Peter J. (Pete) Richerson
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Department of Environmental Science and Policy
University of California Davis
Office: 3146A Wickson Hall
Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language and Religion is the product of a Strüngmann Forum from MIT Press
Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed the Evolutionary Process from Chicago University Press, is meant for a general audience.
The Origin and Evolution of Cultures is a collection of our more important papers published by Oxford University Press.
Principles of Human Ecology textbook. Send me an email if you want access to electronic copy of this custom published text
Former Undergraduate Courses
My main passion is cultural evolution. I frequently collaborate with Robert Boyd, Professor of Human Origins at Arizona State University, in research on cultural evolution. We use methods of analysis of evolution mainly developed by evolutionary biologists to study the processes of cultural evolution. The idea is to make models, do experiments, and conduct observational studies that illuminate the evolutionary properties of human culture and animal social learning, and the processes of gene-culture coevolution. For an accessible general account of this work in historical perspective click here (pdf file). In recent publications we have been using the 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 origin of language, the origins of tribal and larger scale cooperation, and the origins of agriculture. We and our students have conducted experiments and field work aimed at understanding the processes of cultural evolution. I taught undergraduates about these things in my course, Evolution of Societies and Cultures.
Cultural Evolution Lab: I am the member of a research group devoted to the study of cultural evolution in laboratory scale microsocieties. My current and former colleagues in this endeavor include Richard McElreath, Mark Lubell, Billy Baum, Brian Paciotti, Tim Waring, Adrian Bell, Vicken Hillis, Katie Demps, Bret Beheim, Ryan Baldini and Matt Zefferman. Our lab has recently hosted Max Planck Society postdoc Christian Cordes from Germany and Fulbright predoc Pontus Strimling from Sweden. My ex student Charles Efferson is collaborating with our lab but conducts his own experiments. Our objectives are to pick apart the details of human social learning strategies using tightly controlled experiments and to create laboratory scale microsocieties to scale up from the individual level decision rules to actual microevolution. At present we are investigating the evolution of institutions to manage cooperation using the Public Goods game as the cooperation task.
I have begun to think about practical applications of cultural evolution. Russell Genet, Dwight Collins, and I have a project to apply ideas derived from what Boyd and I called the "tribal social instincts" and "workaround" hypothesis to questions of managing businesses and other medium scale human organizations. Innate aspects of our social psychology coevolved with cultural institutions as an adaptation to tribal social life. These tribal instincts are the raw material out of which all human social systems are built. Businesses and other medium scale social systems are much like tribes except that they are embedded in a web of other organizations that make up our complex societies. The institutions of complex societies include workarounds to finesse the problems generated a psychology adapted to a rather different sort of social system. We aim to have a comprehensive science-based theory of organizational management that properly accounts, for example, for human propensities to cooperate and for the fact that organizations are dynamically evolving entities. This project is supported by the Collins Education Foundation. We are seeking comments on sketch of this project which can be found on the CEF web site.