Research Areas

The Cultural Evolution Lab investigates the extent to which the evolution of social and cultural complexity is a Darwinian process. Is cultural variability due to cultural evolution or some other process? If culture evolves then what are the units of selection? Does the evolutionary process involve random variation and selective retention as observed in natural selection? To what extent does it depend on deliberate design and innovation? To what extent is culture evoked by biologically evolved mechanisms or transmitted? We address these and other questions using theoretical models and large databases constructed in collaboration with historians, ethnographers, and archaeologists, and political scientists. Please feel free to contact us for more information and to express interest in working with us.

Seshat: Global History Databank

Seshat, the flagship project, to which CEL staff and collaborators contribute as co-founding directors, is a longitudinal, global database covering ritual, social complexity, and group ecology of civilizations from roughly 10,000BCE to 1,800CE. Seshat brings together a large, international, multidisciplinary team of evolutionary scientists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, economists, and other social scientists.  Its mission is to gather information from historical and archaeological societies in order to rigorously test different hypotheses about the rise and fall of large-scale societies across the globe and human history. Seshat is housed by the innovative think-tank, the Evolution Institute, Inc.

Recent publications:

A Macroscope for Global History: Seshat Global History Databank, a Methodological Overview Pieter François, J.G. Manning, Harvey Whitehouse, Rob Brennan, Thomas Currie, Kevin Feeney, and Peter Turchin (2016). Digital Humanities Quarterly, 10(4).

Building the Seshat Ontology for a Global History Databank Rob Brennan, Kevin Feeney, Gavin Mendel-Gleason, Bojan Bozic, Peter Turchin, Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François,  Thomas E. Currie, and Stephanie Grohmann (2016). In Sack, H., Blomqvist, E., d’Aquin, M., Ghidini, C., Ponzetto, S. P. & Lange, C. (eds.).The Semantic Web. Latest Advances and New Domains, pp. 693-708.

Agricultural Productivity in Past Societies: Toward an Empirically Informed Model for Testing Cultural Evolutionary Hypotheses Thomas E. Currie, Amy Bogaard, Rudolf Cesaretti, Neil R. Edwards, Pieter François, Phillip B. Holden, Daniel Hoyer, Andrey Korotayev, Joe Manning, Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, Oluwole K. Oyebamiji, Cameron Petrie, Peter Turchin, Harvey Whitehouse, and Alice Williams (2015). Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution 6(1), pp. 24-56.

Seshat: The Global History Databank Peter Turchin, Rob Brennan, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Pieter François, Daniel Hoyer, J. G. Manning, Arkadiusz Marciniak, Daniel Mullins, Alessio Palmisano, Peter Peregrine, Edward A. L. Turner, and Harvey Whitehouse (2015). Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution 6(1), pp. 77-107.

A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution Peter Turchin, Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Edward Slingerlandd Mark Collard (2012). Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, Vol. 3, No. 2: pp 271 – 293.

The Ethnographic Dataset on Ritual

This dataset contains detailed information on 645 religious rituals from 74 cultures around the globe, covering ritual, group size, social complexity, resource extraction and cultural links of societies, from roughly 1,800CE to WWII. The full dataset can be accessed here.

Recent publications:

The Cultural Morphospace of Ritual Form: Examining Modes of Religiosity Cross-Culturally Quentin D. Atkinson and Harvey Whitehouse (2011). Evolution and Human Behavior. Vol. 32, No.1: pp 50-62.

The Oxford Morals Project

Evolutionary theory suggests that human morality is the product of a range of domain-specific cognitive mechanisms designed by natural selection to solve the problems of cooperation that were recurrent in the lives of our ancestors. These problems include: kin altruism, mutualism, reciprocity and conflict resolution. We are testing this prediction by investigating the moral valence of these cooperative behaviours in the ethnographic records of 60 societies.

Recent publications:

Is it Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies Oliver Scott Curry, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse (submitted). Current Anthropology.

Mapping Morality with a Compass: Testing the Theory of ‘Morality as Cooperation’ with a New Questionnaire Oliver Scott Curry, Matthew Jones Chesters, Caspar Johannes Van Lissa (submitted). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Quantifying the Neolithic Revolution

What was the role of ritual in the transition from foraging to farming? Recent research at Çatalhöyük in Southern Anatolia (Turkey) suggests that a major factor driving the emergence of complex society may have been religious routinization. The frequency of rituals appears to have increased over the course of the Neolithic age affecting the scale and structure of early farming societies. We are now studying how ritual and social morphology changed over a much longer time period (Epipalaeolithic to Chalcolithic) and over a wider area (65 Anatolian and Levantine sites).

Recent publications:

Modes of Religiosity and the Evolution of Social Complexity at Çatalhöyük  Harvey Whitehouse, Camilla Mazzucato, Ian Hodder, and Quentin D. Atkinson (2013). Ian Hodder (ed.) Religion at Work in a Neolithic Society: Vital Matters. Cambridge: CUP.

The Ritual Community and Conflict Project H. Whitehouse, C. Mazzucato, and Q. Atkinson (2011) Catalhoyuk 2011 Archive Report, Catalhoyuk Research Project.

Modes of Religiosity at Çatalhöyük Harvey Whitehouse and Ian Hodder (2010). I. Hodder (ed.) Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Tolstoy is a database containing fine-grained data on armed conflict and peace making from all over the world from WWII until the present day. Currently the emphasis is on contemporary non-state armed groups, covering such topics as group size, ideology, language, ethnicity, customary practices, organisation, relations with the surrounding communities, shared suffering, resource extraction, and intergroup relations. Tolstoy contains various kinds of longitudinal data so that changes over time can be tracked and forecast. Tolstoy’s mission is to provide researchers and policy makers a source of wide-ranging, high quality, searchable data on War and Peace.