December 15-17, 2016: I will be presenting “Innovation in the Collective Brain: The Transmission and Evolution of Norms and Culture” at the “Cultural Transmission and Social Norms Workshop” hosted by the School of Economics at The University of East Anglia, UK.
January 17-20, 2017: I will be discussing some work on culture, trust, economics and the law at a workshop on “Trusting and the Law” hosted by the Lorentz Center, Leiden, Netherlands.
February 21, 2017: I will be presenting some work on cultural evolution and cultural distance to the Evolutionary Demography Group at the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine, UK.
I was recently awarded an 18 month grant (with Co-PI Ted Slingerland) for “The Database of Religious History: Data Science Approaches to Religious Cultural History” ($215, 050). The grant will enable us to continue a critical period in the project’s development. We are hoping to secure additional funds to ensure a self-sustaining future for the project.
Part of this period was improving the data entry and browsing interface. If you’re a historian, please let us know if you would like to contribute. For everyone else, I encourage you to browse through our data: http://religiondatabase.org/browse/landing/
I was invited to present my work on human evolution and the evolution of brains at the “Evolution of cognition and longevity: Adaptation to a new technological environment” meeting at the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France. I presented “The Cultural Brain Hypothesis & Information Grandmother Hypothesis: How culture drives brain expansion and alters life history”, where I discussed the Cultural Brain Hypothesis (my dissertation; paper currently under review). I also presented some work in progress on the Information Grandmother Hypothesis.
The Cultural Brain Hypothesis is a more parsimonious explanation for the relationships that have been shown between brain size, group size, adaptive knowledge, social learning, and aspects of life history. The Cumulative Cultural Brain Hypothesis is a set of predictions derived from the evolutionary processes that lead to these relationships for the conditions that lead to an autocatalytic take-off between brain size and adaptive knowledge – the uniquely human pathway. The Information Grandmother Hypothesis extends this theory to explain the evolution of menopause and lifespan.
Speakers were biologists of all kinds. Speakers included:
I spent the last week back at Harvard University discussing research on cultural evolution and innovation with the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), part of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The LILA group include people from industry and the military. Every year the group invites two academics to discuss their research and how it might be applied to problems faced by members of the group. This year, Mary Ann Glynn and I were invited. It was an intellectually enriching opportunity to apply my work to current challenges in corporations and other organizations.
The ideas presented in my two talks were beautifully captured in the graphics below:
The Science of Cultural Evolution: What Makes Humans So Different
Sources of Innovation: The Secret of Human Success
SPSSI-UK organized a symposium on the Migration Crisis. The symposium was attended by an array of social scientists, but also policy makers, impact officers, and community organizers. I presented some work in progress on “The Paradox of Diversity, Migration, and Cultural Evolution in Europe”. My talk briefly introduced the science of cultural evolution (for a quick intro, see Cultural Evolution), the implications of cultural evolutionary theory for managing the migration crisis, and some results from a new tool I’ve been building to better quantify the size and dimensions of cultural differences.
More on this “Cultural Distance” tool soon.
The outcome of the discussions will also be released by SPSSI-UK as a white paper (in prep).
I spent the last couple of days at a small conference on cumulative culture organized by Claudio Tennie and his two PhD students Elisa Bandini and Eva Reindl. The theme was “When and How does Cumulative Culture Emerge”. It was an excellent meeting – large enough to have a diversity of views, small enough to have interesting conversations with almost all participants.
We discussed the challenges and successes in inferring religious belief and practice from the archeological and historical record and new theoretical models and tools for exploring religious history, including the Database of Religious History (DRH).
To very briefly summarize, innovation is often assumed to be an individual endeavor driven by geniuses and then passed on to the masses. Consider Thomas Edison and the lightbulb or Gutenberg and the printing press. We argue that rather than a result of far-sighted geniuses, innovations are an emergent property of our species’ cultural learning abilities, applied within our societies and social networks. Our societies and social networks act as collective brains.
Innovations, large or small, do not require heroic geniuses any more than your thoughts hinge on a particular neuron.
We argue that rates of innovation are heavily influenced by:
transmission fidelity, and
We discuss some of the forces that affect these factors. These factors can also shape each other. For example, we provide preliminary evidence that transmission efficiency is affected by sociality—languages with more speakers are more efficient.
We argue that collective brains can make each of their constituent cultural brains more innovative. This perspective sheds light on traits, such as IQ, that have been implicated in innovation. A collective brain perspective can help us understand otherwise puzzling findings in the IQ literature, including group differences, heritability differences, and the dramatic increase in IQ test scores over time.
I chaired a symposium on “Understanding Religions: Integrating experimental, ethnographic and historical approaches” at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) conference in San Diego, CA.
Joe Henrich began by introducing the broader research agenda, describing the two puzzles of (1) the rise of societal complexity and large-scale cooperation and (2) the emergence and spread of particular religious elements, such as big, powerful, moralizing gods and ritual behavior.
Coren Apicella presented recent evidence of high levels of rule bending in the Hadza, a a minimally religious foraging population.
I then introduced the Database of Religious History and presented some preliminary analyses, showing the relationship between ritual and cooperative behavior. I also updated the audience on data collection and some of the directions we’re going in (such as measuring cultural distance–more soon!).
Finally, Ted Slingerland gave an overview of what the humanities can offer the psychology of religion, with an entertaining presentation of how a lack of deep understanding of history and culture can lead to misinterpretations (such as claims that Chinese don’t have religious beliefs, nor mind-body dualism).