Category Archives: Events

Phyloseminar: Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution

I’m giving a Phyloseminar next Tuesday at 17:00 GMT.

“Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution”

Anthropologists had a name for the non-independence-of-species-problem way back in the 1880s. Solving “Galton’s Problem”, and the promise of comparative methods for testing hypotheses about cultural adaptation and correlated evolution was a major catalyst for the field of cultural phylogenetics. In this talk I will show how linguistic, cultural, and archaeological data is used in comparative phylogenetic analyses. The “treasure trove of anthropology” – our vast ethnographic record of cultures – is now being put to good use answering questions about cross-cultural similarities and differences in human social and cultural norms in a rigorous evolutionary framework.

Phyloseminar is an online videoconferenced series of seminar talks on (you guessed it) phylogenetic subjects. Details about how connect up to join in the live broadcast and ask questions are here. Alternatively, the seminars are recorded so that, no matter your time zone, you can watch them afterwards.

My talk is the second in a mini-series of seminars on Phylogenetics and Language. The first was by Simon Greenhill, previously interviewed on my blog here. You can watch his seminar here (and please do, as I will be building on some of what Simon said). Tom Currie will be giving the final seminar. Many thanks to Erick Matsen for the invitation.

evolution 2007

Radio silence for the last couple of weeks as I was in New Zealand at the Evolution 2007 meeting. Yes, there is internet access on my small island home, but I’m not one of those superstars who can multitask a big conference and blogging. So before it all dribbles out of my brain, here’s a brief rundown. [link to program pdf]

Russell Gray and I organised a symposium on Cultural Phylogenetics. There are pictures, but they will have to wait another day.

Our speakers (Mark Pagel, Michael Dunn, Simon Greenhill, Quentin Atkinson, Russell, and myself) spoke on different aspects of applying phylogenetic and comparative methods to interesting and cool questions in linguistics and anthropology. Click on the picture for an overview of the talks.


Given that it was early on a Sunday morning we had a great turnout (80-120 people) over the three hours. Really fabulous to have the hardcore evolutionary biologists come along to see some novel applications of “their” methods, and it seemed to be well-received!

The conference had about 900 people in attendance with up to eight simultaneous sessions going on for the four full days, so it was hectic running about from room to room to catch talks. Luckily most of what I wanted to hear was fairly systematically (haha) grouped, so I got to attend a number of talks on phylogenetic theory and methods, behavioural/social evolution, sexual selection, coevolution, and teaching evolution. The last day also had a great session on molecular anthropology, most of which was concentrated on questions about Pacific dispersals and human migrations.

Conferences really are great for making your brain swim 24/7 in a soup of ideas, whether they’re directly related to your work or not. It’s simply stimulating being around loads of other people who like to ask questions and think of clever ways to answer them.

While I was away I read Evolutionary Pathways in Nature: A Phylogenetic Approach by John Avise. It’s a collection of short essays that tackle questions about different critters, from spider-web building to the tracking of the AIDS virus in humans. What they have in common is that moledular phylogenies have been used to help with the detective work. It was a fun book to dip into (it’s the book the ultra-geeky biologist has in the loo), but the theme was only a thin thread on which to peg the various stories. Although the Introduction and Appendix gave a little background to phylogenetics and molecular systematics, a complete newcomer would no doubt be confused. Sadly (or perhaps not…) I think the popular science book on phylogenetics remains to be written.

pasifika styles

Courtesy of Sheyne Tuffery, whose art I’ve recently discovered (and love), heads-up that the University of Cambridge Museum of Anthropology & Archaeology is holding an exhibition called Pasifika Styles from May, with artists, craftspeople, performing artists, and displays of the Museums collections.

I may have to revise my assertion that Oceanic cultural events are few and far between in these isles.

Also, the House of Taonga (taonga means treasures/property, but also accessory or equipment), a collective of Maori artists/performing artists. Fabulous webdesign–for starters–and a talented group of people with an admirable ethic.

commonwealth day

The Cuming Museum in Southwark is holding an exhibition entitled Mana: Ornament and Adornment From the Pacific. Polynesian decorative arts like tattooing and jewellery, which is like the confluence of all the things I love.

Today is Commonwealth Day, and I’m off to Westminster Abbey to partake of the observance in the presence of Chuck and Camilla. Least that’s what my ticket says. I have a feeling I’m a little underdressed for the occasion but it’s a freaking great big stone building and I don’t anticipate removing my coat.