How our cultures evolve (including how information is transmitted, how people make decisions, and the interaction of culture with our biology) is a pressing issue in a world in which our cultural activities are causing rapid, and drastic, social and physical changes. Although the social sciences and humanities have long claimed that humans are not subject to the ordered laws of nature, cultural evolution highlights that cultural history is patterned and cultural change is not random or entirely unpredictable. So researchers of cultural evolution may leverage this understanding to enable them to predict (and potentially intervene) in key domains of great global concern currently, such as the spread of extremism and misinformation (for example, conspiracy theories or ‘fake news’) and in addressing issues such as climate change.

What is Cultural Evolution?

The study of genetic evolution has had almost a century to mature.  Yet, although culture is fundamental to what it means to be human, its study as an evolutionary process, exhibiting key Darwinian mechanisms of variation, competition, and inheritance, is just beginning to flourish (Mesoudi 2011). Humanity’s capacity for culture stems from our ability to construct, receive, process, integrate, and transmit information across generations. Cultural evolutionists use various forms of explanation and methods, including modeling cultural evolution as a complex adaptive system, conducting cross-cultural studies, and identifying cognitive and behavioral processes underlying cultural transmission. The study of human culture and cultural change has made great strides during the last few decades, producing novel ideas within anthropology, psychology, history, and sociology as well as in computer science, evolutionary biology, neurobiology, ethology, and ecology. These converging disciplines are all realizing the urgent need to incorporate cultural evolution into models of how to ensure humanity continues to thrive in our uncertain future, and the emergent field of cultural evolution promises to synthesize these insights into a broader framework modeling culture as an evolutionary process, similar to genetic evolution but with its own distinctive inheritance mechanisms. Indeed, the integration of methods, data, and results across disciplines is a recognized ‘grand challenge’ for the field (Brewer et al. 2017) and, with the establishment of the Cultural Evolution Society (henceforth CES) in 2015, the time is now right to tackle it The multidisciplinarity of the field, and its explicit agenda for integration is exactly what is exciting about cultural evolution as it overcomes the inertia of traditional disciplines. Cultural evolution provides a “common language” (verbal or mathematical) to integrate explanations of the human condition across disciplines and scales of explanation, from genetic to cultural studies.

The Funding Opportunities

CES has recently received over £2.8 million from the John Templeton Foundation to run a major funding scheme from Durham (UK), under the leadership of Prof. Rachel Kendal, the Past-President of CES.  Through 16 research projects, 5 applied working groups (including the existing CES ‘evolutionary approaches to sustainability’ working group), 5 workshops, 1 landmark conference, 3 co-produced capacity building training courses, and public engagement activities, the intention is to tackle early career obstacles, western-centrism, traditional disciplinary divides, and division of scientists and public policymakers.

Cultural evolutionary theory, with its emphasis on human diversity, provides a unique basis on which to redress the oversight of a historical overemphasis of research effort upon Western, Educated Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) populations (Henrich et al. 2010).  By including, supporting, and collaborating with scientists beyond WEIRD populations we will improve the basis on which we advance understanding of human futures (Meadon & Spurret 2010; Kline et al. 2018).  Moreover, the humanities and social sciences have been skeptical of genetic approaches to human evolution, in part because these approaches leave little room for the impact of human culture, belief, and practice. Cultural evolutionary theory helps explain why genetics and culture are both essential parts of human existence. With this grant, CES hopes to catalyze the study of cultural evolution, by better engaging with interested collaborators in cultural psychology, social psychology, sociocultural anthropology, philosophy, history, sociology, social analytics, political science, economics, and business studies, as well as individuals from cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, cultural neuroscience, and physics (disciplines with which we are not yet engaged, or lie on the field’s periphery).  Finally, scientists often investigate what needs to be changed in our society but invest less in how this may be achieved. Cultural evolutionary theory enables a combination of standard approaches to public policy with an understanding of how people learn and adopt new behaviors (e.g. Wilson 2011; Moya et al. 2020). This funding scheme will therefore catalyze the study, and practical applications, of cultural change in society, enriching public appreciation of mechanisms that shape shared heritage yet also underpin cultural diversity.

As highlighted in one of Science’s (2005) 125 Big Questions, a complete understanding of ‘uniquely human traits’ must recognize that nurture, as well as nature, plays a role, with cultural influences of particular significance. Accordingly funding applicants will be challenged to articulate their proposal in relation to four, interlinked, hot topics in the field.

Hot Topics in Cultural Evolution

The identified hot topics for the funded research projects represent areas where there are currently gaps in knowledge and/or opportunities for new disciplinary synthesis.

