Image Credit: The Streets of Denver via NASA Earth Observatory.

A great historical transition is underway in the biological and social sciences, one that brings with it a number of exciting new possibilities for humanity to guide itself through collective actions while addressing the myriad converging threats of the 21st Century.  We are now embarking on a path to unify the social and biological sciences with the arts and humanities. I have joined the Evolution Institute as a Culture Designer in Residence to coordinate and guide this process.

For a primer on culture design –> Go here.

This is a scientific revolution that is already many decades in the making. (A partial history can be found in articles like this and is elaborated in books like this.) It will take many more decades to fully play itself out. But there is an urgency to catalyze the evolution of the social sciences and make significant strides in the next 3-5 years — a case made in our preliminary analysis of the Grand Challenges for Cultural Evolution where we identified social issues like ecological harm, wealth inequality, violent conflict and the pace of technological change as areas where the field of cultural evolutionary studies is poised to make significant contributions for society.

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We have initiated a collaborative project that is designed specifically to be this catalyst. It is the Cultural Evolution Society, midwifed throughout 2015 in a series of developments that enable us to enter the new year at a sprinter’s pace, guiding its formation into a fully-fledged entity in the next six months.

We have two goals with this project:

  1. Give birth to a highly prestigious and scientifically rigorous professional society that advances the theory and practice of cultural evolutionary studies.
  2. Build capacity for this community of researchers and practitioners to coordinate efforts and achieve more together than any of us working on our own.

Our ad hoc steering committee is comprised of lead researchers from anthropology, archeology, cultural evolutionary studies, evolutionary biology, cross-cultural psychology, and the mathematical study of history (known as “cliodynamics”). We formed voluntarily after a workshop held in College Park, Maryland in March of last year. Since that time, more than 1200 founding members from 54 nations around the world have signed up to help birth the society. Our membership is comprised of researchers from several hundred universities, as well as a significant minority with 25% working as social change practitioners away from the academy.  We have received a $217,000 planning grant from the John Templeton Foundation to create the society—on a timeline starting December 1st, 2015 and ending in the summer of 2017—that funds my position to serve as coordinator throughout this period.

We just met for a second meeting December 20-22nd, again in College Park. A very productive meeting unfolded as we formed committees to create bylaws, nominate and elect officials, begin organizing the first annual conference, and to explore innovative approaches to tackling the grand challenges for cultural evolution—informed by the detailed survey analysis from a questionnaire sent to our membership in the fall that was referenced above. So we are now in a strong position to apply the tools of culture design to the field of cultural evolution.

A summary report from our meeting can be found here:

Birthing Cultural Evolution Society

(Click Image for PDF)

A brief sketch of the approach we have outlined so far is the following:

  • Establish a democratic process for our founding members to set an agenda for the society and answer the “Big Questions” for our field—tackling grand challenges with a strong focus on interdisciplinary research that breaks down institutional silos and moves toward a unified body of integrated social sciences.
  • We will do this by a combination of centrally coordinated and self-organizing approaches. Centralized coordination will be employed to set up the platforms for collaboration—via normal activities including peer-review journals and annual conferences, and through more innovative approaches as we build out partnership networks.  Self-organizing approaches will be enabled using web forums like the one this blog is posted on and the possible future development of mobile apps and other peer-to-peer interaction tools.

We envision a series of collaborative research projects, many of them self-organized and vetted by our members coming together on their own, with technical and educational support from the society to assist them.  Some of the concerns and challenges for this approach were discussed in our meeting (and are discussed in the report above).  At the same time we recognize that it is very early-stage and the community will set its own course with a democratically elected leadership in the months ahead. In this manner, we will be able to incubate a canon of educational and research materials for wide dissemination, build up and share open databases for comparative studies, and provide grant management (possibly even grant offerings) at lower overhead cost to encourage collaboration across institutions and research fields.

Suffice it to say, this is a very inspiring project.

An 18 month road map can be found in the summary report. Sketched briefly here, we envision standing up the society in the following rough timeline:

18 Month Road Map

For those of you who have already signed up as founding members, I look forward to working with you on all of this in the next year and a half.  If you haven’t become a founding member yet, please do so by going here and filling out this online form.

