Research

I work on a variety of topics at the interface of biology and anthropology. Below is a brief summary of three areas of ongoing research.

Human family systems

Why do some societies enforce monogamous marriage, while the majority allow polygyny? Why does inheritance flow from a man to his wife’s children in some societies, and from a man to his sister’s sons in others?

Describing variation in human family systems is one of the major contributions of anthropology to the social sciences. My work in this area uses a diverse set of tools to explain why human societies organize families the way they do.

Cultural evolution

Anthropologists define culture at two levels. At one level, culture is the information stored in people’s brains that is transmitted between individuals — say, an idea or a belief. At another level, culture is the group-typical pattern that emerges from this information — for example, the set of traditional practices associated with a given society.

A collaboration with Anne Kandler (Mathematics, City University London) aims to understand the relationship between the two levels. How is this relationship shaped by demographic processes? Do different pathways for the transmission of information between individuals (e.g. peer to peer vs. parent to child) result in different patterns at the level of groups?

This project is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Cooperation and social complexity

Human societies range in size from bands of a few tens of individuals to nations of millions. What mechanisms keep human groups together? What evolutionary forces shaped the diversity in human social systems? And what is social complexity, anyway?

A collaboration with Sergey Gavrilets (National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis) explores the evolutionary dynamics of cooperative behaviour in situations of between-group conflict. I am also involved in a collaborative project led by Jerry Sabloff at the Santa Fe Institute that investigates the origin of the diversity in human social systems.