|Dr. Peter J. Richerson is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California—Davis. His research focuses on the processes of cultural evolution. His 1985 book with Robert Boyd, Culture and the Evolutionary Process, applied the mathematical tools used by organic evolutionists to study a number of basic problems in human cultural evolution. His recent books with Boyd include Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, an introduction to cultural evolution aimed at a broad audience and The Origins and Evolution of Cultures, a compendium of their more important papers and book chapters. His recent publications used theoretical models to try to understand some of the main events in human evolution, such as the evolution of the advanced capacity for imitation (and hence cumulative cultural evolution) in humans, the origins of tribal and larger scale cooperation, and the origins of agriculture. He collaborates with Richard McElreath, Mark Lubell, and William Baum in an NSF funded research group devoted to the study of cultural transmission and cultural evolution in laboratory systems.
Humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. While we are similar to other mammals in many ways, our behavior sets us apart. Our unparalleled ability to adapt has allowed us to occupy virtually every habitat on earth using an incredible variety of tools and subsistence techniques. Our societies, heavily regulated by culturally transmitted institutions, are larger, more complex, and more cooperative than any other mammal's. In this talk, Richerson will argue that the key to understanding human behavior is a theory of cultural evolution and gene-culture coevolution that is built on Darwinian principles. Our ecological dominance and our singular social systems stem from a psychology uniquely adapted to create complex culture. Culture is neither superorganic nor the handmaiden of the genes. Rather, it is essential to human adaptation, as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion. Culture has played a leading rather than lagging role in human evolution. Culture creates novel environments than then act as forces of natural selection on genes. Most strikingly, our cooperative societies have led to something like the domestication of our genes.