact that evolution can only tinker with already existing, inherited adaptations, which constrains future adaptation (for more on this, see Shanahan 2011).

[3] See also the thoughtful essay by Brandon Keim (2016) on Manfredo’s work.

[4] There is, in fact, promise of shifting attitudes and solutions to living with wolves in rural western United States (Stone et al. 2016; 2017). Suzanne Stone and colleagues (2017) recently published an analysis of a seven-year case study. In this research, the investigators evaluated wolf predation of sheep in two areas of the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho—a Protected Area (PA) and a Non-Protected Area (NPA). In the NPA, wolves were lethally controlled while in the PA were nonlethally controlled with the use of fladry (lengths of rope tied with flagging tape used to scare and deter wolves), guard dogs, and range riders. The authors found that over the seven years, loss of sheep to wolves was 3.5 times higher in the NPA where wolves are killed.  This very important study demonstrates, as the authors note, “that proactive use of a variety of nonlethal techniques applied conditionally can help reduce depredation on large open-range operations” (Stone et al. 2017: 33).  It also demonstrates that coexistence between ranchers and wolves is possible at a landscape scale (see also see Kiem 2017).


Dietsch, Alia M., Tara L. Teel, and Michael J. Manfredo. 2016. “Social Values and Biodiversity Conservation in a Dynamic World.” Conservation Biology 30 (6): 1212–1221.

Flores, Dan. 2016. Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. Basic Books Publishers.

Kiem, Brandon. 2016. “Psychology Becomes Ecology: Modernization and the Anthropocene.” Anthropocene, 19 October.

Kiem, Brandon. 2017. “A Peaceful End to the Wolf Wars?” Anthropocene, 5 April.

Manfredo, Michael J. 2008. Who Cares about Wildlife? New York: Springer-Verlag.

Manfredo, Michael J., Tara L. Teel, and Alia M. Dietsch. 2016. “Implications of Human Value Shift and Persistence for Biodiversity Conservation.” Conservation Biology 30 (2): 287–296.

Manfredo, Michael J., Tara L. Teel, and Kimberly L. Henry. 2009. “Linking Society and Environment: A Multilevel Model of Shifting Wildlife Value Orientations in the Western United States.” Social Science Quarterly 90 (2): 407–427

Potts, Richard. 1998. “Variability Selection in Hominid Evolution.” Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 7 (3): 81–96.

Shanahan, Timothy. 2011. “Phylogenetic Inertia and Darwin’s Higher Law.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences Part C 42 (1): 60–68.

Stone, Suzanne Asha, Erin Edge, Nina Fascione, Craig Miller, and Charlotte Weaver. 2016. Livestock and Wolves: A Guide to Using Non-Lethal Tools and Methods to Reduce Conflicts. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Defenders of Wildlife.

Stone, Suzanne Asha, Stewert Breck, Jesse Timberlake, Peter Haswell, Fernando Najera, Brian Bean, and Daniel Thornhill. 2017. “Adaptive Use of Nonlethal Strategies for Minimizing Wolf-Sheep Conflict in Idaho.  Journal of Mammalogy 98 (1): 33–44.

Treves, Adrian, Lisa Naughton-Treves, and Victoria Shelley. 2013. “Longitudinal Analysis of Attitudes toward Wolves.” Conservation Biology 27 (2): 315–323.

United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS). 2016. “Animals Dispersed / Killed or Euthanized / Removed or Destroyed / Freed. Nationwide Program Data Report (PDR) G, 1996–Present.

Cite as: Lambert, Joanna E. “Joanna E. Lambert: Landscapes of Change, Inertia, and Species Coexistence.” EnviroSociety, 7 April.


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