Human Behaviour and Cultural Evolution Group
Researchers in the Human Behaviour and Cultural Evolution Group (HuBCEG) investigate human behaviour, life-history and cultural diversity from the perspective of modern evolutionary theory, as well as the evolution of cognition, social information use and the cultural transmission of information in non-human animals. Our group uses a range of approaches to tackle these issues, including field studies, laboratory experiments, phylogenetic comparative analyses, mathematical models, computer simulations, and other quantitative techniques.
We are based at the University’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, and work at field sites in the UK and worldwide, including India, Uganda, South Africa, Australia, Spain and northwestern USA.
Alex Thornton publishes a new paper on cultural conformity in wild populations of Great Tits in Nature
Aplin, L.M., Farine, D.R., Morand-Ferron, J., Cockburn, A., Thornton, A. & Sheldon, B.C. (2014) Experimentally induced innovations lead to persistent culture via conformity in wild birds. Nature. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13998
There are often PhD studentships with members of our group. See our studentships page for details of individual projects. Please email individual researchers with enquiries about these or other potential opportunities
Staff in Cornwall
|Mike Cant||Evolution of animal and human societies
|Tom Currie||Cultural evolution
Evolution of social and political complexity
|Sasha Dall||Adaptation under risk and uncertainty
Social information use
|Kimberley Hockings||Human-wildlife interactions and conservation conflicts
Great ape behaviour, ecology, and cognition
|Alex Mesoudi||Cultural evolution
|Erik Postma||Human life history
Selection pressures on physical fitness
|Andy Russell||Cooperative breeding
|Alex Thornton||Comparative cognition
Post doctoral researchers and fellows
- Dr Charlotte Brand - human cultural evolution, sex differences, prestige
- Dr Maxime Derex (Marie Curie Fellow) - cumulative cultural evolution
- Dr Amanda Lucas - social learning and cultural cognition in infants and children
- Adam Flitton – cultural evolution of economic growth and money
- Ángel V. Jiménez - cultural evolution of prestige, transmission biases
- Alice Williams - Evolution of socio-political complexity
- John McKeown - cultural evolution of fertility
We have received funding to conduct our research from a variety of sources
- European Research Council
- John Templeton Foundation
- Tricoastal Foundation
- British Academy
- Leverhulme Trust
- Royal Society
- European Social Fund
- British Ecological Society
Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?
Our BA/BSc Human Sciences degree is designed to enable you to address these big questions through examining the past and present of humans from the perspectives of both social and biological sciences.
This unique, interdisciplinary programme covers a broad range of topics, from human evolution and genetics, to the evolution of human cultures and cultural diversity, all the way through to sustainability and the interactions between human societies and their environments. It is designed for those interested in human biology, the environment, social policy, politics, economics and society. Find out more information about the programme.
Download the BA Human Sciences flyer (pdf).
Find out about the opportunities for studying for a PhD with us including the application process.
There are several sources of funding available and anybody interested in studying for a PhD is encouraged to send an email to a suitable academic staff member with a CV and a clear statement of their research interests.
Current funded PhD positions in University of Exeter (including the Penryn Campus) can be found on our studentships page.
Here is a selection of publications by members of our group. You can find further publications on individual members personal websites.
Whiten A, Caldwell CA, Mesoudi A (2016). Cultural diffusion in humans and other animals. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 15-21. Full text
Abstract: Cultural diffusion in humans and other animalsRecent years have seen an enormous expansion and progress in studies of the cultural diffusion processes through which behaviour patterns, ideas and artifacts are transmitted within and between generations of humans and other animals. The first of two main approaches focuses on identifying, tracing and understanding cultural diffusion as it naturally occurs, an essential foundation to any science of culture. This endeavor has been enriched in recent years by sophisticated statistical methods and surprising new discoveries particularly in humans, other primates and cetaceans. This work has been complemented by a growing corpus of powerful, purpose-designed cultural diffusion experiments with captive and natural populations that have facilitated the rigorous identification and analysis of cultural diffusion in species from insects to humans.
Engesser S, Crane JMS, Savage JL, Russell AF, Townsend SW (2015). Experimental Evidence for Phonemic Contrasts in a Nonhuman Vocal System. Plos Biol, 13(6). Author URL
Abstract: The evolution of prolonged life after reproduction.Why females of some species cease ovulation before the end of their natural lifespan is a longstanding evolutionary puzzle. For many species in captivity, post-reproductive life is simply an epiphenomenon of lengthened lifespan. Yet in natural populations of humans as well as some cetaceans and insects, reproductive senescence occurs much faster than somatic aging and females exhibit prolonged post-reproductive lifespans (PRLSs). Determining the mechanisms and functions that underpin PRLSs has proved a significant challenge. Here we bring together both classic and modern hypotheses proposed to explain PRLSs and discuss their application to both human and nonhuman animals. By taking an integrative and broad taxonomic approach we highlight the need to consider multiple interacting explanations for the evolution of PRLSs.
