Launching the Cultural Evolution Society

The Inaugural Meeting of the Cultural Evolution Society was held in Jena, Germany, September 13–15, 2017. It brought together 250 scholars, with another 50 turned away for space limitations, and was hosted by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) with support from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA).

Increasingly, however, disciplinary affiliation is irrelevant. The opening lecture was given by our first president, Peter Richerson, offering a succinct history of the idea of cultural evolution, and more generally the ups and downs of genuinely interdisciplinary thinking over the ages. He outlined how the grand scientific inquiries of Enlightenment thinkers (that perhaps best capture the breadth of cultural evolutionary thinking today) became “outsourced” to the newly emerging nineteenth century disciplines. Sadly, nascent cultural evolutionary ideas failed to make it into this disciplinary format. Throughout the twentieth century scholarly investigations were pursued within strict disciplinary boundaries, motivated by prestigious academic societies and publishing houses, thereby providing little space for the survival of interdisciplinary thinking. Even the uniquely structured four-field approach embraced by American anthropologists failed to gel. Towards the end of the last century, however, a more conceptual organizational structure occurred, at least in biology (building off the Modern Synthesis). Old taxon-focused departments (think zoology, herpetology, botany) were replaced by units focused on evolution, ecology, and more recently sustainability. Such changes have not happened in the social sciences, but the new Cultural Evolution Society heralds such an institutional shift.

Who was at Jena? Historians, anthropologists, biologists, psychologists, religious scholars, and a fair splattering of engineers, computational scientists, educators, and development workers. Archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, and economists were under-represented, given the major contributions they have already made to the field. Increasingly, however, disciplinary affiliation is irrelevant. Talks and posters moved flawlessly between psychology, institutional economics, gene-culture evolution, behavioral economics, evolutionary linguists, cognitive science, and cross-cultural variation, with a stunningly consistent use and understanding of terminology and theory. Questions of function and mechanism, ontogeny and phylogeny were closely integrated in all of the work presented, with a clear appeal to applied significance in some cases.

The number and diversity of scholars interested in cultural evolution suggests this new society will make major contributions to evolutionary social science, in not only studying but representing human diversity.

It’s impossible to pick out the best sessions, papers or posters. Notable however was the focus on developing Big Data to expand the comparative method, both spatially and over time, so central to anthropology. Efforts are afoot to integrate Carol Ember’s HRAF-OCM-eHRAF, Peter Turchin’s Global History Database (SESHAT), and D-PLACE (supported by MPI SHH and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Centre NESCent, itself already a composite of the World Ethnographic Sample, the Standard Cultural Sample, Binford’s hunter-gatherer data set, and Jorgensen’s Western North American Indian database). This will allow for testing the psychological and evolutionary processes that underlie culture, as well as how culture is transmitted, maintained, and modified.

Given the size of the anticipated crowd for next year’s meeting CES will retain the two one-hour rapid-fire sessions scheduled at the beginning and end of each day, where speakers get five minutes to present, and a short Q/A allocation. Many felt that this fosters the central value of interdisciplinarity. Rob Boyd will host this meeting at ASU Tempe. Scholars residing in countries no longer welcome in the United States on account of visa restrictions are strongly encouraged to attend virtually, and the CES will make a clear public statement indicating their objections to the current US travel policies. The number and diversity of scholars interested in cultural evolution suggests this new society will make major contributions to evolutionary social science, in not only studying but representing human diversity.

For someone who attended the inaugural meeting of HBES at Northwestern University in 1989 with its 40–50 attendees (if I remember right), and the much smaller get-together of about 20 people in a University of Michigan basement the previous year, the change in momentum and scale is staggering.

Monique Borgerhoff Mulder (UC Davis) is a human behavioral ecologist focusing on life history, inequality, natural resource management, and patterned cultural variation.

Melanie Martin and Katie Starkweather are co-editors of the EAS Section News column.

Cite as: Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique. 2017. “Launching the Cultural Evolutionary Society.” Anthropology News website, October 25, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.647