Alex Mesoudi

Alex Mesoudi

Professor of Cultural Evolution

University of Exeter

Welcome! I am Professor of Cultural Evolution in the Human Behaviour and Cultural Evolution Group at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus, UK.

I study human cultural evolution. I am interested in how human culture evolved, and how culture itself evolves over time.

I use experiments to simulate cultural evolution in the lab. I get people to make and copy technological artifacts like arrowheads or handaxes, or solve problems resembling real-world challenges. The aim is to understand how psychological and social processes have shaped cultural change past and present.

I construct models of cultural evolution. These explore how individual decisions (e.g. when and from whom people learn) translate into population-level patterns of cultural change. I have modeled cumulative technological change, copycat suicides, and the effects of migration on cultural diversity.

I analyse big datasets to explain real world patterns of cultural evolution. Recent analyses have explored the cultural evolution of pop music and football tactics.

You can read more on the Research page below, or view my Publications.

Contact

Research

1. Cultural Evolution

Cultural Evolution book coverThe human species has an extraordinary reliance on culture, i.e. the vast body of beliefs, knowledge and skills that we acquire from other individuals via social learning. While other species adapt to their environments primarily via genetic evolution, we adapt via cultural evolution. I am interested in how this process of cultural evolution works, its similarities and differences to genetic evolution, and how traditional social science findings and topics can be studied within an evolutionary framework.

Representative publications:

Mesoudi (2017) Pursuing Darwin’s curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, 7853–7860.

Mesoudi (2011) Cultural evolution: How Darwinian theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences. University of Chicago Press.

Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland (2006) Towards a unified science of cultural evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29, 329–383.

Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland (2004) Is human cultural evolution Darwinian? Evidence reviewed from the perspective of The Origin of Species. Evolution 58, 1–11.


2. Social Learning Experiments

Arrowhead task screenshotLearning from others, aka 'social learning', lies at the heart of human culture. I have run several lab experiments examining how people learn from one another, who they learn from, when they learn from others rather than alone, and what they learn. Some studies use the 'transmission chain method', where stories or task solutions are passed along linear chains of participants like the game 'Telephone'. These have found, for example, that information about social relationships and interactions is transmitted better than non-social information. Other studies look at how people within fixed groups learn from one another over time. Often these experiments look at technological change, getting participants to design arrowheads, handaxes or other objects reflecting real-life human technology. Previous findings have shown that people prefer to learn from successful others, but often copy others less than they should do; and that causal understanding is often not necessary for improvements in technologies.

Representative publications:

Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi (2019) Causal understanding is not necessary for the improvement of culturally evolving technology. Nature Human Behaviour 3, 446–452.

Kempe, Lycett and Mesoudi (2012) An experimental test of the accumulated copying error model of cultural mutation for Acheulean handaxe size. PLOS ONE 7, e48333.

Mesoudi (2011) An experimental comparison of human social learning strategies: payoff-biased social learning is adaptive but underused. Evolution and Human Behavior 32, 334–342.

Mesoudi, Whiten and Dunbar (2006) A bias for social information in human cultural transmission. British Journal of Psychology 97, 405–423.


3. Models of Cultural Evolution

Kempe et al. modelI have used theoretical models, primarily agent-based simulations, to explore how different learning dynamics - who copies what, from whom and when - might generate large-scale patterns of cultural evolution. Previous models have looked at beliefs in partible paternity (where children have more than one biological 'father'), copycat suicide, and how the costs of acquiring ever-accumulating knowledge slows down innovation in cumulative cultural evolution.

Representative publications:

Kempe, Lycett and Mesoudi (2014) From cultural traditions to cumulative culture: Parameterizing the differences between human and nonhuman culture. Journal of Theoretical Biology 359, 29–36.

Mesoudi (2011) Variable cultural acquisition costs constrain cumulative cultural evolution. PLOS ONE 6, e18239.

Mesoudi (2009) The cultural dynamics of copycat suicide. PLOS ONE 4, e7252.

Mesoudi and Laland (2007) Culturally transmitted paternity beliefs and the evolution of human mating behaviour. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274, 1273–1278.


4. Migration, Acculturation and Cross-Cultural Variation

Acculturation of attribution styleEver since our species dispersed out of Africa, migration has been a constant fixture of Homo sapiens. 'Acculturation' describes the psychological and behavioural changes that occur as a result of migration. I have recently studied how acculturation affects the psychological characteristics of first and second generation British Bangladeshi migrants in London, as well as theoretical models of how acculturation and migration interact to shape cultural diversity over time. Lab experiments have mapped cross-cultural variation in social learning, showing higher rates of social learning in mainland China than in the West.

Representative publications:

Mesoudi (2018) Migration, acculturation, and the maintenance of between-group cultural variation. PLOS ONE 13, e0205573.

Mesoudi, Magid and Hussain (2016) How do people become W.E.I.R.D.? Migration reveals the cultural transmission mechanisms underlying variation in psychological processes. PLOS ONE 11, e0147162.

Mesoudi, Chang, Dall and Thornton (2016) The evolution of individual and cultural variation in social learning. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 31, 215–225.

Mesoudi, Chang, Murray and Lu (2015) Higher frequency of social learning in China than in the West shows cultural variation in the dynamics of cultural evolution. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282, 20142209.


5. Prestige

Prestige figure from Brand and MesoudiPeople often preferentialy learn from high-status, respected and knowledgeable individuals within their societies. This tendency is known as 'prestige-biased' social learning. A series of recent lab, field and online experiments have tested the extent to which people form prestige hierarchies in naturally-occurring human groups, and when people employ prestige-biased social learning.

Representative publications:

Brand, Heap, Morgan and Mesoudi (2020) The emergence and adaptive use of prestige in an online social learning task. Scientific Reports 10, 12095.

Brand and Mesoudi (2019) Prestige and dominance-based hierarchies exist in naturally occurring human groups, but are unrelated to task-specific knowledge. Royal Society Open Science 6, 181621.

Jimenez and Mesoudi (2019) Prestige-biased social learning: current evidence and outstanding questions. Palgrave Communications 5, 20.

Atkisson, O’Brien and Mesoudi (2012) Adult learners in a novel environment use prestige-biased social learning. Evolutionary Psychology 10, 147470491201000309.


6. Big Cultural Data

Football formationsThe digital age has yielded big cultural datasets that can be used to quantitatively analyse patterns of real-life cultural evolution. Two recent projects have analysed how large-scale, long-term changes in pop music lyrics and in football tactics can be explained in terms of underlying social learning biases.

Representative publications:

Mesoudi (2020) Cultural evolution of football tactics: strategic social learning in managers’ choice of formation. Evolutionary Human Sciences 2, e25.

Brand, Acerbi and Mesoudi (2019) Cultural evolution of emotional expression in 50 years of song lyrics. Evolutionary Human Sciences 1, e11.

Faculty Positions

  • 2019-present Professor, Biosciences, University of Exeter
  • 2015-2019 Associate Professor, Biosciences, University of Exeter
  • 2012-2015 Reader [Associate Professor], Department of Anthropology, Durham University
  • 2008-2012 Lecturer [Assistant Professor], School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London

Postdocs

  • 2007-2008 Department of Social and Developmental Psychology, University of Cambridge
  • 2006-2007 Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia
  • 2005-2006 Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia

Education

  • 2002-2005 PhD, University of St Andrews
  • 2001-2002 MSc Evolutionary Psychology, University of Liverpool
  • 1998-2001 BSc Psychology, University College London

Lab

Prospective postdocs and PhD students are welcome to email me at a.mesoudi@exeter.ac.uk to explore projects and funding.

Current lab members

Former postdocs

  • Dr Maxime Derex, Marie Curie Fellow, 2017-2019 (now holds CNRS position at IAST in Toulouse)
  • Dr Kesson Magid, ESRC funded postdoc, 2013-2016 (now at Department of Anthropology, Oxford)
  • Dr Delwar Hussain, ESRC funded postdoc, 2013-2014 (now at Department of Anthropology, University of Edinburgh)
  • Dr Keelin Murray, ESRC funded postdoc, 2013-2014 (now employed outside academia)

Former PhD students

  • Dr Angel V. Jimenez, University of Exeter, 2017-2020; passed with minor corrections within four years (now a postdoc at Brunel University)
  • Dr Alice Williams, University of Exeter, 2018-2019 (took over as main supervisor); passed with minor corrections within four years
  • Dr Marius Kempe, Queen Mary / Durham University, 2010-2013; passed with minor corrections within four years (now faculty at St John’s College, Annapolis, USA)
  • Dr Vera Sarkol, Queen Mary, 2010-2014; passed with minor corrections within four years (now employed outside academia)

Former visiting PhD students

  • André Luiz Borba do Nascimento, visiting PhD student from Federal Rural University of Pernambuco, Brazil

Media

BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4: The Human Zoo

Contributor, Series 8 Episode 4: Democracy and the Wisdom of the Crowds


Al Jazeera America

Al Jazeera America: Do different generations of immigrants think differently?

Feature/interview on the cross-cultural thinking styles project by novelist Ned Beauman


The Forum

The Forum Debate: Darwinism and the Social Sciences

Panellist. Organised by the Forum for European Philosophy, London School of Economics

Talks

Presentation at the National Academy of Sciences Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on the Extension of Biology Through Culture held at the Beckman Center in Irvine, CA on November 15-16, 2016, organized by Marcus Feldman, Francisco J. Ayala, Andrew Whiten and Kevin Laland.


Towards A Science Of Culture Within A Darwinian Evolutionary Framework. Moderator: Prof. Itamar Even-Zohar. Tel-Aviv, Israel. 2nd June 2015