Savage PE, Brown S, Sakai E, Currie TE (2015). Statistical universals reveal the structures and functions of human music. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 112(29), 8987-8992. Author URL
Croft DP, Brent LJ, Franks DW, Cant MA (2015). The evolution of prolonged life after reproduction. Trends Ecol Evol, 30(7), 407-416. Author URL
Mesoudi A (2015). Cultural Evolution: a Review of Theory, Findings and Controversies. Evolutionary Biology. Full text
Abstract: Cultural Evolution: a Review of Theory, Findings and ControversiesThe last two decades have seen an explosion in research analysing cultural change as a Darwinian evolutionary process. Here I provide an overview of the theory of cultural evolution, including its intellectual history, major theoretical tenets and methods, key findings, and prominent criticisms and controversies. 'Culture' is defined as socially transmitted information. Cultural evolution is the theory that this socially transmitted information evolves in the manner laid out by Darwin in the Origin of Species, i.e. it comprises a system of variation, differential fitness and inheritance. Cultural evolution is not, however, neo-Darwinian, in that many of the details of genetic evolution may not apply, such as particulate inheritance and random mutation. Following a brief history of this idea, I review theoretical and empirical studies of cultural microevolution, which entails both selection-like processes wherein some cultural variants are more likely to be acquired and transmitted than others, plus transformative processes that alter cultural information during transmission. I also review how phylogenetic methods have been used to reconstruct cultural macroevolution, including the evolution of languages, technology and social organisation. Finally, I discuss recent controversies and debates, including the extent to which culture is proximate or ultimate, the relative role of selective and transformative processes in cultural evolution, the basis of cumulative cultural evolution, the evolution of large-scale human cooperation, and whether social learning is learned or innate. I conclude by highlighting the value of using evolutionary methods to study culture for both the social and biological sciences.
Thornton A, Mcauliffe K (2015). Cognitive consequences of cooperative breeding? a critical appraisal. Journal of Zoology, 295(1), 12-22. Full text
Abstract: Cognitive consequences of cooperative breeding? a critical appraisalThe social intelligence hypothesis, which posits that the challenges of life in complex social environments drive cognitive evolution, enjoys widespread theoretical and empirical support. Recent years have seen the emergence of a novel variant of this hypothesis, suggesting that cooperative breeding is associated with the elaboration of socio-cognitive abilities. With this cooperative breeding hypothesis (CBH) rapidly gaining currency, the time is ripe for a critical appraisal. Proponents of the CBH argue that cooperative breeding leads to increased cognitive performance, calling upon cognitive and motivational processes including spontaneous prosocial tendencies, attending to and learning from conspecifics, teaching and coordinating activities. We review the literature on the natural history and cognitive abilities of cooperative breeders and other social animals and conclude that there is no compelling evidence that these processes are either unique to cooperative breeders or particularly cognitively demanding. Thus, there is currently no reason to suppose that cooperative breeding has major cognitive consequences.
Watts J, Greenhill SJ, Atkinson QD, Currie TE, Bulbulia J, Gray RD (2015). Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-biological Sciences, 282(1804). Author URL
Kramer KL, Russell AF (2015). Was monogamy a key step on the hominin road? Reevaluating the monogamy hypothesis in the evolution of cooperative breeding. Evolutionary Anthropology, 24(2), 73-83
Acerbi A, Mesoudi A (2015). If we are all cultural Darwinians what's the fuss about? Clarifying recent disagreements in the field of cultural evolution. Biology and Philosophy, 30(4), 481-503. Full text
Abstract: If we are all cultural Darwinians what's the fuss about? Clarifying recent disagreements in the field of cultural evolutionCultural evolution studies are characterized by the notion that culture evolves accordingly to broadly Darwinian principles. Yet how far the analogy between cultural and genetic evolution should be pushed is open to debate. Here, we examine a recent disagreement that concerns the extent to which cultural transmission should be considered a preservative mechanism allowing selection among different variants, or a transformative process in which individuals recreate variants each time they are transmitted. The latter is associated with the notion of "cultural attraction". This issue has generated much misunderstanding and confusion. We first clarify the respective positions, noting that there is in fact no substantive incompatibility between cultural attraction and standard cultural evolution approaches, beyond a difference in focus. Whether cultural transmission should be considered a preservative or reconstructive process is ultimately an empirical question, and we examine how both preservative and reconstructive cultural transmission has been studied in recent experimental research in cultural evolution. Finally, we discuss how the relative importance of preservative and reconstructive processes may depend on the granularity of analysis and the domain being studied.
McAuliffe K, Wrangham R, Glowacki L, Russell AF (2015). When cooperation begets cooperation: the role of key individuals in galvanizing support. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 370(1683). Author URL
Abstract: When cooperation begets cooperation: the role of key individuals in galvanizing support.Life abounds with examples of conspecifics actively cooperating to a common end, despite conflicts of interest being expected concerning how much each individual should contribute. Mathematical models typically find that such conflict can be resolved by partial-response strategies, leading investors to contribute relatively equitably. Using a case study approach, we show that such model expectations can be contradicted in at least four disparate contexts: (i) bi-parental care; (ii) cooperative breeding; (iii) cooperative hunting; and (iv) human cooperation. We highlight that: (a) marked variation in contributions is commonplace; and (b) individuals can often respond positively rather than negatively to the contributions of others. Existing models have surprisingly limited power in explaining these phenomena. Here, we propose that, although among-individual variation in cooperative contributions will be influenced by differential costs and benefits, there is likely to be a strong genetic or epigenetic component. We then suggest that selection can maintain high investors (key individuals) when their contributions promote support by increasing the benefits and/or reducing the costs for others. Our intentions are to raise awareness in-and provide testable hypotheses of-two of the most poorly understood, yet integral, questions regarding cooperative ventures: why do individuals vary in their contributions and when does cooperation beget cooperation?
Aplin, L.M., Farine, D.R., Morand-Ferron, J., Cockburn, A., Thornton, A. & Sheldon, B.C. (2015) Experimentally induced innovations lead to persistent culture via conformity in wild birds. Nature. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13998
Opie, C., Shultz, S. Atkinson, Q.D., Currie, T. & Mace, R. (2014) Phylogenetic reconstruction of Bantu kinship challenges Main Sequence Theory of human social evolution. PNAS 111(49): 17414-17419 doi:10.1073/pnas.1415744111
Kramer, K.L., Russell, A.F. (2014). Kin-selected cooperation without lifetime monogamy: human insights and animal implications. Trends Ecol Evol. Author URL
Currie TE, Mace R (2014). Evolution of cultural traits occurs at similar relative rates in different world regions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1795). Author URL
Lamba, S. (2014). Social learning in cooperative dilemmas. Proc Biol Sci,281(1787). Author URL
Turchin, P., Currie, T.E., Turner, E.A.L., Gavrilets, S. (2013). War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(41), 16384-16389.
Gillespie, D.O.S., Russell, A.F., Lummaa, V. (2013). The effect of maternal age and reproductive history on offspring survival and lifetime reproduction in preindustrial humans. Evolution, 67, 1964-1974.
Cant, M.A., Young, A.J. (2013) Resolving social conflict among females without overt aggression. Phil Trans R Soc B 368: 20130076
Lahdenperä, M., Gillespie, D.O.S., Lummaa, V., Russell, A.F.(2012). Severe intergenerational reproductive conflict and the evolution of menopause. Ecology Letters, 15(11), 1283-1293.
Thornton, A., Lukas, D. (2012). Individual variation in cognitive performance: developmental and evolutionary perspectives. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 367(1603), 2773-2783. Author URL
Raihani, N. J., Thornton, A. & Bshary, R. 2012. Punishment and cooperation in nature. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 27, 288-295
Dall, S.R.X., Bell, A.M., Bolnick, D.I., Ratnieks, F.L.W. (2012). An evolutionary ecology of individual differences. Ecology Letters, 15(10), 1189-1198
Lamba, S., Mace, R. (2011). Demography and ecology drive variation in cooperation across human populations. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A,108(35), 14426-14430. Author URL
Thornton, A., Clutton-Brock, T. (2011). Social learning and the development of individual and group behaviour in mammal societies. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 366(1567), 978-987. Author URL
Lahdenperä, M., Russell, A.F., Tremblay, M., Lummaa, V. (2011). Selection on menopause in two premodern human populations: no evidence for the Mother Hypothesis. Evolution, 65, 476-489.
Currie, T.E., Greenhill, S.J., Gray, R.D., Hasegawa, T., Mace, R. (2010). Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific. Nature, 467(7317), 801-804. Author URL
Thornton, A., Samson, J. & Clutton-Brock, T. 2010. Multi-generational persistence of traditions in neighbouring meerkat groups. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277, 3623-3629
Johnstone, R.A., Cant, M.A. (2010). The evolution of menopause in cetaceans and humans: the role of demography. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1701), 3765-3771.
Currie, T.E., Mace, R. (2009). Political complexity predicts the spread of ethnolinguistic groups. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 106(18), 7339-7344. Abstract. Author URL
Russell, A.F., Lummaa, V. (2009). Maternal effects in cooperative breeders: from hymenopterans to humans. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 364(1520), 1143-1167. Author URL
Cant, M.A., Johnstone, R.A. (2008). Reproductive conflict and the separation of reproductive generations in humans.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 105(14), 5332-5336. Author URL
Lummaa, V., Pettay, J.E., Russell, A.F. (2007). Male twins reduce fitness of female co-twins in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, 104, 10915-10920.
Thornton, A., McAuliffe, K. (2006). Teaching in wild meerkats. Science, 313(5784), 227-229. Author URL
Lahdenperä, M., Lummaa, V., Tremblay, M., Helle, S., Russell, A.F. (2004). Fitness benefits of prolonged post-reproductive lifespan in women. Nature, 428, 178-181.
Research by Shakti Lamba and Vivek Nityananda on the evolution of self deception recently featured in several media outlets including:
Research by Andy Russell on the evolution of human menopause published recently in Ecology Letters was featured in a number of places:
Tom Currie’s work on the evolution of empires was covered by several outlets, including: