An ad hoc steering committee initiated steps to form the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution (SSCE) in the summer of 2015. As part of the inaugural proceedings, a survey of SSCE members was conducted to identify a suite of “grand challenge” problems of broad scientific and social interest that can drive cutting-edge research and practice within the field of cultural evolutionary studies for future decades.

Over the course of several weeks, a total of 236 SSCE members from around the world completed an online questionnaire in which they could nominate up to ten such challenges, providing a brief description and rationale for each. Additionally, SSCE members were also asked to indicate their level of understanding and mode of training in core domains (cultural studies and evolutionary theory), how they see their current work fitting into the wider world of cultural evolutionary studies, and how they see themselves contributing to the grand challenges facing the society.

The responses to the initial grand challenges survey are summarized in this report.

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Grand Challenges Report Cover

We would now like to invite open dialogue about these findings with our founding members and anyone else with an interest in helping advance the field of cultural evolutionary studies. Please share your thoughts in the comment thread below.  This will help inform what we talk about at a steering committee meeting scheduled for mid-December.

What we’d like to hear from you:

  1. Do these findings resonate with your experience as representative of the “state of the field” for cultural evolution?
  2. What questions or concerns come up for you as you read through the findings?
  3. How would you like to see this information used as we set up the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution?
  4. Is there anything missing that you feel we should be aware of as we learn together through this process?

I look forward to engaging with all of you in the comment thread and as we begin working together through society activities in the new year.


Joe Brewer
Project Coordinator
Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution

Published On: November 17, 2015

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.


  • Thom Scott-Phillips says:

    Unless I have misunderstood, the report is hosted only on This shouldn’t be the case, since requires people to sign up before downloading. Can you host it elsewhere please?

    • Thom Scott-Phillips says:

      Oh, my bad. I see that you can read it online just by scrolling down (but you do seem to have to sign up to to download it). Sorry. Mods: would you mind deleting this and the comment above?

  • Jay Baldwin says:

    1. Do these findings resonate with your experience as representative of the “state of the field” for cultural evolution? Yes, particularly the concept of knowledge synthesis and the defining of culture, to which I’d add the need to define what is meant by “cultural evolution” (beyond mere change but as entailing evolutionary mechanisms). It’s worth noting too that #KnowledgeSynthesis is preferable to #Consilience as a more forward-looking expression, focusing less on past disputes and instead toward future collaboration. I like it.
    2. What questions or concerns come up for you as you read through the findings? Regarding knowledge synthesis, what’s going to count as knowledge? I’d wonder as well about “knowledge desensitization” (i.e., desensitizing topics such as gender, race, religion, etc.) in order to encourage open inquiry.
    Finally, I’m interested in clarifying what is meant by the term “cultural studies” as it is used throughout the document. Is it meant as fields that study culture (e.g., anthropology) and/or those that take ethnographic/interpretive approaches, or are we talking about the field of cultural studies proper—which might be charitably described as the study of power and dominance through the communicative processes of social construction?
    3. How would you like to see this information used as we set up the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution? Use it as planned, to develop a clear mission and achievable goals, convention themes, etc.
    4. Is there anything missing that you feel we should be aware of as we learn together through this process? TBD

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Great questions and suggestions here, Jay!

      I resonate personally with the need to “de-sensitize” important topics so they can be addressed coherently, openly, and systematically as we advance the field of cultural evolution. Many of the survey respondents noted concerns about tribalism, marginalized groups, and power dynamics in social settings as areas to unpack together. I see this as a promising way to begin this process.

      Clarifying what I mean by “cultural studies” in the survey, we didn’t specifically define it in the questions — leaving it up to the respondents to interpret as they see fit. Our intention was to be broad and inclusive since our founding membership is comprised of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and other diverse-yet-related fields where culture is studied.

      One of the “grand challenge” themes that stood out was the need for shared language to clarify and move beyond these kinds of problems, which still plague the field of cultural evolution today.

      • Bill Benzon says:

        I’d be wary of the term “cultural studies”. It’s been in use for half a century in the humanities and designates an intellectual tradition originating with British academics such as Stuart Hall, E.P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams. Adopting it for use here would, at best be confusing, and at worst might be treated as an act of social scientific aggression and intellectual imperialism.

        • Joe Brewer says:

          Hey Bill,

          Thanks for pointing this out. It is very important that if our society is going to help “de-balkanize” the intellectual landscape and bring much-needed synthesis and integration, we’ll want to be very conscientious about treating the history with care and approaching other fields in a collaborative (rather than imperial) manner.

          Many respondents to the survey we sent out also cautioned us about this — with commentaries about incentive structures in academic institutions that make transdisciplinary work difficult to cultivate and sustain; how labels are used in incompatible and confusing ways among different fields; and that a unifying framework is missing (and will be difficult to create); among other related ideas about these issues.

          I do see knowledge synthesis and shared language as “grand challenges” for cultural evolution for all of these reasons. 😉

          • Bill Benzon says:

            Thanks, Jay. In reading Jay Baldwin’s comment more carefully I noticed that he was referencing the same intellectual tradition when he talked of “cultural studies proper”, but he didn’t name names.

            And, yes, I understand the transdisciplinary problems; I’ve been swimming against them for decades. This particular issue, of getting humanists on board, is going to be tough. However, some of the most interesting work currently being done on cultural change is being done by humanists under the rubric of digital humanities. They’ve got collections of 100s and 1000s of texts written over the course of a century or more and they examine them using tools from corpus linguistics. Some of them are getting fascinating results. For example, I know of two studies, well-known in DH circles, that can be interpreted as indicating that 19th century English-language literary culture is directional. But these particular scholars explicitly reject the idea that they should think in evolutionary terms. Others simply don’t seem to be aware of evolution at all.

            Some DH scholars are working within or “next to” the cultural studies tradition I’d mentioned while others aren’t. But they’re all aware of it.

  • Steve Roth says:

    And/or: just upload the pdf file to the EI site and provide the url link to download.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      The PDF is viewable on without downloading — and there’s the added benefit of nested commenting there that is already being used for interactive dialogue.

      If anyone would like a copy of the PDF to download directly from the Evolution Institute website, I can upload it here too.

  • Bruce Nappi says:

    To Joe, steering committee members and all those who contributed to this effort, I feel that this is a profound milestone at this point in human evolution. The report visualizations are outstanding. The reason I say “profound” is that it already does a better job beginning our focus on KNOWLEDGE SYNTHESIS than any other document I’ve read.

    My contribution focus for the SSCE effort is communications. More precisely, to try to help the effort NOT fall into traps that our culture has unknowingly created in how we organize and share knowledge. To avoid these traps, I believe we need to create new protocols. Changing from ways we’ve become accustomed to, are ubiquitous, and seem to be fundamentally sound, is not a trivial effort. So, making a case for each of the changes I believe are critical for SSCE to succeed, will take a forum other than this first comment. I will seek guidance from the steering committee on how best to approach this. For this comment, however, I’d just like to briefly summarize one such new protocol that is directly related to a review of the survey results and its methods.

    One of the major criticisms of “surveys” is that they are always BIASED. This same criticism applies to polls on issues. Bias comes in many forms: 1. the selection of questions; 2. the selection of respondents; 3. models chosen to analyze the responses; 4. interpretation of the analysis results; 5. reduction of the complexity of the analysis in the form of reports; 6. selection of humans to oversee each of the previous elements, etc. These biases occur even when the participants, both survey conductors and participants, have the highest integrity and best intentions. They occur because of serious limitations in human psychology and flaws in human institutions and culture. Need I say more on this to this group?

    From a communications viewpoint, it is this challenge of collecting an accurate “voice” of society that is the basis of the current breakdown of democracy in western society. Representational government is failing because the “views” of all (or at least most) of the citizens are not being “reliably” captured and then “faithfully” summarized and represented. Even something as simple as voting is fraught with fraud, in its worse case, but also plagued with error, even in its best case, due to its complexity. Our survey report gives us graphic proof that even with a narrow focus on “cultural” issues, we are already challenged by its complexity.

    Solving this problem has been a focus of my research. I believe I have developed a number of protocols to solve parts of the problem sufficiently well to save democracy as a governing structure. I joined SSCE for support implementing these changes. But, right in front of us, we now have an opportunity to prototype some of those ideas for our own benefit. Let me briefly describe just one NEW protocol that makes a major jump in bias removal. It addresses biases 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 in the list above.

    In short, my new protocol would be to send the individual hashtag analysis for each response back to its source along with the overall list of hashtags and either a summary of all the other suggestions or the suggestions as submitted (without attribution). The creator’s task would then be to determine if they believed the hashtag selections made for their suggestions accurately interpreted their meaning. If not, they could suggest alternatives.

    While this seems almost trivially simple, it accomplishes the following for each bias:
    1. It allows a gestalt view of the process for each responder to reevaluate their response;
    3. It allows each responder to draw on their background in relation to the analysis models chosen. Different backgrounds might see the problems with a very different focus or structure;
    4. Again, different backgrounds might see very different interpretations of the same answers using very different vocabularies (i.e. communications in my case)
    5. Summarization means interpretation. Going back to the source for affirmation, especially for controversial or new viewpoints keeps the process open for new interpretations and novel views.
    6. This is probably the bias that is most blunted. Cost constraints often bring in novice analysts or many from a similar background, but always few in number. Their analysis or interpretation or judgment is constrained by their culture and experience. By returning their “preliminary” decisions directly to the responses source, the review team becomes the entire response community! In a government application, this could be millions of people. This observation makes the major breakthrough of this new approach clear. EVERY VOICE is finally heard. Every voice is finally respected, right through to the final product!

    Bruce Nappi

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Dear Bruce,

      I really like the iterative and highly interactive features of your recommendation for process improvement. 😉

      In a small way, I have already incorporated some of the approach you are describing — by including the list of hashtags and giving a few (okay, only two!) examples to show how the coding was done. A limitation for using the full approach in practice is that it requires members of the society to put in several hours of work themselves reproducing these results — though we could streamline a “simplified” version of the process by tagging who the author was for each entry (which we didn’t do for this study, responses are anonymized) such that each respondent can assess how their own entry or entries was coded to update or counter the interpretation.

      Moving to the broader level for how we are facilitating the conversation… this is where your recommendation may be more usefully applied right now. As we encourage dialogue and debate in community about the survey results and how to use them, we are able to clarify and unpack the interpretations from the analysis itself, identify blind spots or elaborate upon what has been done so far, and generally build a “collective intelligence” as a community overall.

      I am excited by the possibilities for where all of this can go in the months ahead!



  • Justin E. Lane says:

    The analysis of text questions here is extremely troubling. What you have done, is basically assume that everyone agrees with you and that there are no challenges to cultural evolution and that the concepts that co-occur in a response asked you to study them more using CE and does not address the fact that CE, in some cases, does not actually have the theoretical precision to deal with these issues at all. Rather, what I see in this document is that it was analysed with an assumption that those who responded believe that we should use CE to understand these things. I know that for myself, that was not the case. What I’m worried about is that this document is only acting as if CE has not theoretically thorny issues as it currently stands. That seems to be more reflective of an ideology than scientific theory.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Dear Justin,

      I am happy to send you the full spreadsheet with all 435 responses so you can read them for yourself. What I observed by closely scrutinizing them in this study is that it is both true that (1) the field of cultural evolution is currently splintered and has a number of foundational issues to be hashed out in open dialogue, and ongoing research it is also true that (2) there is a great deal of coherence about what this particular community is ready to come together and build in the next few years.

      This combination of opportunity and need is very inspiring to me. It is not that I am ideologically biased (that is a faulty accusation on your part). Though I do seem to be more optimistic about the state of the field than you are — and I welcome constructive dialogue as we work together to improve the field through the SSCE and beyond.



      • Justin E. Lane says:

        I would be quite interested in looking through the responses. Will they be made open to the public?
        If there is no bias in the analysis, which may well be the case, then my concern still stands in that it seems that as a academic body we’ve stacked the deck in favour of group-think and not debate.
        Feel free to email me the data whenever it is available. I have a number of advanced text mining algorithms that may be able to get a better view on the data with a more subtle analysis.

        • Joe Brewer says:

          Hey Justin,

          I’ve just sent you the excel spreadsheet. Very much looking forward to seeing what you discover with your analytic tools!



  • Ted Howard (NZ) says:

    Was hoping for more than a simple numbers game.
    Was hoping for some sort of set of ratings of the likely importance of the levels of conceptual complexity in building a coherent model of where we are which could provide useful indication of both areas and degrees of risk and reward at various levels of social organisation and understanding going forward.
    I was really hoping for some sort of self rating system like David Snowden’s Sensemaker system.

    This has all the attributes of a highly dimensional complex system, and it seems clear to me that the greatest value is likely to reside in clearly identifying and quantifying the outliers, rather than in the already well populated areas (to the degree that such is possible).

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Hey Ted,

      First off, this is not a simple numbers game. It is mostly a “rich semantic” interpretation of a very complex data set. 😉

      Secondly, if you replace your past tense verbs with a present-future orientation (e.g. replace “was hoping for” with “am hoping to”) you’ll be reminded that this is both (1) early in a long community engagement process and (2) a preliminary analysis based on the first wave of survey responses. In other words, we are just getting started!

      Before we can assess the outliers, we need a sense of what the corpus looks like in its compositional structure. The rich semantic analysis that went into writing this report is a helpful guide for digging deeper and creating a shared set of projects across this diverse, globally-networked community of researchers and practitioners.

      Exciting, isn’t it?

  • Franzi Poldy says:

    I agree with many of the comments about Knowledge Synthesis, though I’m not convinced that it amounts to much of a finding. A society that describes itself as “… for the Study of …” was probably always going to put a high weighting on Knowledge Synthesis.

    I do think we need to be able to check meanings and interpretations, so while you’re sending the full spreadsheet to Justin, could you send it to me too, please.

    In my case, for example, I used the term “worldview” in one of my contributions, and there is a tag #Worldviews with a frequency of 1. Presumably that’s me. I find it astonishing that in 435 contributions on Cultural Evolution from 236 people the concept of worldviews should occur only once. That may be a problem of terminology, or it may be that what I took to be a key concept is not widely seen in that way. In any case, I’m curious to see the spreadsheet and to see how the tags are assigned.

  • […] What Are The Grand Challenges For Cultural Evolution? […]

    • Ted Howard (NZ) says:

      Hi Joe,

      I found your email that arrived this morning interesting from the perspective of perspective itself.

      For the last 10 years I have been part of a local initiative at coastal fisheries management, that resulted last year in a new Act of Parliament that set up several reserves, changed some of the rules around bag limits and set in place two new committees with statutory powers.
      That process was fascinating because it bought together our local “First Nation” people (the Ngati Kuri and Ngait Tahu Maori people) with commercial and recreational fishers, tourism and conservationists, local and regional government, and officials from the ministry’s of environment, conservation and primary industries.
      The process was initiated by Mark Solomon of the Maori, and the facilitator was paid for by the department of conservation (DOC) and all other attendance was voluntary. All decisions were by consensus. Everyone had to be able to live with everything we decided. We met monthly, for most of a day, and shared meals during the meetings. The first three years were mainly getting to know and understand each other, and to characterise what we had in our local fisheries, from each of the perspectives present. It started with a lot talking past each other, and not a few rather heated disagreements. What we found worked was to uncover shared values, and when things got difficult to take the conversation back to those values, and then let it move forward where it would.
      We had a kaupapa of “gifts and gains”.

      There were definitely places where paradigms simply could not meet, and we simply had to bring acceptance to those places, and take the conversation to places where values and paradigms could work together.
      It was a long process, over 500 hours of minuted meetings, and at least as much time outside in wider conversations.
      I was more than a little unusual, in the facts that I had been deeply involved in the writing of the last two fisheries acts,(1983 and 1996), had 17 years as a commercial fisherman, a lifetime as a recreational fisherman, chaired the local recreational fisheries group, and sat on the national governing bodies of both the recreational and commercial fishing groups. I had also been a lifelong conservationist, and sat on the local conservation committee, and was a past district councillor. I also have a long involvement with Maori. So I often acted as translator, in as much as translation was possible. [Throughout that period I continued my involvement and passion within the AI community, the existential risk community, the nanotech community and in futurism more widely, and continued my interests in evolution, complexity, strategies and systems particularly games theory.] I don’t sleep a lot, and only need to apply about 4 hours a week to income generation.

      And all of this was done within the context that has been my primary driver for the last 41 years – what sort of social, political and technical institutions give the greatest probability of potentially very long lived individuals actually living a very long time? And just to make things interesting, about half way through I was given a diagnosis of terminal melanoma, sent home “palliative care only” and told to “get my affairs in order” as I could be dead in 6 weeks. I changed focus onto cancer for 2 weeks, went strict vegan and high dose vitamin C, and have been tumour free for almost 5 years.
      So it has been an interesting journey, in many different dimensions.

      Within that context, what struck me about your email was that it emphasised your profession as the way forward. And to be clear I am not saying that bias was conscious, and it does clearly seem to be a bias – one that I have noted over these last 40 years is common.

      I certainly agree that learning to trust is a key part of the process. It seems clear to me that even more critical to the process is going as deep as is required to distil a set of shared values that can be used as a reset point for any conflicts encountered.

      In my experience (in the hundred or so committees I have been active in the last 45 years, as many as 32 at once, and many of them for decades) the most important thing is having shared values that can bring us out of conflict over practical matters, and back to the search for practical alternatives.

      The Maori way of sharing food together seems to have a practical power, and unfortunately it is one we cannot use in digital fora such as this. We need a practical alternative.

      • Joe Brewer says:

        Dear Ted,

        Thank you for sharing this story and your experiences with me. I whole-heartedly agree about the importance of both putting in the time to build deep community and for digging to the roots of culture where shared values can be found and built upon for collaborative efforts.

        Just like most people, I bring my own biases and agenda to this effort — although I fully intend to serve as a facilitator for the agenda that takes shape openly among our burgeoning membership (that is where my bias enters… I am tasked with helping create a society for the field of cultural evolution and so I shall work to serve this community of people). That said, I do want to see us having open disagreements and even heated debates when necessary for real community to arise. And my hope is that we are starting out with enough implicit shared values and common ground that the membership of SSCE will prove capable of navigating any conflicts that arise (they most assuredly will, of course!).

        Please let me know if you would like to become more involved at this early stage to help the SSCE succeed. We can all benefit from your knowledge and experience.

        Very best,


  • Ted Cloak says:

    The inclusion of #CultureDefinition, #CulturalTransmission, and #Theory in the Top Ten Themes tells me that I may have found my tribe at last. I think I even detect an interest in grounding Culture in neurobiology (“Naturalizing Culture” is my goal;

  • […] also the blog page on What Are The Grand Challenges For Cultural […]

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