“Deep diversity” and other reflections on the inaugural Cultural Evolution Society conference

Last week, 300 researchers from around the world attended the inaugural conference of the newly formed Cultural Evolution Society in Jena, Germany, at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (also newly formed, in 2014). Three Seshat members attended: yours truly plus two of the three Founding Directors, Peter Turchin and Pieter François. Many – perhaps most – of the presentations touched on major Seshat themes such as the evolution of religion, agriculture, cooperation and conflict. Seshat itself received not one but two “shout-outs” from founding President Pete Richerson during his inaugural address and was presented prominently by Peter Turchin as part of the two-part symposium “Big Data meets Cultural Evolution”.

By all accounts the conference was a great success and an auspicious marker of a renaissance in evolutionary approaches to understanding culture in humans and beyond. Things look bright for the next meeting, which will be held at Arizona State University on Oct. 22-25, 2018, organized by Rob Boyd[i]. Inevitably, there were areas that could also be improved in the future. Many of the strengths and weaknesses of the conference can be summarized under the concept of “deep diversity” that was ubiquitous at the conference.

“Deep diversity”, as I understand it, is the idea that diversity at many levels is a fundamental strength of any organization, particularly one such as the Cultural Evolution Society that aims to understand and promote cultural diversity. This applies not only to obvious areas such as gender and ethnic diversity, but also to diversity of things like age, discipline, and political orientation. Although the idea that diversity is basically good is largely considered a truism (indeed, evolution requires variation), things become complicated as soon as one has to balance multiple kinds of diversity. For instance, there was much debate during the inaugural business meeting about whether to cancel plans to hold next year’s meeting in America due to fact that the immigration policies of the Trump administration would prevent researchers from a number of Muslim countries from being able to attend. Peter Turchin pointed out that insisting on this particular dimension of diversity would have the effect of limiting other dimensions of diversity – for instance, avoiding conferences in countries with oppressive governments would mean we could never hold a conference in China, among many others. In the end, the society voted overwhelmingly in favour of going ahead with the US conference while ensuring that those unable to attend would be featured prominently in a virtual panel, the necessity of which would be publicized widely to highlight the effect of the immigration restrictions.

Overall, the conference highlighted the success of the Society’s deep diversity efforts to date. The 300 attendees hailed from 40 different countries and probably at least as many different departments across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Strong diversity efforts were made by the conference program committee, for example, in showcasing student and early-career researchers in prominent plenary sessions and having all three keynote speakers female to offset the all-male nature of the opening Welcome and Presidential Address. Seshat has been making similar diversity efforts, with one paper currently under review containing an author list of over 50 authors from many different countries and ranging from graduate student RAs to world experts in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Of course, more could always be done, some more easily achieved than others. For instance, correcting the overrepresentation of researchers from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) backgrounds will require major outreach and investment, but it shouldn’t have been too hard for the chair of the opening session to call on at least one woman from the dozen or so questions during the first Q&A session following the Presidential Address[ii].

Panel themes included many sessions directly linked to major Seshat priorities, such as “Religion and altruism”, “The rise of agriculture”, “Institutions and the growth of political complexity”, “Ethnic markers and boundaries”, “The environmental crisis & human collective action”, and “Historical dynamics”. However, as one would hope, there were many fascinating panels on topics that are not direct Seshat priorities, such as “Performing arts”, “Cultural primatology”, “Genes & culture”, and “Mathematical models of cultural change in language”. Just as importantly, even within panels there was a great diversity of methodological and theoretical approaches, and it was exciting to see synergy between such approaches, such as when phylogenetic models, paleoclimatic data, and deep learning models were all brought to bear to understand the origins of agriculture. These panels seemed at first glance to epitomize the idea that different academic fields should be converging to better understand the world, an argument made powerfully by E. O. Wilson in his 1998 book entitled Consilience: The unity of knowledge.

Pete Richerson gives the inaugural presidential address. Photo by Alex Mesoudi

Another thing I felt was still missing, however, was a little more consilience beyond this initial community of cultural evolution enthusiasts. Perhaps this is to be expected from any new society, but during some sessions I had the feeling of being part of a choir that was being preached to. Almost by definition, most of the attendees believed in the value of a cultural evolutionary approach to understanding the world. However, such an idea is by no means universally shared, and this partly explains why this society is so young. Indeed, the value of cultural evolution is contested even among fields that have wholeheartedly embraced evolutionary approaches to explaining human culture. For example, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker claims that “the concept of cultural evolution is simply a metaphor”. In my home field of ethnomusicology and more broadly throughout cultural anthropology and the humanities, “cultural evolution” is still often considered almost a dirty word strongly associated with the racism and eugenics of Social Darwinist ideologies from the 19th and early 20th centuries. One anonymous reviewer of a recent paper I submitted to a top academic journal entitled “Cultural Evolution of Music” flatly stated that my cultural evolutionary approach was “not compatible with an anthropological understanding of culture”.

I don’t expect that such skeptics will necessarily go out of their way to attend meetings of the Cultural Evolution Society, but it would be nice if in the future meetings there was more of an awareness of skepticism of cultural evolution and its chequered history, and more of an effort to show that we truly have something of value to offer those who remain unconvinced. This might come in the form of new theoretical insights, methodological tools, or applied interventions. One suggestion proposed at the conference was to hold regular Cultural Evolution Society conferences every two years, while spreading the word to more skeptical societies during “off” years. Hopefully the initial batch of Seshat papers that are currently under review or about to be submitted on topics of longstanding interest such as the evolution of social complexity, religion, and agriculture will do a small part to help in such convincing, but of course there is much more that could and should be done, including crucially in the domain of applied benefits outside of the academy.

Most of these challenges and potentials are nicely summarized in an article by Seshat’s Founding Directors and other core members of the Cultural Evolution Society published earlier this year in Nature Ecology & Evolution entitled “Grand challenges for the study of cultural evolution”. I look forward to seeing many of these challenges taken up again next year in Arizona!

[i] Interestingly, while Boyd and RIcherson – whose 1985 book Culture and the evolutionary process has proved to be the most influential of the post-War cultural evolutionary movement – were both prominent at the conference, none of the other “founding fathers” who published related books around the same time (e.g., Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Marcus Feldman, E. O. Wilson, Charles Lumsden, William Durham) attended.

[ii] On a minor tangent, I thought that in general a little more effort could have gone into choosing and instructing chairs. Having the final speaker from each parallel session chair the talk inevitably meant that the sessions dragged on past their scheduled times as the chairs failed to cut off their own Q&A sessions. Credit where credit’s due, however: Simon “Gongmaster” Greenhill was an incredible chair and should serve as an inspiration to us all.


Name *
Email *

Bill Benzon
September 29, 2017

I fully understand your dismay, Patrick Savage, at getting told your paper was “not compatible with an anthropological understanding of culture”. I’ve been there, alas. You might want to look at a paper I recently published in Signata 6 (2015), “Rhythm Changes” Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture. There I take a (moderately) close look at so-called ‘Rhythm Changes’ in jazz and examine how it works to coordinate the activities of improvising musicians. As an alternative to Dawkins’s “meme” I propose the term “coordinator”, which has two advantages: 1) it better characterizes how music works, and 2) it’s free of all the pop-cultural flotsam and jetsam that has accrued to “meme”.

    Patrick Savage
    October 9, 2017

    Thanks, Bill. I just downloaded the paper and will take a look.