As the study of human cultural evolution matures, field sites will increasingly have a role to play, just as they have in the study of genetic and cultural evolution in nonhuman species. Progress, however, may not be easy due to complex intellectual histories and disciplinary norms. Cultural anthropology and sociology, the two most field-oriented disciplines in the human behavioral sciences, have been among the most avoidant of evolutionary theory. In other branches of the human behavioral sciences, the bulk of research is conducted on college students in the laboratory without any reference to their cultures or everyday lives.

The newly formed Cultural Evolution Society (CES) is in a unique position to facilitate the creation of field sites around the world. The Social Evolution Forum is therefore pleased to feature two essays on the topic by David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist by training, and Harvey Whitehouse, a social anthropologist by training. Together with commentaries by authors with diverse perspectives on field research, we hope to catalyze the formation of field sites for the study of cultural evolution around the world.


Developing the Field Site Concept for the Study of Cultural Evolution:
An Evolutionary Biologist’s View, David Sloan Wilson


Developing the Field Site Concept for the Study of Cultural Evolution:
An Anthropologist’s View, Harvey Whitehouse

Published On: October 19, 2016

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.

Harvey Whitehouse

Harvey Whitehouse


Harvey Whitehouse is Chair of Social Anthropology, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, and a Professorial Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford. Harvey is one of the founders of the cognitive science of religion field. He is especially well known for his theory of “modes of religiosity” that has been the subject of extensive critical evaluation and testing by anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary theorists. The modes theory proposes that the frequency and emotionality of rituals determines the scale and structure of religious organizations: low-frequency, highly arousing rituals bind together small but very cohesive groups of participants; high-frequency, less emotionally intense rituals create large anonymous communities that are more diffusely integrated. In recent years, Harvey’s work has expanded beyond religion to examine the role of rituals of all kinds in binding groups together and motivating inter-group competition, including warfare. This research has become increasingly global in reach with ongoing data collection now established at field sites in Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Vanuatu, Brazil, the U.S., Spain, Cameroon, the U.K., Turkey, and Libya. Harvey is also a founding editor, and the editor for ritual variables, of Seshat: Global History Databank.


One Comment

  • Helga Vierich says:

    There is a guide to field methods in the study of humans that has been frequently revised since it was first written. It was originally commissioned by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1839 as an aid to collecting information on human life in far flung corners of the British empire. It was however continually updated and eventually became a fieldwork tool of the British ethnological study society when it was formed in 1841. You can find discussion of updates and utility here https://www.jstor.org/stable/3031732?seq=1

    I employed a 1970 edition in my own fieldwork on the evolution of hunter-gatherer cultural adaptations to contact with agro-pastoral peoples in the ecotone between the sandveldt and the hardveldt – the southeastern edge of the Kalahari. My field site was located in the Kweneng District of Botswana. I did three years there, doctoral research, which covered the long term history of the entire region, aided by collection of oral history augmented by archival research at the Botswana Archives, as well as archaeological research by Jim Denbow which established the dating of the arrival of the people with the other economic system (some 800 years ago), and Landsat assisted imagery for mapping the entire area of my field site (roughly 10,000 square miles). Extensive survey of local ecology plant and animal species, water sources. temperature records and rainfall records were all fairly routinely accomplished as stipulated by the introductory section of Notes and Queries. The interviews and long term intensive observational data collection on energy expenditure and intake, sources of food and necessary material cultural items like tools and clothing – as well as mapping of all the occupied sites and the assessment of land use patterns among some 400 households followed, and then more detailed observations of interactions between the people using two different economic systems were made in three localities over three years of seasonal interaction. The final year was marked by severe drought.

    The fieldwork suggestions in Notes ands Queries were valuable throughout.
    I would urge your teams to have a copy of this book.

    By the way, you might find it useful to look into the work of the following researchers who were extremely concerned with the issue of cultural evolution and used an evolutionary perspective in studying human behaviour: Andrew Vayda:
    Harold Conklin, late of Yale; especially the following reports: (1959a) “Facts and Comments. Ecological Interpretations and Plant Domestication” American Antiquity, Vol. 25, No. 2. pg. 260-262
    (1959b) “Linguistic Play in Its Cultural Context” Language, Vol. 35, No. 4. pg. 631-636.
    (1963) The Study of Shifting Cultivation. Washington: Technical Publications
    (1967) An Ethnoecological Approach to Shifting Agriculture
    (1980) Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao: A Study of Environment, Culture, and Society in northern Luzon
    Also see the work of Melvin Konner, who recently wrote a book on the Evolution of Childhood, in which he said: “There will be hundreds more such insights as the complex interplay of biological, psychological and cultural factors is better understood. Some innovative interventions will be in parenting, some in education, some in medicine, some even in play. New discoveries will trounce old ideologies and open all our minds about what to do for children and how to do it.”

    Read more:http://www.smithsonianmag.com/40th-anniversary/melvin-konner-on-the-evolution-of-childhood-904697/

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