Rutherford Discovery Fellow

Assoc. Ed., Evolution and Human Behaviour

School of Psychology

University of Auckland

Private Bag 92019

Auckland 1142


Quentin Atkinson

Recent news:

September 2018:

In Genome Biology, with Kristiina Tambets, Outi Vesakoski, Terhi Honkola, Mait Metspalu and colleagues, we reveal the demographic history of Uralic-speaking populations.

July 2018:

In Nature Human Behaviour, with PhD students Joseph Watts and Oliver Sheehan, we find Christianity spread faster in small, politically structured societies. There’s a nice commentary from Nicole Creanza here.

March 2018:

In PNAS, with PhD student Oliver Sheehan and colleagues, we investigate the co-evolution of landesque capital intensive agriculture and sociopolitical hierarchy.

In Nature Ecology & Evolution, Remco Bouckaert, Claire Bowern and we trace the origin and expansion of Pama–Nyungan languages across Australia. You can read a brief summary on this Behind the Paper blog on the Nature Ecology & Evolution website. A basic explanation of what we did is also available here.

With Ben Purzycki and the CERC team, our paper out in PLoSONE uses data from Vanuatu field sites and six other locations around the world to examine the relationship between material security, life history, and moralistic religions.

August 2017:

My piece in The Conversation with Shaun Hendy - taking inspiration from the spread of world religions, we argue scientists need to do more to signal commitment to ideas they want to spread.

Luke Maurits, Robert Forkel, Gereon Kaiping and I release BEASTLing: A software tool for linguistic phylogenetics using BEAST 2.

May 2017:

Two fully funded PhD studentships available on the cultural evolution of human social behaviour. Apply by 15th June.

In a comment on The Nature of Religious Diversity in Religion, Brain and Behavior, Carlos Botero, Luke Harmon and I discuss the promise and limits of eco-evolutionary studies of human culture

March 2017:

My paper in Religion, Brain and Behavior on religion and expanding the cooperative sphere in Kastom and Christian villages on Tanna, Vanuatu and an associated CERC team paper on the evolution of religion and morality.

November 2016:

The Cultural Evolution of Religion Consortium’s cross-cultural dataset for the evolution of religion and morality project published in Nature’s Scientific Data journal.

October 2016:

In Royal Society Open Science, Tim Saunders, Alex Taylor and I find no evidence that a range of artificial monitoring cues influence online donations to charity in an MTurk sample.

June 2016:

In PLoS ONE, Ties Coomber, Sam Passmore, Simon Greenhill, Geoff Kushnick and I examine the cultural and environmental predictors of pre-European deforestation on Pacific Islands.

April 2016:

In Nature, Joseph Watts, Oliver Sheehan, Joseph Bulbulia, Russell Gray and I show how Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Click here for answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the paper.

In PLoS ONE, Luke Matthews, Sam Passmore, Paul Richard, Russell Gray and I show how Shared Cultural History can predict Political and Economic Changes among Nation States.

March 2016:

In Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Joseph Watts, Joseph Bulbulia, Russell Gray and I  comment on Norenzayan et al’s discussion piece on the evolution of prosocial religions.

February 2016:

In Nature, together with Ben Purzycki, Joe Henrich and the Cultural Evolution of Religion Consortium, I examine Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. Commentary by Dominic Johnson here.

October 2015:

Pat Savage and I describe a method for automatic tune family identification by musical sequence alignment as part of the 16th International Society for Music Information Retrieval Conference.

September 2015:

Joseph Watts, Oliver Sheehan, Simon Greenhill, Stephanie Gomes-Ng, Joseph Bulbulia, Russell Gray and I release Pulotu: Database of Austronesian Supernatural Beliefs and Practices, described here in PLoSONE.

August 2015:

Robert Ross and I examine Folktale transmission in the Arctic in Evolution and Human Behavior.

March 2015:

Along with Joseph Watts and colleagues, I show that Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia in Proceedings of the Royal Society, B.

