The Department of Human Behavior, Ecology and Culture investigates the role of culture in human evolution and adaptation. The primary goal is to theorize, design, and conduct longitudinal studies of human adaptation and cultural dynamics in ecological context. By integrating cross-cultural fieldwork with mathematical models and advanced quantitative methods, we hope to contribute to the interdisciplinary study of human evolution and human social dynamics.
Please see the Projects and Fieldwork links on the left for much more information.
PhD opportunities, tied to specific projects, will be advertised here, as they become available.
Moralizing gods, impartiality and religious parochialism across 15 societies
The emergence of large-scale cooperation during the Holocene remains a central problem in the evolutionary literature. One hypothesis points to culturally evolved beliefs in punishing, interventionist gods that facilitate the extension of cooperative behaviour toward geographically distant coreligionists. Furthermore, another hypothesis points to such mechanisms being constrained to the religious ingroup, possibly at the expense of religious outgroups. To test these hypotheses, we administered two behavioural experiments and a set of interviews to a sample of 2228 participants from 15 diverse populations. These populations included foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, and wage labourers, practicing Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, but also forms of animism and ancestor worship. Read full article.
Habitual stone-tool-aided extractive foraging in white-faced capuchins, Cebus capucinus
Habitual reliance on tool use is a marked behavioural difference between wild robust (genus Sapajus) and gracile (genus Cebus) capuchin monkeys. Despite being well studied and having a rich repertoire of social and extractive foraging traditions, Cebus sp. rarely use tools and have never been observed using stone tools. By contrast, habitual tool use by Sapajus is widespread. We review theory and discuss factors which might explain these differences in patterns of tool use between Cebus and Sapajus. We then report the first case of habitual stone tool use in a gracile capuchin: a population of whitefaced capuchins (Cebus capucinus imitator) in Coiba National Park, Panama who habitually rely on hammerstone and anvil tool use to access structurally protected food items in coastal areas including Terminalia catappa seeds, hermit crabs, marine snails, terrestrial crabs and other items. Read the full paper.
Complex Dynamics From Simple Cognition: The Primary Ratchet Effect in Animal Culture
It is often observed that human culture, unlike most other animal culture, is cumulative: Human technology and behavior is more complex than any individual could invent in their own lifetime. Cumulative culture is often explained by appeal to a combination of highfidelity social learning and innovation, the “ratchet effect.” What is often overlooked is that both human and other animal cultures are supported by a more primary ratchet effect that retains and increases the prevalence of adaptive behavior. This primary ratchet can arise without appeal to specialized cognitive adaptations and is plausibly more widespread in animal societies. We use a simple model to highlight how simple forms of contingent social learning can create the primary ratchet effect, dramatically increasing the prevalence of adaptive, hard-to-invent behavior. Read full article.
Social complexity and kinship in animal societies
Studies of eusocial invertebrates regard complex societies as those where there is a clear division of labour and extensive cooperation between breeders and helpers. In contrast, studies of social mammals identify complex societies as those where differentiated social relationships influence access to resources and reproductive opportunities. We show here that, while traits associated with social complexity of the first kind occur in social mammals that live in groups composed of close relatives, traits associated with the complexity of social relationships occur where average kinship between female group members is low. Read full article.
Generative inference for cultural evolution
Dr Anne Kandler and her co-author Dr Adam Powell have published a review paper on methods for inferring cultural evolutionary mechanisms from data. One of the major challenges in cultural evolution is to understand why and how various forms of social learning are used in human populations, both now and in the past. The authors demonstrate the applicability and utility of generative inference approaches to the field of cultural evolution. The framework advocated uses observed population-level frequency data directly to establish the likely presence or absence of particular hypothesized learning strategies. Read the full paper.
