Professor Alex Mesoudi
Professor of Cultural Evolution
Science and Engineering Research Support Facility (SERSF):, University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9FE, UK
Office hours: Term 1: 10-11am Wednesdays, and 10-11am Fridays, via Teams. Please sign up to a slot on this signup sheet and I will call you on Teams.
Term 1: 10-11am Wednesdays, and 10-11am Fridays, via Teams. Please sign up to a slot on this signup sheet and I will call you on Teams.
I conduct research into human cultural evolution, in which cultural change is studied as an evolutionary process, and social learning, the processes by which we learn from other people. I run lab experiments and construct theoretical models investigating human social learning biases - who learns what, from whom, when and why - and how these generate and maintain large-scale cultural change and diversity.
Many of these experiments and models have examined past human technology, aiming to explain change and diversity in artifacts such as arrowheads or handaxes. Other work has looked at why only humans appear to possess cumulative cultural evolution, where knowledge is accumulated over successive generations. I have also looked at contemporary phenomena related to social learning such as copycat suicide. More recently I have been studying migrant communities, using immigration as a natural experiment for identifying the drivers of inter-generational cultural change and stasis.
- 2002-2005 PhD, University of St Andrews (School of Psychology)
- 2001-2002 MSc Evolutionary Psychology, University of Liverpool
- 1998-2001 BSc Psychology, University College London
- 2019 - present Professor, Biosciences, University of Exeter
- 2015 - 2019 Associate Professor, Biosciences, University of Exeter
- 2012-2015 Reader in Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, Durham University
- 2008-2012 Lecturer in Psychology, School of Biological & Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London
- 2007-2008 Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Social & Developmental Psychology, University of Cambridge
- 2006-2007 Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia
- 2005-2006 Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia
Research group links
I conduct research into human cultural evolution, in which cultural change is studied as an evolutionary process that operates in parallel to genetic evolution. My 2011 book Cultural Evolution gives an easy-to-read overview of this burgeoning and inter-disciplinary field, which links many traditional social science disciplines (anthropology, archaeology, economics, linguistics, psychology etc.) within an evolutionary framework.
In my own research, I run lab experiments and construct theoretical models investigating human social learning biases: who learns what, from whom, when and why. These social learning biases can then be used to explain large-scale patterns of cultural change and diversity.
Current and past projects include (please also see my personal website for more details):
1. Experimental simulations of past technological change
I have used computer tasks in which people design simple artifacts, such as arrowheads or handaxes, to ask questions such as:
- when do people copy others’ artifact designs (social learning) rather than try to improve their artifacts on their own (individual learning)?
- if they copy, who do they copy? (e.g. the most successful individual? The most common design in the group?)
- how do different learning dynamics generate different patterns of change and diversity? For example, if everyone copies the same most-successful artifact maker, artifact diversity will soon be lost.
I work with archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists (e.g. Michael O’Brien, Missouri; Stephen Lycett, SUNY Buffalo) to use these insights to explain real-life technological change observed in the archaeological record.
2. Migration as a natural experiment for studying cultural change
Psychologists and anthropologists have identified extensive cross-cultural variation in many aspects of the way people think and learn. Yet the causes of this cross-cultural variation are often unclear or unknown. Immigration is an excellent ‘natural experiment’ for teasing apart the causes of cultural change and stasis: the extent to which new migrants shift from the learning or thinking styles of their society of origin to the styles of their adopted society indicates the strength of parental (‘vertical’) transmission relative to local (‘horizontal’) influences, such as mass media or schooling.
Two recent ESRC projects have looked at cross-cultural or inter-generational variation in learning and thinking styles. One project (in collaboration with Lei Chang, CUHK) showed that people from the Chinese mainland are more likely to copy others’ solutions in an artifact-design task than White British participants (Mesoudi et al. 2015, Proc Roy Soc B). Interestingly, people from Hong Kong, and recent Chinese immigrants to the UK, both showed identical learning styles to the White British participants, indicating that these learning styles can be quite flexible. A second project is currently looking at various measures of thinking style in multiple generations of British Bangladeshis in East London, and beyond (see www.thinkingstylesproject.com).
3. Cumulative cultural evolution
Many species show social learning (learning from conspecifics), and many show cultural traditions (between-population differences in behaviour due to social learning). However, only humans seem to have cumulative cultural evolution, where knowledge is accumulated over successive generations such that we can learn from others what no single person could ever invent on their own. I have developed models to try to understand the evolution of cumulative culture from cultural traditions and social learning precursors (Kempe et al. 2014, J Theor Biol), and models of the dynamics of cumulative cultural evolution (Mesoudi 2011, PLOS ONE).
4. Transmission chain studies of content biases in cultural evolution
The transmission chain method involves passing material along chains of participants, much like the children’s game Chinese Whispers or Broken Telephone, to see how information is systematically distorted due to repeated transmission (‘content biases’). These studies have shown biases for information about social relationships over non-social information (Mesoudi et al. 2006, Brit J Psychol) and biases for high-level / global information over low-level details (Mesoudi & Whiten 2004, J Cogn Culture).
5. Copycat suicide
In a previous study (Mesoudi 2008, PLOS ONE) I used agent-based simulations to explore the phenomenon of copycat suicide, examining the person-to-person social learning biases that might be responsible for what sociologists call ‘point clusters’ (suicide outbreaks localised in specific times and places, such as schools or hospitals) and ‘mass clusters’ (nationwide increases in suicide rates in response to highly publicised celebrity suicides).
6. Partible paternity and human mating behaviour
Partible paternity is the belief found in certain South American societies such as the Bari or the Ache that children can have more than one true, ‘biological’ father. In collaboration with Kevin Laland (St Andrews) I constructed gene-culture coevolutionary models examining how these culturally-transmitted beliefs may have coevolved with different genetically-influenced human mating behaviour (Mesoudi & Laland 2007, Proc R Soc B).
- 2017 Leverhulme Trust
The Cultural Evolution of Social Hierarchy: An Experimental Investigation (217,042)
- 2013 ESRC
An experimental study of East-West differences in social learning (£80,567)
- 2013 ESRC
Why do people from different cultures think differently? Explaining cultural variation in psychological traits (£369,437)
- 2010 Leverhulme Trust
Human Cultural Transmission: From Psychology Lab to the Artefactual Record (£115,964)
Publications by category
Publications by year
External Engagement and Impact
- Winner, 2012 Margot Wilson Award for best paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior
- Invited Visiting Fellow, Sackler Institute for Advanced Study, University of Tel Aviv, Israel, June 2015
- Treasurer, Cultural Evolution Society (2016-present)
- Invited member, ESRC Peer Review College (2010-present)
- External examiner, MSc Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, Oxford University (2014-2016)
- Section Editor (Anthropology), PLOS ONE
- Reviewer of grants for British Academy (UK), ESRC (UK), Faraday Institute (UK), Leakey Foundation (USA), Leverhulme Trust (UK), National Science Foundation (USA), Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, Research Foundation Flanders (Belgium), SSHRC (Canada), Swiss National Science Foundation, Templeton Foundation (USA)
- Reviewer for journals including Science, Nature, PNAS, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Cognition, Current Anthropology, Proceedings B, Psychological Science, Psychological Review, Trends in Cognitive Science, Trends in Ecology and Evolution
- Former Treasurer / Steering Committee member, European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association (2011-2014)
- Over 35 invited departmental seminars
- Over 25 conference/symposium talks (including HBES, EHBEA, ISBE)
I teach various aspects of evolution and human behaviour to biosciences, human sciences and geography students. I teach the second year module The Evolution of Human Societies, and the third year modules The Complexity of Human Societies and Human Behavioural Ecology. I also supervise 3rd year project students conducting research into human social learning and cultural evolution.
Supervision / Group
- Charlotte Brand
- Angel V. Jimenez Infante
- Maxime Derex - Former Marie Curie fellow, now has CNRS position in Toulouse
- Delwar Hussain - Former postdoc, now at the University of Edinburgh
- Marius Kempe - PhD student, awarded 2014, now at St John's College, Anapolis, USA
- Kesson Magid - Former postdoc, now at Oxford University
- John McKeown - Former MbyRes student
- Keelin Murray - Postdoc, now at the University of St Andrews
- Vera Sarkol - PhD student, awarded 2014, now employed outside academia