Dr Shakti Lamba
Royal Society University Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Human Behavioural Ecology


Research projects

1. The evolution of cooperation in humans

Cooperation, defined in the evolutionary sciences as behaviour that benefits others at a cost to the actor, is a cornerstone of human social organization. The degree and scale of cooperation varies considerably across populations and many authors have attributed this variation to cultural differences. However, it remains unclear what drives this cultural variation. A substantial body of theory in evolutionary biology predicts that demographic characteristics of populations, such as their size and patterns of migration, may be important drivers of cooperation and competition. But for the most part these theoretical ideas remain empirically untested in human populations. Much of my research focuses on testing these models in real-world populations in order to investigate whether demographic influences on cooperation and competition explain the cultural variation observed across populations. My previous work has demonstrated that levels of cooperation can vary even on small scales across populations of the same cultural group. This project evaluates whether key evolutionary theories explain real-world patterns of human cooperation by constructing empirical tests that combine behavioural, demographic and social data via large-scale field studies.

Since 2007 I have been working with populations of the Pahari Korwa, a small-scale, forager-horticultural society in Chhattissgarh, India. Heavily reliant on gathered forest products, which are a primary source of food and income, the Pahari Korwa also practice agriculture on small tracts of land. These economic resources are supplemented by opportunistic hunting, fishing and wage labor. Pahari Korwa populations present an excellent model system for this study: a set of real-world uniethnic metapopulations of the same endogamous cultural group, with distinct population boundaries and considerable demographic and ecological variation across them.

2. The diffusion of innovations
(collaborator: Dr. Alexandra Alvergne)

A major debate in the social sciences concerns the extent to which individuals adopt innovations based on their own assessment of the utility of a trait or on the imitation of others. While the first strategy may be based on more accurate information, the cognitive expense associated with the latter is potentially lower. Recent evolutionary models of cultural change have considered the trade-off between accuracy and expense to predict the conditions under which different adoption strategies should be used; yet, to date, they remain largely untested. This project addresses this deficit by examining the processes underlying the uptake of innovations in two Indian societies: the Pahari Korwa (forager-horticulturists) and the Khasi (swidden-agriculturists).

3. The evolution of self deception
(collaborator: Dr. Vivek Nityananda)

Robert Trivers proposed that self deception could have evolved to facilitate the deception of others if it eliminates signals (e.g. stress) that reveal deception. We are developing an empirical research programme testing this idea in humans and other species.

Research Grants

  • 2014 - 2017 ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellowship
  • 2013 The Royal Society Research Grant 
  • 2013 The British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant (with Dr. Alexandra Alvergne)
  • 2012 University College London Graduate School Research Grant (with Dr. Alexandra Alvergne)
  • 2011 Centre for Ecology and Evolution Research Grant (with Dr. Vivek Nityananda)
  • 2007 Cogito Foundation Research Grant (with Prof. Ruth Mace)
  • 2007 University College London Graduate School Research Grant
  • 2007 Parkes Foundation Small Grant
  • 2006-2009 Cogito Foundation PhD studentship


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