January 2015:

In the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Jenny Long, Nikki Harre and I examine social clustering in high school transport choices.

December 2014:

In PNAS, Kit Opie, Susanne Shultz, Tom Currie, Ruth Mace and I challenge Main Sequence Theory of human social evolution in our analysis of the cultural evolution of inheritance and residence rules among the Bantu people of Africa.

August 2014:

A response to the New Zealand government’s National Statement of Science Investment, signed by myself and 37 other Rutherford Discovery Fellows -

July 2014:

In Religion, Brain and Behaviour, Andrew Latham, Joseph Watts and I ask “Are Big Gods a big deal in the emergence of big groups?”

January 2014:

In the American Journal of Community Psychology, Jenny Long, Niki Harre and I examine recycling and littering behavior across a school social network.

December 2013:

In PNAS, Jason Kamilar and I show that cultural assemblages have a nested structure in humans and chimpanzees but not orangutans.

Reply to Dixson’s commentary on primate monogamy in PNAS.

October 2013:

I have two book chapters in the just released Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion, edited by Pete Richerson and Morten Christiansen as part of the Strüngmann Forum series. 

August 2013:

In PNAS, Kit Opie, Susanne Shultz, Robin Dunbar and I show male infanticide leads to social monogamy in primates.

May 2013:

In PNAS, Mark Pagel, Andrew Meade, Andreea Calude and I show how Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia. Read more at Science NEWS here.

Watch my talk on Tracing Human Cultural Ancestry in Time and Space at the Evolutionary Patterns conference in Lisbon, May 27th-29th, 2013.

April 2013:

Robert Ross, Simon Greenhill and I examine the cultural geography of a European folktale in this week’s issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B.

March 2013:

My commentary on the descent of words in this week’s issue of PNAS.

January 2013:

Talking about language evolution on National Radio’s nine-to-noon show.

December 2012:

Claire Bowern and I tackle the internal structure of the Pama-Nyungan language family in the journal Language.

August 2012:

In this week’s issue of Science, I team up with experts in linguistics, cultural evolution and Bayesian phylogeography to tackle the “most recalcitrant question in historical linguistics” - the origin of the Indo-European language family. Listen to a Science podcast here or read the NY Times article. We’ve also made a cool FAQ website, complete with a movie of the Indo-European expansion.

June 2012:

In this month’s Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Will Hoverd, Chris Sibley and I investigate “Group Size and the Trajectory of Religious Identification”.

February 2012:

Invited talk on the evolution of languages at the Govett-Brewster Contemporary Art Museum, Taranaki, New Zealand. Part of the Old Genes: Artists reading Len Lye Exhibition.

December 2011:

On this week’s Our Changing World podcast, I talk to Veronika Meduna about work with Susanne Shultz and Kit Opie on the evolution of primate socialty.

November 2011:

In this week’s issue of Nature, Susanne Shultz, Kit Opie and I look at the evolution of primate sociality. Commentaries in Nature and ScienceNOW.

July 2011:

Conference talk on modelling major language expansions at the 20th International Conference on Historical Linguistics in Osaka, Japan.

June 2011:

Invited lecture on language change in time and space at the Human evolution – plagues, pathogens and selection meeting at the Kavli Royal Society International Centre, UK.

April 2011:

In this week’s issue of Science, I show that, like human genetic diversity, the global distribution of phoneme diversity in the world’s languages is consistent with a serial founder effect model of expansion from Africa.

Russell Gray, Simon Greenhill and I discuss Language Evolution and Human Prehistory in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B.

February 2011:

Conference talk on tracing language origins in space and time at the NZ Phylogenetics Meeting in Leigh, New Zealand.

January 2011:

Harvey Whitehouse and I use a large cross-cultural data set to examine the   The cultural morphospace of ritual form, in Evolution and Human Behavior.

Pierrick Bourrat and I use data from the World Values Survey to test whether beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation.