A New Scientific Society Is Born


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I am writing this post in an airplane flying home from Washington DC. I am returning from an intense one-day workshop in College Park, MD, the goal of which was to launch Cultural Evolution Society. In a couple of weeks we will publish an official account of what was decided at the meeting, which will be sent to all those who signed up for the Society, but readers of my blog are going to get an advance and unofficial report, based on what I saw and remembered. This may be of interest to those of my readers who are not academics—to see how new scientific societies are launched (although I must admit that this has been the first such society in which I was present from the start go).

The story actually begins in 2012 in Frankfurt, when I was invited to participate in a Strüngmann Forum on Cultural Evolution, which was organized by Peter Richerson and Morten Christiansen. As I wrote about that meeting, it was there that the new discipline of Cultural Evolution came of age.


Two of the founding fathers of Cultural Evolution, Pete Richerson (on the left) and Rob Boyd (on the right); Frankfurt 2012 (photo by the author)

Two years later (2014) I was visiting with Pete Richerson in Davis, CA, and we started talking about how we could sustain the momentum of the Frankfurt meeting. Clearly the way to do it was by organizing a scientific society. We did not know how many people would join it, but we thought that it would be at least a couple of hundred, and perhaps more. Later I mentioned this idea to David Sloan Wilson, my colleague (and President) in the Evolution Institute.

A year later David was co-organizing a workshop on Culture and Evolution together with Michele Gelfand, the social psychologist at the University of Maryland. David and Michele invited me to join them, partly because they were interested in exploring the possibility of starting the Society. So during the second day of the workshop I made a pitch to this group, which, in addition to scientists interested in Cultural Evolution, also included several representatives from funding agencies, including the John Templeton Foundation.

What I said was that Cultural Evolution has a lot to offer, both for our understanding of human societies (how they change and function), and for solving social problems—eliminating poverty and violence, and increasing the quality of our lives. But if we wanted these answers to be treated seriously, we needed to make Cultural Evolution into a respected academic discipline. It’s not enough for individual practitioners to produce high quality research (it’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition).

If you want to change the world (and I think that Cultural Evolution does provide us with tools to change the world for the better) then you have to organize. The only way to achieve positive change is by collective action. So, we need not only study cooperation, but also practice it.



It was clear that I was preaching to the choir. There were a few dissenters (one didn’t think we needed yet another society; another thought that an existing society, HBES, was sufficient and that we should simply join it). But the overwhelming majority felt that the time has come.

That meeting was in March, and since then a lot has already been accomplished. David together with Joe Brewer, who describes himself as culture designer based in Seattle, WA, applied to the John Templeton Foundation, which very generously gave us a grant to support the work leading to the creation of the Society. We did a massive e-mail campaign to get the word out, as a result of which 1200 people signed up as Society members. This is much more than a few hundred that I thought would be interested. Of course, experience suggests that at least half of people who signed up will subsequently disappear into the woodwork, so to speak. It will be very interesting to see how many will actually stay once members are required to pay dues.

Peter Peregrine, the archaeologist at Lawrence University, who is also a valued member of the Seshat community, helped Joe and others with the Grand Challenges initiative (Peter was a key participant in a previous initiative that did the same for Archaeology). Ian MacDonald, who is completing his Ph.D. with David at Binghamton, helped Joe to analyze the results of a massive survey on what the Society members thought about the Grand Challenges.

Harvey Whitehouse (the social anthropologist at the University of Oxford and co-editor of Seshat Databank) together with David Wilson spearheaded the all-important job of developing the By-Laws (this is basically the legal infrastructure of the Society, specifying such things as who are the Society officers, how they are elected, and how the Society regulates its affairs). In their work on the By-Laws David, Harvey, and Joe were joined by half-a-dozen volunteers, who responded to the call for help e-mailed to the Society members.

Michele Gelfand again hosted our meeting in College Park. So here are the people who participated in yesterday’s workshop, moving around the table, starting with Joe Brewer, who also served as the meeting facilitator: Peter Peregrine, David Wilson, Ian MacDonald, Peter Richerson, Paul Wason (program director at the John Templeton Foundation), myself, Josh Jackson (a graduate student at the University of Maryland), Michele Gelfand, and Harvey Whitehouse.

We are calling ourselves the “interim steering committee,” and our job is to get things started. In the next five months we will run elections for permanent Society officers: the President, Treasurer, Secretary, and several board members (this list is tentative and will be finalized once we adopt the By-Laws). Once the new officers are elected, they will replace the interim committee. They will also fine-tune the By-Laws, if necessary. Our current plan is to have elected officers assume their position at an annual meeting. The first meeting is scheduled for 2017, and that’s when the transition period will be over. In other words, if everything goes according to the plan, it will take five years from the Frankfurt forum to the point when the new Society becomes a reality.

So this is my personal account of what is happening with the Society. A fuller report will be e-mailed to all Society members by Joe in mid-January. Following that there will be a flurry of things to do during the first half of 2016: adoption of the By-Laws, nominations and elections of officers, decisions about the annual meeting, and so on. We will be consulting with the membership on all these issues, so expect an unusually heavy e-mail traffic from us during the next six months, as the new Society takes shape!

Finally, Happy Holidays to all readers of this blog!


For those of you who are interested in becoming a member, but haven’t joined yet, please go to this link

A New Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution.

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