Category Archives: Conferences

Inaugural Cultural Evolution Society Conference in Jena, Germany

I chaired a themed session on “Cultural Evolution and Economics” at the Inaugural Cultural Evolution Society Conference. Speakers including myself, my student collaborator Xueheng Li, and Heidi Colleran. My PhD student, Ryutaro Uchiyama presented some new analyses on the Cultural Brain Hypothesis in a parallel session.

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“.

All together a lot of fun and excellent talks by lots of familiar names and even more familiar faces. Many thanks to the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human HistoryRussell Gray and the rest of the organizing committee: Andy WhitenFiona Jordan Joe BrewerMichele GelfandMichelle Kline, and Olivier Morin.

“Trusting and the Law” conference at the Lorentz Center, Leiden, Netherlands

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.


Cultural Transmission and Social Norms Workshop” at the School of Economics, The University of East Anglia, UK.

I was invited to present my work on innovation and cultural evolution at the “Cultural Transmission and Social Norms Workshop” hosted by the School of Economics at The University of East Anglia, UK. I presented “Innovation in the Collective Brain: The Transmission and Evolution of Norms and Culture”, beginning with an introduction to cultural evolution for the audience of primarily economists. I then discussed innovation as a product of our “collective brains“.

This research is summarized in this news post and in the original paper.

Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the Collective Brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1690).  [Telegraph] [Scientific American] [Video] [Evonomics] [LSE Business Review] [Summary Post] [Download] [Data]

“Evolution of cognition and longevity: Adaptation to a new technological environment” meeting at the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, National Museum of Natural History, Paris, France.

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:

Herve Chneiweiss (UPMC)
Barbara Demeneix (MNHN)
Donata Luiselli (University of Bologna)
Jean-Marie Robine (GDR INSERM/EPHE)
Kaare Christensen (Danish Aging Research Center)
Eline Slagboom (Leiden University Medical Center)
Claudio Franceschi (University of Bologna)
David Hill (University of Edinburgh)
Paolo Garagnani (University of Bologna)
Eileen Crimmins (USC Davis School of Gerontology)
Dorly Deeg (VU University, Amsterdam)
Carol Brayne (CFAS)
Carole Dufouil (INSERM)
Dominique Grimaud-Herve (MNHN)
David Raichlen (University of Arizona)
Viviane Slon (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)
James R Carey (UC Davis)

Project Zero – Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA

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

02_michaelmuthukrishna_ltrSources of Innovation: The Secret of Human Success


SPSSI-UK Symposium on “The Current Migration Crisis in Europe” in Cardiff, UK

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).

Culture Conference in Birmingham, UK

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.

I presented my recent paper with Joe Henrich on “Innovation in the Collective Brain“.

Other speakers and attendees included:

Carel van Schaik (University of Zurich)
Christine Caldwell (University of Stirling)
Pete Richerson (UC Davis)
Helena Miton (Central European University)
Rachel Kendal (Durham University)
Olivier Morin (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)
Mathieu Charbonneau (Central European University)
Andrew Buskell (London School of Economics)
Alex Mesoudi (University of Exeter)
Rachel Harrison (University of St Andrews)
Takao Sasaki (Oxford)
Celia Heyes (Oxford)
Elena Miu (University of St Andrews)
Julie Coultas (University of Sussex)
Keith Jensen (University of Manchester)
Thibaud Gruber (University of Geneva)