Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Grand challenges for the study of cultural evolution

The founding members of the Cultural Evolution Society were surveyed to identify the major scientific questions and ‘grand challenges’ currently facing the study of cultural evolution. We present the results and discuss the implications for an emergent synthesis in the study of culture based on Darwinian principles.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Frequency and co-occurrences of themes identified in the grand challenges survey responses.


  1. 1

    Gintis, H. Individuality and Entanglement: The Moral and Material Bases of Social Life (Princeton Univ. Press, 2015).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Richerson, P. J. & Christiansen, M. H. Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion (MIT Press, 2013).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Laland, K. N., Odling-Smee, J. & Myles, S. Nat. Rev. Gen. 11, 137–148 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (John Murray, 1871).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Wilson, E. O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Belknap Press of Harvard Univ., 1975).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Segerstråle, U. Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Lewens, T. Cultural Evolution (Oxford Univ. Press, 2015).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Mesoudi, A. Evol. Biol. 43, 481–497 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Haas, E. & Fischman, G. Am. Ed. Res. J. 47, 532–562 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Bastian, M., Heymann, S. & Jacomy, M. Gephi: An open source software for exploring and manipulating networks. In Proc. 4th Int. ICWSM Conf. (2009);

  11. 11

    Wilson, D. S. & Whitehouse, H. Developing the field site concept for the study of cultural evolution. Social Evolution Forum (16 October 2016);

  12. 12

    McElreath, R. A Long-Form Research Program in Human Behavior, Ecology, and Culture (2016);

    Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors wish to thank the Evolution Institute and the University of Maryland for assisting with arrangements and providing space for the meetings in which the Cultural Evolution Society was organized and the grand challenges survey was developed. These organizational meetings and the analysis of the grand challenges survey results were funded through a grant to the Evolution Institute from the John Templeton Foundation.

Author information




J.B. and I.F.M. conducted the grand challenges survey and processed the initial results. P.N.P. analysed the processed results to draft the preliminary list of grand challenges. All the authors evaluated the initial list of grand challenges and aided in parsing them to the final eight. J.B., I.F.M., P.N.P. and D.S.W. wrote the initial draft of the manuscript, and all the authors contributed to revisions.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to P. N. Peregrine.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Brewer, J., Gelfand, M., Jackson, J. et al. Grand challenges for the study of cultural evolution. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0070 (2017).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing