ASU to host Cultural Evolution Society conference

Researchers from across the social, psychological and biological sciences will gather to discuss human evolution as a cultural organism

October 10, 2018

Why and when did humans begin to rely on culturally transmitted information? Does culture allow humans to adapt to a wide range of ecological habitats? Is culture responsible for why humans cooperate with genetically unrelated individuals? How do genes and culture affect each other’s evolution?

These are the questions that researchers in the field of cultural evolution seek to answer. City crowd Download Full Image

Cultural evolution is the study of how and why culture changes over time. The core idea is that cultural change shares fundamental similarities with genetic evolution.

ASU has become a leader in the world for researching culture from an evolutionary perspective and will play host to hundreds of researchers from a myriad of fields this month for the second annual Cultural Evolution Society global conference.

Creating multidisciplinary alliances

Boyd-book cover

For the past 45 years, researcher Robert Boyd and his colleagues have worked hard to blaze a trail connecting social culture to human evolution. Boyd, an Origins Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and research affiliate with the Institute of Human Origins, is considered a foundational influence in the field of cultural evolution and, along with research partner Peter Richerson, has produced hundreds of academic papers and several books, including his most recent: "A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species," in which Boyd outlines how culture led humans down an unusual evolutionary track. 

“Being one of the handful of people that was able to understand and make progress on the problem of incorporating social learning and cultural processes into Darwinian evolutionary ideas is something I am really proud of,” said Boyd. “It’s gone from beyond-the-frontier research to being pretty respectable.”

Boyd joined ASU in 2012 along with researcher Joan Silk, whose expertise is in the behavior of nonhuman primates. Within the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC), they have united a cadre of scholars under the research group Adaptation, Behavior, Culture and Society, which is piecing together the diverse ways that humans and nonhuman primates cooperate and accumulate culture.

Researchers in this group include

  • Ian Gilby, who studies chimpanzee social behavior and codirects the Gombe Chimpanzee Database.
  • Kim Hill, who specializes in hunter-gatherer life history and has spent many years living with the Ache of Paraguay.
  • Kevin Langergraber, who studies chimpanzee population genetics and codirects the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project.
  • Sarah Mathew, who studies the evolution of cooperation and warfare and conducts field research with Turkana pastoralists in Kenya.
  • Thomas Morgan, who uses mathematical models and laboratory experiments to understand the evolution of teaching, language and prestige.
  • Charles Perreault, who uses archaeological data to hone theoretical models of cultural evolution.
  • Pauline Wiessner, who studies the social institutions of the Kalahari Bushmen of southern Africa and the Enga of Papua New Guinea.

These researchers are also part of the Institute of Human Origins research group.

“The quality of the individual researchers in SHESC, coupled with the department’s breadth and its position at the global center of cultural evolutionary research, made my decision to move here a no brainer,” said Morgan, who joined the group in 2016.

Conference attracts foremost thinkers

Three years ago, a group of researchers, including Boyd and his colleagues, recognized the need to bring together the global and diverse community of researchers interested in evolutionary approaches to culture in humans and other animals. The Cultural Evolution Society was formed as an integrative interdisciplinary community spanning traditional academic boundaries from across the social, psychological and biological sciences, including archaeology, computer science, economics, history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy and religious studies. 

“Because we are so cultural, the tremendous potential of Darwinian evolutionary thinking was not being fully harnessed to understand the human condition,” said Mathew. “Cultural evolution theory provided the breakthrough and created a space for researchers like myself who wish to explain how complex social behavior like warfare, moral sentiments and prosociality evolved.”

The society also welcomes practitioners from applied fields such as medicine and public health, psychiatry, community development, international relations, the agricultural sciences and the sciences of past and present environmental change.

CES conference banner

The organization will have its second global conference in Tempe on Oct. 22-24, hosting more than 200 attendees from all over the world. 

“We made a special effort to make this a truly multidisciplinary conference,” said Perreault, who is on the organizing committee. “Cultural evolution is the first true unifying theory for the biological and the social sciences, and our program reflects this. As an archaeologist, I’m particularly pleased to see that my discipline will be represented.”

The conference is sponsored in part by ASU’s Global Biosocial Complexity Initiative.

Conference organizers are offering a special one-day registration to the ASU community.

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins


How we were raised, not physical environment, explains human behavior

June 16, 2015

For more than a century, scientists have debated why people in different parts of the world eat different foods, follow different social norms and believe in different origin stories.

Is the variation in behavior a result of the environments that we have inhabited or the effect of cultural history and traditions that may have persisted over millennia? people eating local food in Peru Why do people in different parts of the world eat different foods? Two ASU researchers have found social learning is responsible. Photo By Liquen [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Download Full Image

At stake is understanding whether human uniqueness is driven by our large brains and intelligence, allowing us to adapt to different environments, or by our unprecedented reliance on social learning or culture.

In research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, ASU researchers Sarah Mathew and Charles Perreault find that the main determinant of human behavior is social learning, which is contrary to established assumptions of current thinking in cognitive sciences, psychology and human behavioral ecology.

“Because humans are an unusually smart species, it is tempting to think that individuals figure out on their own the stuff they need to live in different environments,” Mathew said. “But we show that humans do much of what they do because it's how their parent generation did it.”

Mathew and Perreault are assistant professors in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and are both affiliated scientists with the Institute of Human Origins.

While previous studies have alluded to the importance of cultural transmission, their study marks the first time that ecological variation and cultural history have been directly compared with a large sample of societies and behaviors including subsistence, technology, economic organization, settlement patterns, marriage and family, kinship systems and ceremonies and rituals.

Using one of the most comprehensive ethnographic records – the Western North American Indian Dataset – Mathew and Perreault used statistical analysis to compare the relative effect of environment and cultural history.

The ethnographic data is unique because it contains information on 172 Native American tribes geographically spread from Canada to the southern areas of the U.S. West. Mathew and Perreault tested whether the behavioral variation among tribes was due to the fact that they lived in varying environments – from high mountains to coastal regions to deserts – or because they inherited different traditions from their ancestors.

“Our analysis shows, strikingly, that behaviors can persist in cultural lineages for millennia,” Perreault said. “In other words, the behavior of a certain tribe, whether in constructing baskets or following certain marriage practices, is largely due to the fact that their ancestors hundreds or even thousands of years ago practiced the behavior. This means that there is considerable cultural inertia in human behavior, which may have persisted for up to 15,000 years.”

Cultural inertia is not necessarily disadvantageous, the research noted. Learning from one’s parent’s generation could be beneficial because it allows for the accumulation of information through time. This capacity for cultural learning may be why modern humans were able to thrive in virtually every terrestrial habitat on Earth and why human societies vary to an extent unmatched in the animal world.

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins