Research Interests

Many of the things that make humans unique are not hard-wired in our genes, but are shaped by the behaviour and norms of those around us – these are inherently cultural phenomena that require a cultural explanation. Since Darwin, it has been recognised that human cultures and languages evolve in ways that parallel the evolution of species. These parallels of process mean that methods and thinking from biology can be used to shed light on the evolution of language and culture. My research uses these tools to understand how human culture evolves and the importance of culture for the evolution of our species. This includes work on the evolution of language, religion, cooperation and the human expansion from Africa.


Evolution of cooperation and prosocial behaviour


Understanding human cooperation is critical both for unravelling our evolutionary past and for tackling the challenges of our future. The long-term survival of our species rests on our ability to cooperate to sustainably manage common resources like our fisheries, forests, water and atmosphere. But how do we achieve this? What factors promote cooperative behaviour? And how did human cooperation evolve? Increasingly, researchers are looking for the answers to these questions not in our genes, but in our culture. Field and lab-based studies reveal substantial differences in levels of cooperation across cultures and point to the importance of cultural norms and institutions for promoting cooperation in large groups.


In Auckland, we are investigating how prosocial environmental beliefs and behaviours vary across social networks. At field sites across the Pacific, we are using experimental and ethnographic research methods to investigate the cultural evolution of human cooperation. This research is currently funded by a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship from the Royal Society of New Zealand.



The research team at our field site on Tanna Island, Vanuatu.


Evolution of religion


Religious adherence often entails great sacrifice of time and resources, and sometimes even of life. On the surface, many religious beliefs and practices thus seem highly maladaptive. However, there is increasing interest in the possibility that religions provide benefits to groups by promoting cohesion and cooperation. For example, religious rituals can facilitate bonding between group members and provide a costly signal of group commitment. Likewise, belief in a supernatural agent who will punish moral transgressions may help promote prosocial behaviour by providing a “supernatural police force”.  Our lab’s research in this area seeks to characterise patterns of recurrence and variation in religious beliefs and practices in cultures around the world, to explore the link between features of these beliefs and practices and large-scale cooperation, and to explain what it is about the human mind that makes certain types of religious beliefs and practices particularly appealing. This includes lab-based studies, online experiments and field research on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. The research is funded as part of the Cultural Evolution of Religion Consortium (CERC) hosted at the University of British Colombia, the Ritual, Community and Conflict project hosted at the University of Oxford and a Templeton Foundation project hosted at the University of Auckland.



Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand.


Evolution of language


“Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

    - Ralph Waldo Emerson - The Poet from Essays: Second Series (1844)


Languages, like species, evolve via a process of descent with modification. Biologists can draw inferences about species’ ancestry and the forces affecting biological evolution by analysing genetic diversity using stochastic models of evolution. In a similar way, we use stochastic models of the process of language evolution together with data on linguistic diversity to infer ancestral relationships between languages and answer questions about human history and the process of cultural evolution. Click here to find out more about how we applied this approach to investigate the origin of the Indo-European language family. Click here to find out more about our North American English Dialects Project with Dr Claire Bowern at Yale.


This research is currently funded by a Marsden Grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand - “Tongues, trees and Bayesian inference”.



Map and tree showing the diversification of the major Indo-European subfamilies (Science, 2012).


Human population genetics


Human genetic diversity carries a legacy of our population history. By comparing sequence data from people living in the world today, we can draw inferences about when and where humans originated and how populations grew as we spread out across the globe. We use human genetic variation together with Bayesian inference of phylogeny to investigate past human population dynamics and reconstruct a picture of the human colonization of the globe.


Book


In 2007, I co-edited a book with Dr Niki Harré, from the University of Auckland, called “Carbon Neutral by 2020: How New Zealanders can tackle climate change”. This project brings together New Zealand-based experts from a range of disciplines who offer practical solutions to the challenge of reducing carbon emissions and present a vision of a carbon neutral New Zealand in 2020. Click here for a promotional flyer.


Media Interest


The Washington Post - Linguists identify 15,000-year-old ‘ultraconserved words’, 7 May, 2013.


Science NOW - English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language, 6 May 2013.


Nature NEWS - Genes Mix faster than Stories, 6 Feb 2013.


National Geographic - Humans Swap DNA More Readily Than They Swap Stories, 6 Feb 2013.


New Scientist - Genes Mix Across Borders More Easily Than Folktales, 6 Feb 2013.


The New York Times - Family Tree of Languages Has Roots in Anatolia, Biologists Say, 23 August, 2012.


Nature - A Turkish origin for Indo-European languages, 23 August, 2012.


Scientific American - Disease Maps Pinpoint Origin of Indo-European Languages, 23 August, 2012.


Washington Post - Researchers identify present day Turkey as origin of Indo-European languages, 23 August, 2012.


Science News - Language family may have Anatolian origins, 23 August, 2012.


Der Spiegel - Europäische Sprachen Deutsch stammt aus der Türkei, 23 August, 2012.


El Mundo - Turquía, cuna del español, 23 August, 2012.


BBC - English language ‘originated in Turkey’, 25 August, 2012.


CBC Canada - Indo-European languages traced back to Turkish region, 25 August, 2012.


News Talk ZB, New Zealand - Turkey the birthplace of English: study, 25 August, 2012.


Over 300 more articles on the 2012 Indo-European paper here.


The Daily Telegraph - Switch to daylight made us sociable, 10 November, 2011.


Pennisi, E. (2011). How Humans Became Social. Wired Science blog, 09 November, 2011.


Silk, J. (2011). Evolutionary biology: The path to sociality. Nature, Joan Silk, 10 November, 2011.


Bascom, N. (2011). Two steps to primate social living, Science News, 09 November, 2011.


Wade, N. (2011). Phonetic Clues Hint Language is Africa-Born. NYTimes, 14 April, 2011.


Naik, G. (2011). The Mother of All Languages. Wall Street Journal, 15 April, 2011.


Alleyne, R. (2011) Language like people came out of Africa. The Telegraph (UK), 14 April, 2011.


The Washington Post – Human language arose in southern Africa, first-of-its-kind analysis suggests, 14 April, 2011.


ScienceNOW – Language may have helped early humans spread out of Africa, 14 April, 2011.


The Economist – The evolution of language: two origin stories, 14 April, 2011.


Williams, N. (2010) Language evolution puzzle. Current Biology. 20(9), 388-389.


Jacobs, Z. & Roberts, R. G. (2009) Human History Written in Stone and Blood. American Scientist. 97, 302-309.


Marris, E. (2008). Language: The language barrier. Nature, 453, 446-448.


Holden, C. (2008). Punctuation Marks in Language Evolution? Science NOW, 31 January, 2008.


Marris, E. (2008). Languages divide, then bloom. Nature online doi:10.1038/news.2008.547


Highfield, R. (2008) Language development mirrors species evolution. The Telegraph (UK), 31 January, 2008.


Fitch, W. T. (2007). An invisible hand. Nature, 449, 665-667.


Nature Video podcast (2007) - http://www.nature.com/nature/videoarchive/language/index.html


Marris, E. (2007). How ‘holp’ became ‘helped’. Nature online doi:10.1038/news.2007.152


Highfield, R. (2007). Scientists chart how words are changing The Telegraph, 10 October, 2007.


Fountain, H. (2007). Two, Deux, Dos: Heavily Used Words Evolve More Slowly New York Times, 16 October, 2007.


Wade, N. (2004) A biological dig for the roots of language. New York Times,16 March, 2004.


Balter, M. (2003). Linguistics: Early date for the birth of Indo-European languages, Science, 302, 1490-1491.


Searls, D.B. (2003). Linguistics: Trees of life and of language. Nature, 426, 391-392.


Whitfield, J. (2003) Language tree rooted in Turkey, Nature Science Update – 27 November, 2003.


Marsiske, H-A (2003). Indoeuropäische Ursprache kam aus Anatolien. Spiegel. 28 November, 2003.


Salleh, A. (2003). Indo-European languages came from Turkey. ABC NEWS Online, 27 November, 2003.


New Scientist – “Chatty farmers scattered the seeds of language” 2423,15, 29 November, 2003.


Washington Post - Mother tongue may be older than many think, 27 November, 2003.


Highfield, R. (2003). Roots of English Traced to Turkey 8,000 years ago, The Telegraph, 27 November, 2003.


New Zealand Herald – “NZ study cracks origin of English”, 1 December, 2003, A01.


Sydney Morning Herald – “English language traced to Turkish farmers”, 1 December, 2003.


Boston Globe – “A new word on birth of western languages”, 27 November, 2003.


Guardian (UK) – “Scientists trace evolution of Indo-European languages to Hittites”, 27 November, 2003.


Le Monde – “Une étude relance le débat sur l’origine des langues indo-euroéennes”, 27 November, 2003.


Hindustan Times (India) – “Mother of all Indo-European languages born in Turkey?”, 26 November, 2003.


Pravda (Russia) – “Indians and Europeans Built Tower of Babel. What About Others?”, 17 December, 2003.