Here’s to an inspiring and productive 2016!

Published On: January 18, 2016

Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer

Joe has three bachelors degrees in physics, mathematics, and interdisciplinary studies and a masters in atmospheric sciences. He is a complexity researcher, innovation strategist, experience designer, and serial social entrepreneur who brings a wealth of expertise to the adoption of sustainable solutions at the cultural scale. Among his notable achievements are the creation of an undergraduate degree program in Earth Systems, Environment and Society at the University of Illinois and design of new collaboration protocols for strategic communications among European NGO’s with WWF-UK and Oxfam, Great Britain. He was an active member of the Center for Complex Systems Research from 2001 to 2005, where he studied pattern formation in self-organizing systems. He was a research fellow at the Rockridge Institute in 2007-08 analyzing political discourse in the United States. He contracted with the International Centre for Earth Simulation in Geneva in 2010-11 to help build a globally-focused high performance computing facility dedicated to holistic simulations of the dynamic Earth. His experiences as a social entrepreneur and cross-disciplinary scholar weave together a combination of skills dedicated to open collaboration, interactive design, and empowered civic action for catalyzing change toward greater resilience in our turbulent world.


  • gregorylent says:

    you need a couple mystics on your team .. people who understand the body’s subtle energy, and the role physical design plays in making it experienceable .. as for example, a small indian temple .. it’s not acadeic qualifications, it’s the ability to feel multidimensionally that is needed

    • Joe Brewer says:

      We are creating a scientific society here, with a vision to advance the scientific theory and practice of cultural evolution. While there may be many positive roles that can be filled by people who work with intuition in the mystical practices, they will only be helpful here if they are able to serve this mission.

  • William Wallace says:

    As a new arrival, I’ll be checking to see how one bridges from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ to formulate CE policy. I’ve often wondered if anything more than increased exposure to exercises requiring critical thinking is even licit in principle for any such undertaking. Anyway, the project sounds interesting in principle.

  • Said says:

    While I agree as mentioned, “this project sounds interesting in theory,” I am interested in knowing, with your “strong focus on interdisciplinary research that breaks down institutional silos and moves toward a unified body of integrated social sciences,” this project appears to take a heavy focus on science as a motivational cue for change. Maybe I simply haven’t looked far enough into what is being offered, but I am curious to what extent the Arts & Humanities intends to be incorporated. As someone with an educational background in the academic discipline of Religious Studies, and when taking into consideration your response to gregorylent and position in creating a “scientific society,” should someone such as myself consider the academic realm of Religious Studies, or any other academic field of study coming out of the soft sciences to take a back seat to the hard sciences within this project? I get a small sense this isn’t the case, but it would seem important to be pointed in including such areas of study if one were to truly hope to answer the “Big Questions.”

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Dear Said,

      Thank you for bringing up this concern, as it has been a major theme for dialogue and discussion throughout the 18 month process to birth this society to date.

      The short answer would be that your hopes are confirmed and your fears are being echoed by a large number of founding members in the society. A great deal of care was taken to treat “diversity” in a multifaceted manner as we ran inaugural elections earlier this year. We identified four categories of diversity: (1) intellectual background; (2) geographic region or cultural representation; (3) gender; and (4) stage of career. One thing that has stood out consistently along the way is for there to be a vital need to embrace the humanities and remove the illusory distinctions between “hard” and “soft” sciences.

      All of these categories arose as part of the Cartesian dualisms of the Modern Era. None of them serve us now in the 21st Century. There is already a great deal of research that begins in the humanities (take history as one example, where historians have built massive datasets that are now being digitized for computer analysis). Without humanities experts to interpret and offer confidence assessments to data, it would be impossible for the mathematically or theoretically inclined modelers of social change to work with this data.

      Similar synergistic relationships can be found in the study of literature and the evolution of social norms or language usage; or in the study of art symbolism as it maps to evolutionary processes of cultural change over time.

      The humanities have a vital role here! 😉



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