Pascal Boyer

Research Perspectives & Current Projects


Perspectives: Evolution, cognition and culture

Natural selection resulted in the development of highly specific capacities and motivations in human minds, specialized in handling different adaptive problems, e.g. face-recognition, building social coalitions, the selection of high-fitness mates, the optimization of foraging, etc. This evolutionary psychology perspective has revolutionized the study of anthropological issues such as religious concepts, morality, parenting, ethnicity, kinship and many other domains.

Representations that we call “cultural” are those that similar occur with roughly  content in other minds among people of a particular group, after many episodes of communication between individuals. How communication can have non-entropic effects is the question addressed by cultural transmission models.
To find out more about evolutionary psychology in general, see a Primer. For applications to human cultures, see this book.

Perspectives: Fitness and the Production of Culture

In contrast to language or technology, many “symbolic” cultural phenomena do not seem to confer immediate fitness benefits. Standard approaches to cultural evolution in this domain focus on the recipients or consumers, which does not explain why these phenomena emerge. As a solution, we propose to consider the fitness costs and benefits incurred in producingbehaviors or information that become widespread in a social group. Taking the producers’ perspective helps explain otherwise puzzling features of many kinds of cultural phenomena, such as artistic activities, sports, religious representations, or even moralistic norms.Considering the producers’ as well as the consumers’ benefits is crucial to generating precise hypotheses about the psychological adaptations that underpin cultural evolution.

For a short theoretical presentation of these ideas, see this preprint co-authored with Jean-Baptiste André and Nicolas Baumard.