Evolutionary dynamics of the cryptocurrency market
New work from Dr Anne Kandler and colleagues sheds light on the cultural evolutionary dynamics of cryptocurrencies. Kandler and colleagues consider the history of 1469 cryptocurrencies introduced between April 2013 and May 2017. They reveal that, while new cryptocurrencies appear and disappear continuously and their market capitalization is increasing (super-)exponentially, several statistical properties of the market have been stable for years. These include the number of active cryptocurrencies, market share distribution and the turnover of cryptocurrencies. Adopting an ecological perspective, they show that the so-called neutral model of evolution is able to reproduce a number of key empirical observations. Read the full paper
Inferring processes of cultural transmission: the critical role of rare variants in distinguishing neutrality from novelty biases
Neutral evolution assumes that there are no selective forces distinguishing different variants in a population. Many studies have sought to assess whether neutrality can provide a good description of different episodes of cultural change. One approach has been to test whether neutral predictions are consistent with observed progeny distributions, recording the number of variants that have produced a given number of new instances within a specified time interval: a classic example is the distribution of baby names. New work from HBEC scientist Dr Anne Kandler and colleague Dr James O'Dwyer shows that these distributions consist of two phases: a power-law phase followed by an exponential cut-off for variants with very large numbers of progeny. They show that analyses based on only the most popular variants, as is often the case in studies of cultural evolution, can provide misleading evidence. While neutrality provides a plausible description of progeny distributions of abundant variants, rare variants deviate from neutrality. Read the paper
Friendliness is more important in a new friend than which group she belongs to
Despite the global headlines emphasizing division and conflict, humans actually have a long history of forming friendships across group boundaries. But which criteria do they use for picking friends from a different group? In collaboration with three populations of horticulturalists in Bolivia, researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of California Santa Barbara found that we use very similar criteria when choosing friends from among in-group and out-group strangers – individual cooperative qualities are most important in both cases. Only when it comes to dividing limited resources, qualities associated with a group can affect partner preference. Full press release. Access the paper.
Inferring individual-level processes from population-level patterns in cultural evolution
Dr Anne Kandler has published a new analysis of the potential for inferring learning mechanisms from population-level data. Patterns of cultural change depend upon individual-level strategies. Inferring these strategies from data is complicated by the paucity of individual-level data. Researchers commonly attempt to infer strategies instead of available population-level data. Kandler and her co-authors show that such data are useful in limited, but valuable, ways. These results represent a substantial advance and refine thinking about both the limits and potential of using aggregate data to infer individual processes.
Multinomial analysis of behavior: statistical methods
Jeremy Koster and Richard McElreath have published a new statistical framework for analyzing behavioral data, applying the technique to human data from Koster's field site. The method accepts the multinomial nature of behavior data and also accounts for repeated observations. It is also capable of revealing individual-level trade-offs across behaviors, allowing for models that reveal the extent to which individuals who regularly engage in one behavior also exhibit relatively more or less of another behavior. These models can potentially be applied to a broad class of statistical analyses by behavioral ecologists, focusing on other polytomous response variables, such as behavior, habitat choice, or emotional states.
Interethnic Interaction, Strategic Bargaining Power, and the Dynamics of Cultural Norms
New publication by Dr John Bunce, Interethnic Interaction, Strategic Bargaining Power, and the Dynamics of Cultural Norms. Dr Bunce addresses processes of ethnic boundary maintenance and change, using ethnographic data from his fieldwork in lowland Amazonia, in combination with Bayesian models of normative behavior. Code and data.
Conformity does not perpetuate suboptimal traditions in a wild population of songbirds
New analysis published on a collaboration between HBEC and the Edward Grey Institute at Oxford: Conformity does not perpetuate suboptimal traditions in a wild population of songbirds. Conformist learning can be adaptive, but it may be maladaptive when environments change. Using a field experiment, the researchers document the social learning strategies that allow a wild population to adapt to environmental change. A mix of conformity and innovation is found in the analysis and demonstrated in theory to be broadly adaptive. Code and data.
Pay-off-biased social learning underlies the diffusion of novel extractive foraging traditions in a wild primate
New analysis of social learning in a wild primate, by Brendan Barrett, Richard McElreath, and Susan Perry. Using field experiments, they document the spread of behavioral traditions and analyze the learning strategies that may account for the spread. The analysis suggests that payoff-biased social learning strongly influences behavior. Data and code.
Seminar: A Life History of Human Foraging in 39 Societies (YouTube), presented by Richard McElreath at Aarhus University. This seminar presents progress on a large meta-analysis of foraging records from 39 human samples.