We are interested in creativity whether at the individual level and/or as something that emerges via collaboration or through a cultural evolutionary process (Fogarty et al. 2015). Variation in creativity and imagination both across cultures and between species is a key focus, especially the impact such variation has on the evolution of our technology, as well as art, music, language, and religion. We also consider it important to understand the influence of cultural norms on creativity throughout the lifetime. For example, the impact of differentiated educational systems on cultural transmission was identified as one of the field’s ‘grand challenges’ (Brewer et al. 2017), especially pertinent given today’s children are humanity’s future.

There is also a focus on cultural influences on access to ‘reality’ (or our rationality).  When we think of rational thought, we often consider processes based on an evaluation of objective facts rather than supernatural beliefs or emotions. However, recent theories in many diverse disciplines have focused on human ‘irrationality’ and how this may be ‘sensible’ as we live in a world of uncertainty where logic is not a perfect guide (Gigerenzer & Selten 2002; Mercier & Sperber 2017; Damasio 2018). Investigating how cultural beliefs influence our perceived realities and ability to imagine future ones, as well as investigations of how, or why, we transmit so-called ‘fake news’ are important avenues of research. 

The impact of globalization on cultures is another hot topic of interest.  We live in an ever more interdependent world, the current and future implications of which are ripe for investigation through a cultural evolutionary lens.  For example, the effects of the hyper-availability of online information to enormous global audiences, and the novel features of digital information transmission, are only recently being investigated (Acerbi 2019).   Globalization also poses inherent risks, especially as we increasingly face cooperative dilemmas on an unprecedented global scale (e.g. climate change, pandemics).  Likewise, it is also possible that the merging of humanity into a single “effective population” will erase cultural variation (Creanza et al. 2017) with negative impacts on knowledge diversity, our ability to adapt to new challenges, and general well-being (Olko et al. 2016). 

Finally, we are very keen to fund research applying cultural evolution to enhance human futures.  As understanding of how ecosystems coevolve with the spread of cultural practices increases, fields where decision-making is modeled (e.g. economics, public health, business, and marketing) are beginning to take cultural evolution into account (Creanza et al. 2017).  Cultural evolutionary insights can be used for positive change.  For example, an understanding of cultural transmission, and the various biases in when and whom individuals learn from (Kendal et al. 2018), may be used to enhance the spread of desired behaviors in many contexts. In principle, understanding these processes could, aid in the current Covid-19 health workers’ ‘war’ against misinformation (Moya et al. 2020). More generally, cultural evolution could inform ‘Behavioural Insights’ ‘or ‘nudge’ theories used by institutions globally in an attempt to improve public policy.

In keeping with this final topic, alongside the funding of traditional research grants, we will fund several applied working groups.  These will be designed by the applicants, to implement cultural evolution with real impact on, societal issues.  For example, policy (e.g. public health, education), politics, business, climate change, conservation, and welfare.  These will involve workshops that include conversations between academics and relevant non-academics to disseminate cultural evolution insights to the general public and engage policymakers in using cultural evolution to help solve current and future real-world problems.

This brief summary of the research areas of current interest is elaborated upon further on the grant website.  The application deadline for the first stage of the funding competition is 10th December 2021 and we encourage potential applicants to get in touch to discuss ideas, with details of how to do so on the website.

Published On: September 8, 2021

Rachel L. Kendal

Rachel L. Kendal

Rachel Kendal is a Professor of Anthropology at Durham University in the UK. She completed a BSc in Behavioural Science at Nottingham University in 1998, then went on to receive my Ph.D. in Zoology from Cambridge University in 2003. Following a career break, she began a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship in 2006, based in the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution at St. Andrews University. She continued this fellowship at Durham University in the Department of Anthropology before becoming an Assistant Professor in 2012, Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) in 2014, Associate Professor (Reader) in 2017, and Professor in 2020.

Dr. Kendal is an interdisciplinary researcher with overlapping interests in cultural evolution, animal behavior, and primatology. Her focus is on cultural transmission, specifically social learning and behavioral innovation in a range of species from fish to monkeys to humans with a view to understanding the evolution of human culture.

One Comment

  • Rachel Kendal says:

    A small update. If you are interested in these funding opportunities, we have some pre-application workshops scheduled over the next few weeks. If you are interested in attending please indicate your interest here https://forms.office.com/r/43sEfB8VHa to ensure you receive any further information and zoom links.

    Monday 20th September & Tuesday 28th September 2021 at 09:00-11:00 (British Summer Time)
    will best suit those in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

    Monday 20th September & Tuesday 28th September 2021 at 16:00-18:00 (British Summer Time)
    will best suit those in Africa, Europe, North America, and South America.

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