advancing cultural evolutionary studies

The Spirals of Life Image

Templeton Grant 2021 | Calls for Proposals


These represent areas where there are currently gaps in knowledge and/or opportunities for new disciplinary synthesis, or domains in which we foresee likely benefits to bringing in disciplinary experts to apply an evolutionary approach to understand change in cultural variation both within and between populations. 

For each topic, pertinent areas are highlighted, following a brief introduction, but alternative/additional interpretations of the topics are welcomed and will be given full consideration. It is hoped that each of the 16 projects awarded are of sufficient size to enable the completion of an innovative, rigorous and significant piece of work, catalyzing a new generation of interdisciplinary cultural evolution research. Researchers in these emerging areas will subsequently be better positioned to apply for larger grants in the future.

1. Variation in Creativity & Imagination

Social learning and innovation are the coevolved pillars of cultural evolution (Legare & Nielsen 2015, Street et al. 2017) as they underpin the evolutionary process of descent with modification. The cultural evolution field has invested heavily in understanding the role of social learning (e.g. Laland 2017; Henrich 2016), yet has largely overlooked processes underlying innovation such as creativity and imagination (Carr et al. 2016; Reader et al, 2016; Fuentes 2017; Gabora 2019). Creativity may be considered at the individual level and/or as something that emerges via collaboration or through a cultural evolutionary process (Fogarty et al. 2015). While innovation is taxonomically widespread (Reader & Laland 2003; Reader et al 2016), humans are undoubtedly exceptional innovators. In our species, imagination, whether under voluntary control or not, is manifest in the arts, science, technological achievements, language, cooperation, and religions we see today. These likely derive from the same creative capacity that enabled many of our ancestors’ achievements, including complex tool manufacture or large-scale cooperation for collaborative foraging and hunting (Tomasello 2009; Henrich 2016; Laland 2017). Moreover, and echoing the cultural intelligence hypothesis (Boyd & Richerson 1985; Whiten & van Schaik 2007; Henrich 2016; Laland 2017; Miller et al. 2019), these achievements resulted in a gene-culture co-evolutionary feedback whereby increasingly creative and imaginative feats became, intellectually and culturally, possible. 

Cumulative culture, the gradual change of technology, beliefs or institutions, over generations involves repeated creative refinement of the traits in question.  There have been many suggestions regarding what underlies this distinctive aspect of human culture (Dean et al. 2012) yet variation, across (and within) cultures or across (and within) species, in imagination and creativity has received relatively little attention.  However, recent evidence of cultural (Legare et al. 2018; Pope et al. 2019) and inter-species (Watzek et al. 2019) variation in cognitive flexibility, which may underlie creativity, is promising in this regard. In economics and entrepreneurship, the importance of the ‘extra-rational’ motivation of joy in creativity and discovery is recognized (Hwang & Horowit 2012), but this has not yet been incorporated into cultural evolution thinking.

Creativity and Imagination in non-technological domains such as art, design, literature, music, and religion, is relatively understudied in the cultural evolution field. Does innovation in these domains differ to that seen for technological evolution? For example, does the proposed link between cultural complexity and demography in the evolution of technology hold in other domains? A study of folk tales indicates perhaps not (Acerbi et al. 2017). To what extent are traits that “capture the imagination” a force for stability rather than cultural change in oral traditions, including religion (Boyer 1994; Barrett & Nyhof 2011)? Linguistics offers an alternative understanding of creativity in cultural evolution (Smith & Kirby 2008), manifest in the rapid evolution of dialects and slang.  

Cultural norms regarding the value of conformity versus individuality (Clegg & Legare 2016, 2017), and related concepts of intelligence (Clegg et al. 2017), are highly influential on population-wide levels of engagement in social learning or creativity (Mesoudi 2011, Heyes 2018). Yet, the extent to which these cultural norms have ramifications for the human ability to transcend our current limitations is unknown. How do the cultural evolutionary dynamics of the ‘social learning of social learning strategies’ (Mesoudi et al. 2015) influence the creation of new technologies or creative recombination of socially and individually learned information to tackle major societal issues?  Here, cultural evolution would benefit from greater synthesis with fields such as sociology, history, and computer science, as seen in the recent finding that historical ‘loosening’ of American culture is associated with increased creativity (Jackson et al. 2019a).

Educational practices are variable, both between and within formal and participatory systems, and are known to influence individuals’ creativity and imagination (Bonawitz et al. 2011; Avila 2013; Tweed & Lehman 2002). A cultural evolutionary approach highlights that functionally distinct teaching types are combined dependent on learning problems children have faced within specific ethnographic contexts (Kline 2015).  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. Humans part-control their own future by designing educational systems to promote creativity and problem solving. Yet more could be done to clarify the evolutionary dynamics of individual-level factors that affect creativity/imagination throughout the life-span (e.g. interaction of personality and educational practices), facilitating superior decision making in future generations. 

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2. Cultural Influences on Access to ‘Reality’ 

Questions related to our access to ‘reality’ (or rationality) feature strongly in the top unanswered questions in science (Science 2005), for example regarding the reality of recalled memories, the ‘unreality’ of physics theories, and confirmation bias (as opposed to objective reality) in science. 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 by philosophers, psychologists, economists, sociologists and political scientists 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).  Imagination can be considered an ability to “run simulations of counterfactual virtual realities” (Asma 2017), drawing on past experiences (Schacter & Addis 2007), enabling humans to create representations of potential future events. Likewise, the need to learn about our increasingly complex ancestral socio-ecological environment may have shaped our appetite for fictional and counterfactual narrative (Boyd 2017). 

Bounded Rationality whereby humans have an adaptive toolbox of fast-and-frugal rules for decision-making under uncertainty and/or excess information (Gigerenzer & Selten 2002) is a common idea across fields.  Within cultural evolution, transmission biases (a.k.a. ‘social learning strategies’) represent a variety of such heuristics (Boyd & Richerson 1985; Laland 2004; Kendal et al. 2018). Models have revealed circumstances where superstitious or false beliefs can spread through cultural evolution (Tanaka et al, 2009). In other fields it is claimed that our brains are not wired to seek truth due to ‘confirmation bias’ (Politics: Brennan 2012), ‘willful blindness’ (Business: Heffernan 2012), or ‘schema-consistency bias’ (Sociology: Hunzaker 2016).  Synthesis of these fields with cultural evolution would extend understanding of constraints on human access to ‘reality’, and humans’ differing realities, with implications for current societal issues such as ‘fake news’ (Vosoughi et al. 2018) and political voting (Hänska & Bauchowitz 2017). 

Reasoning may be viewed from an ‘intellectualist’ or ‘interactionist’ approach. It helps humans individually or ‘intellectually’ to arrive at accurate conclusions regarding the reality of the world, and/or is used in an ‘interactionist’ manner to retrospectively persuade others of the rationality of individual’s beliefs, evaluate others’ arguments, and justify individual’s beliefs and behaviour to themselves (Mercier & Sperber 2017). To what extent do these interpretations explain cultural evolutionary patterns of the spread of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas? For example, do people accept misinformation as ‘reality’ resulting in so-called ‘irrational’ behaviour (e.g. decisions against one’s interests regarding politics, vaccinations, violence) or do they accept and culturally transmit it to justify pre-held beliefs (Mercier 2020)? How do culturally evolved institutions influence the direction and content of future cultural evolution (e.g. Mathew & Boyd 2011)?

Cultures of forecasting, whereby how people think about the future and make decisions about it, are variable yet relatively understudied, a key omission given the current pace of change in human environments. Which information sources are favoured will vary culturally, dependent on attitudes to authority, conformity, religion, and ecology of natural hazards etc. Here, a cultural evolutionary framework can build on research in social psychology (e.g. regarding ‘cultural dimensions’ of power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and short/long term orientation: Hofstede 2011). Likewise, recent studies have identified population differences in acceptance, or seeking of, ‘new realities’ (flexibility of problem solving, Pope et al. 2019; innovation, Chang et al. 2011), explained by differences in levels of environmental uncertainty and variability experienced.  

Theories of the predictive brain involve philosophers, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, computer scientists and sociologists (e.g. Clark 2016; Foster 2018; Friston 2012; Gopnik & Bonawitz 2015; Heyes 2018). Given our cultural structuring (through embodied cognition, situated learning, or niche construction) of the sensory information we aim to predict (Flynn et al. 2013), a key question is how similar concepts of causation, and understanding of realities, are across cultures given that culture influences not just what we think but how we think. Can the evolved similarities and differences (e.g. in supernatural causation: Boyer 1996) be explained better by synthesising theories of cognition across fields? How is today’s environment, particularly regarding social media, influencing access to reality? Children are our future yet how their access to reality is influenced by their increasing immersion in a virtual world, and the consequences for decision making through the life-course, are unknown. Are our constructs (e.g. AI) approaching better access to reality than humans?  Finally, to what extent does culture influence nonhuman access to reality (e.g. Gruber et al. 2011)? 

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3. The impact of globalization on cultures

We live in an ever more interdependent world, the current and future implications of which are ripe for investigation through a cultural evolutionary lens.  Mathematical models indicate that large, interconnected populations may increase in technological complexity more rapidly than smaller populations, as they generate and recombine more innovations, and resist loss of technology through random cultural drift (e.g. Powell et al. 2009, Lewis & Laland 2012). As these models assume an ‘effective population size’ of the number of people able to interact, today’s globalized digital age holds great potential for invention and maintenance of increasingly complex culture. Yet the effects on cultural evolutionary dynamics of hyper-availability of online information to enormous audiences, and the novel features of digital 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). World-systems analysis enables an interdisciplinary investigation of the current dynamics of global interdependencies and resultant inequalities and power differentials (Wallerstein 2004). These inequalities and the lack of agency for some peoples to control their own future is of academic and public concern. It is quite possible that the merging of humanity into a single “effective population” will erase cultural variation.  Historically, there is much evidence of one population replacing another due to a specific cultural advantage (Creanza et al. 2017).  Replacement, when borne by violence or other power differentials (“cultural genocide”) may be impossible to resist. Yet peoples’ cultural beliefs and practices are vulnerable to erosion even where ‘merely’ interacting with dominant or spreading cultures. However, there may be cultural attributes that allow people to resist change. Cultures with a ‘short-term orientation’ (Hofstede 2011) honour their traditions more strongly than those with a ‘long-term orientation’ who are more future-focused and more likely to learn from other countries. This grant, explicitly enabling geographically diverse voices, catalyzes truly beneficial research in this area, and enables the field to leverage the globalization process to understand processes of cultural evolution. Finally, we may consider the negative (and positive) impact of globalization on nonhuman cultures (Gruber et al. 2019).

Loss of Knowledge Diversity may impact technological development. Globalization results in loss of ethnobotanical knowledge (Reyes-García et al. 2005) and the distinctive reality represented in lost traditional languages (Olko et al. 2016). Yet the pooling of Indigenous and scientific knowledge can effectively solve complex problems and encourage uptake of technology (Palis 2017). Likewise, there is an open question as to whether global hyper-connectedness of individuals stifles innovation (Derex & Boyd 2016), and increases maladaptive ‘herding’ (Toyokawa et al. 2019). Given the balance of innovation and social learning required for cultural evolution, homogeneity in relevant cultural dimensions in global industries may limit future achievements (Tellis et al. 2003). Cultural evolution’s consideration of multi-level processes, and interdisciplinarity, promises fruitful modeling of the future impacts of globalization on cultural adaptation. 

Positive aspects of globalization include economic development due to more transformative innovations, speedier cultural evolution, and greater ability to adapt to environmental change (Kolodny et al. 2015), within societies infiltrated by cultural attitudes towards assigning deviance from tradition a measure of prestige (Arbilly & Laland 2017), rather than disapproval (Hofstede 2011). Similarly, openness to diversity arises in populations with increased contact with minorities (Pettigrew & Tropp 2006) often facilitated by globalization, and a recent study (Rucks et al. 2019) established that changes in openness to diversity precede changes to democratic institutions.  Thus, incorporation of diverse fields would benefit understanding of the cultural evolutionary dynamics of key benefits and challenges of globalization for economic development, as well as political and religious stability or change (Beyer 1994).

International Migration is outpacing global population growth (United Nations, 2019). As such, contemporary and historical studies of acculturation, or cultural adaptation of immigrants, have never been more important. Migration levels may now exceed historical levels that prevented ‘swamping’ of cultures and maintained cultural divergence (Pagel & Mace 2004). Yet studies of acculturation imply variation in the extent to which cultural values shift towards those of the adopted society or are maintained (Mesoudi et al. 2016, 2018).  Moreover, the extent to which migrants maintain use of their native tongue can impact on negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities consequently endangering those native languages (Olko et al. 2016). A multidisciplinary cultural evolution approach is vital here given the increasing popularity of anti-immigration and nationalist political parties globally.

Pre-existing cultural beliefs may be incompatible with ‘invading’ ideas (e.g. Rogers 1995). Worse, invading cultural practices may be maladaptive in the host population. For example, cultivation of bitter manioc while crucial for global food security causes high mortality where cultural processing methods are not transmitted (Burns et al. 2010). Globalized media consumption is implicated in the spread of Western body ideals (Boothroyd et al. 2019) driving the global increase in disordered eating (Erskine et al. 2016). Yet the impact of ‘cultural erosion/invasion’ on people’s well-being, lived experience, and a community’s social cohesion, is understudied from a cultural evolution perspective, despite much research here in linguistics (Olko et al. 2016).  In contrast, spread of negatively valenced anglophone music and art (Brand et al. 2019) may beneficially influence cultural attitudes towards mental health (Gopalkrishnan 2018), which are influenced by cultural variation in emotion semantics (Jackson et al. 2019b).

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4. Applying cultural evolution to enhance human futures

How cultural evolutionary insights can be used for positive change was identified as one of the field’s ‘grand challenges’ (Brewer et al. 2017) and the benefit of including stakeholders or end-users in research is being increasingly acknowledged (Toe 2021). 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). Likewise, an understanding of cultural transmission may be used to enhance the spread of desired behaviours. For example, beneficial health behaviours have been found to spread more readily between similar individuals (Centola 2011), and the spread of cooperative behaviours or educational messages may be enhanced by employing knowledge of social learning strategies (e.g. prestige bias employed in reducing fertility rates: Boyd and Richerson 1985). Moreover, cultural transmission can result in behaviour that counters individual Darwinian fitness (e.g. demographic transition: Ihara & Feldman 2004; suicide: Mesoudi 2009; ineffective medical treatments: Tanaka et al 2009). In principle, understanding of these processes could, for example, aid in the current Ebola and Covid-19 health workers’ ‘war’ against misinformation in the Congo and globally, respectively (e.g. Meisenzahl 2020). Cultural mechanisms and factors have been identified that enhance or impede technological evolution and these are recognized as enabling the potential to both design technology and create social conditions favouring or preventing the spread of beneficial or harmful technologies, respectively (Mesoudi et al. 2013). Many independent fields are engaged in similar endeavours (e.g. Marketing: Heath & Heath 2007; sociology: Rogers 1995; social psychology: Mahmood et al. 2019), yet there are reasons to envisage an explicit cultural evolutionary perspective would be beneficial.

Effective public policy & interventions, especially when working across cultures, can be elucidated by cultural evolutionists’ knowledge of diversity of cultural norms, ideologies, value systems, and situational ethics (Brewer et al. 2017). Accordingly, cultural evolution could inform ‘Behavioural Insights’ 'or ‘nudge’ theories used by institutions globally in an attempt to improve public policy. Theoretical models suggest that interventions incorporating cultural transmission amongst peers, alongside public policy and economic incentives, may be effective in instigating cultural change (Fogarty & Feldman 2011), though the nature and effectiveness of these transmission processes varies across cultural contexts (see Themes 1 and 3; Allen et al. 2019). Cultural evolutionists can determine what factors make group-level culture-driven desired behaviours more functional than less desirable individual-level behaviours and apply them to language revitalization efforts (Olko et al. 2016), climate change (Seneviratne et al. 2016), animal conservation (Brakes et al. 2019), global food shortages (Fischer et al. 2014), and spread of beneficial agricultural techniques (Garibaldi et al. 2017). Such understanding may enhance effective responses to global cooperative dilemmas (e.g. covid-19: Moya et al. 2020; conservation: Waring et al. 2015, 2017; sustainable behavior: Brooks et al. 2017). Any such applications potentially raise important ethical issues, which require greater awareness.

Evolutionary Medicine is beginning to impact medical thinking (Bentley 2016), yet a coordinated contribution from cultural evolutionists is lacking. Understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of pathogens is enhanced when genetic evidence is coupled with cultural behaviours influencing their prevalence (e.g. Malaria: Durham 1991; Kuru: Lindenbaum 2015; antibiotic resistance: Boni & Feldman 2005). Epidemiological modelers have begun to incorporate cultural transmission of health practices and the ecological dynamics of pathogens into policies regarding drug distribution and tackling epidemics (Rhines 2013). Likewise, international dietary recommendations require greater understanding of human-microbe interactions that cultural evolution offers (Gomez et al. 2019). Cultural evolutionists have the tools to address many pertinent issues, such as the (un)anticipated biological-cultural consequences of gene editing (Nature Genetics 2017) or robotic companions (Langcaster-James & Bentley 2018); the effectiveness of campaigns to promote health behaviours (e.g. vaccination: Jimenez et al. 2018; covid-19: Moya et al. 2020) and Western-centric guidelines of international health agencies (e.g. developmental milestones: Kline et al. 2018).  

Education policies for preparing individuals for the increasingly rapidly changing world they will enter (see theme 1 for background) would benefit from the unique insights of cultural evolution. For example, countries have adopted curriculum reforms to enhance creative potential alongside knowledge delivery (Lin 2011) and engaging teaching forms are in development (e.g. CORE). Such recognises that creativity is in increasing demand by employers as other skills or knowledge are being replaced by automation and AI (Durham Commission on Creativity & Education 2019). Likewise, understanding how children acquire information and the developmental cultural influences they experience (e.g. language/metaphor influencing prejudice) is vital in our interdependent world.

Political culture is prone to rapid pendulum shifts and cultural evolution may contribute to predictions of this, playing a role in conflict prevention or counteracting radicalization (see themes 2 and 3 for background). For example, many models of collective wisdom focus on a context where ‘truth’ is fixed, yet this does not represent reality. Cultural evolutionists have the tools to model temporally dynamic decision-making environments (including feedback loops between learning and decision-making) to make use of collective intelligence in our world more tractable in the future (Toyokawa et al. 2019).

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The final ‘grand challenge’ identified in the survey of the cultural evolution field (Brewer et al. 2017) involved educating policymakers and the public about cultural evolution. Human (and animal) cultural evolution is a topic that readily fascinates the public, but the field remains poorly understood and is rarely used outside academia. Moreover, the benefit of including stakeholders or end-users in research is being increasingly acknowledged (Toe 2021).

Through funding 4 applied working groups (alongside the CES Sustainability WG) we will address this deficit. The composition and structure of the working groups will be designed by the applicants, to implement cultural evolution with real impact on, for example, policy (e.g. public health, education), politics, business, conservation and welfare, etc.  Each WG will host a workshop uniting researchers and policy makers, engage in further impactful activities, and produce policy briefs, visual summaries/infographics. 

All public policies attempt to change culture.  The working groups will engage with the ethical implications of cultural evolutionary recommendations, ensuring that they are transparent to the public and use the expertise of professional policy makers. With these guidelines, working groups can effectively disseminate findings to the public and engage with policy makers to use cultural evolutionary insights to help solve current and future real-world problems.  

Applicants should be aware of, and not substantially replicate, the aims and activities of the existing CES Evolutionary Approaches to Sustainability working group. The three core aims of this working group are (1) to facilitate networking among scientists and practitioners on evolutionary approaches to sustainability, (2) to advance the applied science of cultural evolution in environmental and social-ecological contexts, and ultimately (3) to work with practitioners and stakeholders to apply that science to environmental and sustainability challenges globally.

Those considering forming a working group may find the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog a particularly useful resource for understanding and increasing the impact of academic research on societal issues.


International Applied Workshops 

Each working group will organize a workshop to discuss the application of cultural evolution to their particular pressing societal issue.  With organizational support from our Project Manager (PM), these are anticipated to occur between mid January and mid June 2023 at an appropriate location of the working group’s choice. 

Speakers and delegates will be invited by the applicants to fulfill their objectives. However, strict guidance will be given requiring a 2-day workshop involving ~20 individuals, including a range of academics, individuals from non-academic organisations (e.g. NNGOs, INGOs, Think Tanks etc.) and key stakeholders (e.g. representatives of community groups). The intended participants/audience will be appropriate to catalyzing real change and their composition will adhere to the CES diversity mandate (including consideration of geography, career stage, gender, etc.).  

The working groups will be responsible for providing convincing plans regarding attracting the intended workshop attendees and any plans for further dissemination and involvement of a wider audience of non-attendees. Our Research Communications Coordinator (RCC) will advise and assist regarding advertising, printed materials, web material and podcasts.  In addition, appropriate media coverage before, during and after the workshops will be handled by the organisers in conjunction with the RCC who will be embedded in the Marketing Communications facilities of Durham University. 

Workshop organisers will be required to perform a targeted pre-workshop survey to identify where knowledge (academic/practical) is lacking, enabling focused discussion and tangible workshop outcomes. They will produce a post-workshop report including outcomes, assessment of the workshop and suggested future activities.  Prof. Rachel Kendal and the RCC will attend all workshops to identify areas for synthesis and assist with opportunities for societal impact (e.g. policy briefs, infographics, visual summaries, public events).  

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