Interview with Peter J. Richerson

January 9, 2014 No Comments

Peter Richerson—HBES Pioneer of Cultural Evolution

David Sloan Wilson

This installment of the Pioneers of HBES series features Peter J. Richerson, who pioneered the study of cultural evolution. Pete was trained as an ecologist with a solid background in biological evolution when he was asked to co-teach a course on human ecology with a social scientist. In preparing for the course, he discovered that very little had been written on the mechanisms of cultural evolution. He therefore initiated a line of research with Robert Boyd, who became a lifelong collaborator.

Hardly anyone was thinking about genetic models of cultural evolution at the time. The sociobiology debates of the 1970’s tended to polarize into “all genes” and “all culture” camps, leaving Pete and Rob feeling pretty lonely occupying the middle ground. It was hard to get grants or articles published. It wasn’t until the publication of their book Culture and the Evolutionary Process in 1985 that the tide of opinion began to turn in their favor.
Pete started to attend HBES meetings shortly after the society’s inception and later served as both treasurer and president. His advice for the next generation is to acquire a solid training in evolutionary biology and to develop a diversified portfolio of research projects, including some that are safe and some that are risky. He thinks that the next big advance in his area will be empirical studies of cultural microevolution comparable to the classic research on genetic microevolution, such Peter and Rosemary Grant’s work on Darwin’s Finches or John Endler’s work on guppies.

On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of interacting with Pete and Rob since I joined the faculty of UC Davis in 1977. Their quest to advance the study of cultural evolution was as lonely as my quest to revive multilevel selection theory. It is gratifying to see how both have developed and become intertwined. Multi-level gene-culture co-evolution is here to stay.

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Published On: January 9, 2014

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