I was invited by Dennis Snower to the Global Solutions Summit 2019 in Berlin. The summit proposes policy responses for the upcoming G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan by bringing together researchers, policymakers, business leaders and civil society representatives to discuss major global challenges.
It was great to hear Dennis’ opening address advocating a cultural evolutionary framework, particularly cultural-group selection and multilevel selection, as an approach to tackling major global challenges:
Other highlights included the various discussions on the future of the European Union, including Frans Timmermans vision for the future of the EU (Frans is one of the lead candidates for the upcoming election for the President of the European Commission):
I presented some in progress theoretical and empirical work on “The Evolution of Evil Eye Beliefs and Related Behaviors” at the 2nd Cultural Evolution Society (CES) conference.
Part of this work was based on a recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, with some context published in Evonomics and ProMarket (pre-print). But the main part was work in progress on understanding the evolution of evil eye beliefs and hunter-gatherer egalitarianism.
I spent the last few days as a meeting organized by the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) at the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute Meeting at University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland. It was an amazing few days of stimulating conversation on intelligence.
I presented work on “Corruption, Cooperation, & the Evolution of Prosocial Institutions”, including some new work on the evolution of evil eye belief and related behaviors at the CIFAR Institutions, Organizations, and Growth program’s annual meeting.
I presented a the “Cultural Evolution of Economics” with some illustrations on how cultural evolution can help economists and how economists can help those interested in cultural evolution. To illustrate this, I presented some recent and upcoming work on cooperation, corruption, democracy and economic growth. Abstract below:
Homo Economicus are extinct or on the verge of extinction, or so it would appear from outside economics. But within economics, reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated. Economicus’ persist, in part because alternative theories of human behavior are not readily integrated into existing economic approaches. To paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, criticism is not sufficient—you need to build a better model. I’ll discuss collaborations at the London School of Economics that are attempting to build that better model by integrating cultural evolutionary theory into economics. A cultural evolutionary approach seats corruption as a special case of cooperation, offering new means to understand and combat it (Muthukrishna, et al., 2017, “Corrupting Cooperation and How Anti-Corruption Strategies May Backfire”, Nature Human Behavior). A cultural evolutionary approach helps identify the invisible cultural pillars that support successful economic and democratic institutions (Stimmler & Muthukrishna, 2017, “When Cooperation Promotes Corruption and Undermines Democracy”, Working Paper; Muthukrishna, et al., in prep, “A WEIRD scale of cultural distance”). A cultural evolutionary approach reveals the relationship between economic growth, inequality, tolerance for inequality, and widespread beliefs—like “evil eye” and witchcraft—that have economic implications (Li & Muthukrishna, 2017, “The coevolution of Economic Growth, Inequality, Tolerance for Inequality, and Belief in Evil Eye”, Working Paper). These related studies reveal how cultural evolution may offer new approaches to age old problems, but also how the economic toolkit may be deployed to understand culturally evolved beliefs and behaviors.
Li presented an economic model and corresponding experimental test on the co-evolution of economic growth, inequality, tolerance for inequality and the widespread belief in “evil eye“.
I gave a keynote presentation at the Lorentz Center conference on “Trusting and the Law“. This was my first legal conference. The audience included judges, lawyers, and legal scholars. I presented a talk on “Economic Psychology and the Science of Cultural Evolution”, where I discussed some of the “invisible cultural pillars” that uphold legal institutions. It was fascinating to discuss differences in the approach to “evidence” in science and the law.
I was invited to present my work on human evolution and the evolution of brains at the “Evolution of cognition and longevity: Adaptation to a new technological environment” meeting at the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France. I presented “The Cultural Brain Hypothesis & Information Grandmother Hypothesis: How culture drives brain expansion and alters life history”, where I discussed the Cultural Brain Hypothesis (my dissertation; paper currently under review). I also presented some work in progress on the Information Grandmother Hypothesis.
The Cultural Brain Hypothesis is a more parsimonious explanation for the relationships that have been shown between brain size, group size, adaptive knowledge, social learning, and aspects of life history. The Cumulative Cultural Brain Hypothesis is a set of predictions derived from the evolutionary processes that lead to these relationships for the conditions that lead to an autocatalytic take-off between brain size and adaptive knowledge – the uniquely human pathway. The Information Grandmother Hypothesis extends this theory to explain the evolution of menopause and lifespan.
Speakers were biologists of all kinds. Speakers included:
I spent the last week back at Harvard University discussing research on cultural evolution and innovation with the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), part of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The LILA group include people from industry and the military. Every year the group invites two academics to discuss their research and how it might be applied to problems faced by members of the group. This year, Mary Ann Glynn and I were invited. It was an intellectually enriching opportunity to apply my work to current challenges in corporations and other organizations.
The ideas presented in my two talks were beautifully captured in the graphics below:
The Science of Cultural Evolution: What Makes Humans So Different
Sources of Innovation: The Secret of Human Success
SPSSI-UK organized a symposium on the Migration Crisis. The symposium was attended by an array of social scientists, but also policy makers, impact officers, and community organizers. I presented some work in progress on “The Paradox of Diversity, Migration, and Cultural Evolution in Europe”. My talk briefly introduced the science of cultural evolution (for a quick intro, see Cultural Evolution), the implications of cultural evolutionary theory for managing the migration crisis, and some results from a new tool I’ve been building to better quantify the size and dimensions of cultural differences.
More on this “Cultural Distance” tool soon.
The outcome of the discussions will also be released by SPSSI-UK as a white paper (in prep).
I spent the last couple of days at a small conference on cumulative culture organized by Claudio Tennie and his two PhD students Elisa Bandini and Eva Reindl. The theme was “When and How does Cumulative Culture Emerge”. It was an excellent meeting – large enough to have a diversity of views, small enough to have interesting conversations with almost all participants.
We discussed the challenges and successes in inferring religious belief and practice from the archeological and historical record and new theoretical models and tools for exploring religious history, including the Database of Religious History (DRH).
I chaired a symposium on “Understanding Religions: Integrating experimental, ethnographic and historical approaches” at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) conference in San Diego, CA.
Joe Henrich began by introducing the broader research agenda, describing the two puzzles of (1) the rise of societal complexity and large-scale cooperation and (2) the emergence and spread of particular religious elements, such as big, powerful, moralizing gods and ritual behavior.
Coren Apicella presented recent evidence of high levels of rule bending in the Hadza, a a minimally religious foraging population.
I then introduced the Database of Religious History and presented some preliminary analyses, showing the relationship between ritual and cooperative behavior. I also updated the audience on data collection and some of the directions we’re going in (such as measuring cultural distance–more soon!).
Finally, Ted Slingerland gave an overview of what the humanities can offer the psychology of religion, with an entertaining presentation of how a lack of deep understanding of history and culture can lead to misinterpretations (such as claims that Chinese don’t have religious beliefs, nor mind-body dualism).
Edward Slingerland (Project Director) presented an overview of the strategy and future directions of the project. Brenton Sullivan (Managing Editor) discussed how the project relates to other humanities databases and religious studies in general. Frederick Tappenden (Regional Editor) discussed how our terminology, in particular, “religious group”, has evolved through feedback from historians and religious scholars. Carson Logan (Technical Manager) updated the audience on changes in usability.
As Technical Director of the project, I discussed the technical design and updated the audience on the development of the project, including some exciting new features (e.g. the ability to challenge answers).