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Programmes Natural Governance

Oxford Martin Programme on Natural Governance

The Challenge

One of the greatest challenges in the 21st century will be solving the problem of how to get individuals and nations to set aside their self-interests and cooperate for the common good. Short-term goals weigh heavily on political and economic decision-making, yet failure to act on problems such as climate change, armed conflict and inequality mean that future generations will pay a heavy price. Each of these issues presents colossal challenges, but together they are the components of an overarching puzzle of how humans are to live alongside each other, our environment, and other species if we are to preserve Earth’s fragile social and ecological systems.

The underlying game theoretical barriers to cooperation are well understood. What is missing is a holistic vision of how humans and other organisms have evolved—over millions of years—to interact with each other and their environment, and how they have adapted and organized to achieve natural, sustainable systems of governance.

Our Approach

When the right conditions are in place, human beings can be remarkably cooperative, despite the role of self-interest. The last decade of research in the behavioural sciences (drawing from evolutionary biology, psychology, and economics) has generated significant new insights into the psychology and behaviour associated with cooperation. Our project links up experts and insights from anthropology, biology, psychology and international relations to rethink how humans interact with each other and with critical resources. We also focus on the importance of context: human behaviour is highly contingent, becoming activated or amplified in different social or physical environments.

Our team will exploit a remarkable recent event to collect data to explore and test our ideas - the global reaction to the illegal trophy hunting of Cecil, an African Lion in Zimbabwe who was being tracked and studied by programme Co-Director David Macdonald. Amongst the reactions, 4.4 million people visited Macdonald’s website within 24 hours, and hundreds of press articles covered his work, leaving us with an ’address book’ of well over 10,000 engaged members of the public with whom Professor Macdonald has established correspondence. Reactions to Cecil’s death and the extraordinary outpouring of support provide a unique opportunity for analysing what motivates opinion and forges cohesion, and all that this implies about environmental politics.


Our vision is to utilise behavioural insights to nurture “supercooperators”. While commentators on global challenges often focus on negative aspects of human behaviour, we should recognise that humans are the most cooperative vertebrates on Earth—the achievements of going to the moon and splitting the atom are no less remarkable as examples, for all their familiarity. Humans have a range of powerful, often counter-intuitive, behavioural and cultural adaptations for cooperation, and by identifying and simultaneously engaging some or all of these adaptive mechanisms, we can create environments in which the great human potential for cooperation is more systematically harnessed. Our project explores the idea that, with an understanding of human behaviour and human ecology informed by evolution, people can be encouraged to engage our cooperative, rather than conflictual, propensities.