Tag Archives: cultural evolution

Project Zero – Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA

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

02_michaelmuthukrishna_ltrSources of Innovation: The Secret of Human Success


Culture Conference in Birmingham, UK

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.

I presented my recent paper with Joe Henrich on “Innovation in the Collective Brain“.

Other speakers and attendees included:

Carel van Schaik (University of Zurich)
Christine Caldwell (University of Stirling)
Pete Richerson (UC Davis)
Helena Miton (Central European University)
Rachel Kendal (Durham University)
Olivier Morin (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)
Mathieu Charbonneau (Central European University)
Andrew Buskell (London School of Economics)
Alex Mesoudi (University of Exeter)
Rachel Harrison (University of St Andrews)
Takao Sasaki (Oxford)
Celia Heyes (Oxford)
Elena Miu (University of St Andrews)
Julie Coultas (University of Sussex)
Keith Jensen (University of Manchester)
Thibaud Gruber (University of Geneva)


Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, CA

I spent the weekend at a productive interdisciplinary workshop on “Religion, Ritual, Conflict, and Cooperation: Archaeological and Historical Approaches” at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University. CASBS is located on the top of one of the beautiful hills around Stanford.

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).

Other attendees included:

David Carballo (Boston University)
Chris Carleton (Simon Fraser University)
Jesse Chapman (Stanford University)
Mark Csikszentmihalyi (UC Berkeley)
Megan Daniels (Stanford University)
Russell Gray (Director, Max Planck Institute for the History and the Sciences)
Conn Herriott (University of Jerusalem)
Ian Hodder (Stanford University)
Joseph Manning (Yale University)
Jessica McCutcheon (University of British Columbia)
Frances Morphy (Australian National University)
Howard Morphy (Australian National University)
Ian Morris (Stanford University)
Ara Norenzayan (University of British Columbia)
Beate Pongratz-Leisten (NYU)
Neil Price (Uppsala)
Benjamin Purzycki (University of British Columbia)
Ben Raffield (Simon Fraser University)
Katrinka Reinhart (Stanford University)
Celia Schultz (University of Michigan)
Edward Slingerland (University of British Columbia)
Charles Stanish (UCLA)
Brenton Sullivan (Colgate College)
Edward Swenson (University of Toronto)
Robban Toleno (University of British Columbia)
Robyn Walsh (University of Miami)
Joseph Watts (University of Auckland)

Innovation in the Collective Brain

Last week, my paper with Joe Henrich on “Innovation in the Collective Brain” was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological SciencesI explain some of the key points in the video below:

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.

The paper outlines how many human brains, which evolved primarily for the acquisition of culture, together beget a collective brain. Within these collective brains, the three main sources of innovation are:

  1. serendipity
  2. recombination, and
  3. incremental improvement.

We argue that rates of innovation are heavily influenced by:

  1. sociality
  2. transmission fidelity, and
  3. cultural variance.

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.

Selected Media Coverage

The Telegraph

Scientific American

Cultural Evolution – Chapter in Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd Edition

Maciek Chudek, Joe Henrich, and I wrote an introduction to Cultural Evolution in the most recent Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd edition – edited by David Buss.

The chapter provides a brief overview of the science of cultural evolution, including its psychological foundations and implications. We discuss how humans evolved a second-line of inheritance, crossing the threshold into a world of cumulative culture. We begin by asking how culture can evolve, dispelling the mythical requirement of discrete genes and exact replication.

Evolutionary adaptation has three basic requirements: (1) individuals vary, (2) this variability is heritable (information transmission occurs), and (3) some variants are more likely to survive and spread than others. Genes have these characteristics so they evolve and adaptive. Culture also meets all three requirements, but in different ways. Like bacterial genes, cultural information spreads horizontally and need not be limited to parental transmission to offspring.

We discuss the evolution of our capacity for culture, asking how and when capacities for culture will evolve (when is cultural learning genetically adaptive).

The answer: culture is adaptive when asocial learning is hard and environments fluctuate a lot, but not too much.

We also outline the evolution of some of our social learning biases (a large part of the third requirement of an evolutionary system):

  1. Who we learn from (e.g. skilled, successful, and prestigious models; conformist transmission)
  2. What moderates these choices (e.g. self-similarity, age, sex, ethnicity; Credibility Enhancing Displays, CREDs).
  3. Some examples in the real world, such as the social spread of suicides (Werther effect) and literally learning better from same-sex and same-race instructors.
  4. Content biases on what to learn: e.g.  animals and plants, dangers, fire, reputation, social norms, and social groupings.

Cultural evolution shapes the beliefs and behaviors of groups so that they come adapted to the local environment (including culture) over time, shaping preferences and psychology.

Turning to the population-level, we explain why sociality influences cultural complexity (larger, more interconnected populations have more terms and technologies), how cultural evolution can lead to maladaptive behavior, and how intergroup competition can help eliminate these maladaptive behaviors, briefly discussing the viability of cultural-group selection.

Finally, we discuss how genes can adapt to culture: culture-gene coevolution and how this process may have led to the rapid expansion of the human brain.

Cultural Brain Hypothesis at Arizona State University, Arizona

This week I visited Arizona State University, Arizona. Rob Boyd and Joan Silk invited me to present my research on the Cultural Brain Hypothesis at the Evolution of Social Complexity Colloquium Series, sponsored by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, the Institute of Human Origins and the Consortium for Biosocial Complex Systems.

The Cultural Brain Hypothesis (in prep; co-authored with Maciek Chudek and Joe Henrich) describes the evolution of large brains and parsimoniously explains several empirical relationships between brain size, group size, social learning, mating structures, culture, and the juvenile period. The model also describes the selection pressures that may have led humans into the realm of cumulative cultural evolution, further driving up the human brain size.

The School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the Institute of Human Origins has an exceptional group of human evolutionary researchers. While at Arizona State University, I caught up with Rob BoydJoan SilkKim HillSarah MathewCharles Perreault, Michelle Kline, and Matt Gervais.

Cultural Brain Hypothesis, Cultural Evolution & Human Social Networks at Stanford University, California

This week I visited Stanford University, California. Jamie Holland Jones invited me to present my research on human evolution, cultural evolution, and social networks at the Stanford Anthropology Colloquium Series. I presented three related projects:

The Cultural Brain Hypothesis (in prep; co-authored with Maciek Chudek and Joe Henrich), describes the evolution of large brains and parsimoniously explains several empirical relationships between brain size, group size, social learning, mating structures, culture, and the juvenile period. The model also describes the selection pressures that may have led humans into the realm of cumulative cultural evolution, further driving up the human brain size.

Sociality Influences Cultural Complexity (2014; co-authored with Ben Shulman, Vlad Vasilescu, and Joe Henrich) on the relationship between sociality and cultural complexity.

Cultural Dispositions, Social Networks, and the Dynamics of Social Influence: Implications for Public Opinion and Cultural Change (under review; co-authored with Mark Schaller) describes a mechanism through which realistic human social network structures can emerge and the implications of these mechanisms for cross-cultural differences in cultural transmission and innovation.