Commentary by Rebecca Sear on Blumstein et al. (The Peacock’s Tale)

By Peter Turchin March 4, 2012 No Comments

The application of evolutionary theory to the real world has the potential to be one of the most exciting developments in the human evolutionary behavioural sciences. Most research over the last few decades using an evolutionary framework to understand human behaviour has been largely of theoretical interest, so to see researchers actively engage with how this research can be applied in settings such as international politics is an important step forward.

While I am an enthusiastic supporter of such attempts, a question which interests me, and which is not dealt with in this particular article, is how to put these academic ideas into practice. The authors list 8 lessons that politicians can learn from evolutionary theory which will help them send and interpret signals in both diplomacy and war. But how does one get the actors involved in international politics to learn these lessons? The majority of such individuals are unlikely to have much training in evolutionary theory, or any other kind of science for that matter. No member of the British Cabinet, for example, has a science degree, and only one member of the House of Commons is apparently educated to PhD level in science. So it seems that researchers interested in persuading politicians that the insights of evolutionary theory may be of use to themneed to get involved in lobbying and actively engaging with the political community, to bring this research to their attention. Generating greater interdisciplinary links within academia, and getting evolutionary ideas onto the syllabi of social scienceand humanities degrees would also help lay the groundwork, as the social sciences and humanities tend to be the educational route most UK politicians, at least, take (but see Mesoudi et al 2010 for a discussion of the challenges involved in this endeavour). A solid grounding in science and evolutionary theory during school-level education would also be a very good start, though possibly even more challenging.

To lobby and engage successfully with politicians, I’d also suggest researchers need to consider carefully exactly how their research may be applied in the real world. I suspect what may hold some evolutionary behavioural scientists back from doing so is a lack of understanding of how the theory-driven, hypothesis-testing research they do can be usefully applied to real world settings (at least, this is a significant reason for my own reluctance to engage substantially with policy-makers). The authors of this article have done just that by including examples of how past political events can be interpreted through the lens of evolutionary theory. What might be even more useful is to consider how evolution can be applied to developing future policy.This necessarily involves considerable dialogue with politicians and policy-makers. Applied work is clearly becoming an active area of interest for the evolutionary community as suggested, for example, by the special issue of Human Nature on ‘The human behavioural ecology of contemporary world issues’ (Tucker, 2007);the recent book on Applied Evolutionary Psychology (Roberts 2011); and the recent workshop on Applied Evolutionary Anthropology held at the University of Bristol in September 2011[1]. While these examples largely involve academics keen to apply their work, rather than policy-makers keen to apply it, Curtis and her colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have been successful in promoting their ‘Darwinian approach to health promotion’ in the real world (see e.g. Curtis, de Barra et al 2011; Curtis, Schmidt et al 2011); she helped found, for example, the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap[2].

Something else perhaps to consider, is how to convince politicians of the added value evolutionary theory can bring to the table. Certain sections of academia have had success in persuading politicians that their discipline can be used in the formulation of policy, for example, ‘nudge’ economics has been successfully promoted by behavioural economists (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). How might we convince politicians that the evolutionary behavioural sciences have anything to add to the voices of behavioural economists and psychologists working on human decision-making?One solution might be to combine evolutionary theory with disciplines more familiar to policy-makers: Tucker’s approach, for example of combining human behavioural ecology with behavioural economics to apply to conservation and development issues does just that (Tucker, 2007). 

An important part of any endeavour applying academic research to the real world is likely to be the evaluation of policies which have been informed by such research. This may not be easy, since randomised control trials are clearly not possible in the field of international politics, but might itbe possible to use ‘natural experiments’ where policies known to have been influenced with evolutionary ideas could be compared to those who have not (though this of course assumes that it is possible to identify policies which have been informed by evolution, perhaps not easy to determine in itself)? 

I welcome any endeavour which attempts to develop evolutionary research for application to real world human affairs, and would be very interested to hear more about the practicalities of such endeavours from those currently engaged in them: how is evolution being put into practice?


Curtis, V., M. de Barra, et al. (2011).Disgust as an adaptive system for disease avoidance behaviour.Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences366(1563): 389-401.

Curtis, V., W. Schmidt, et al. (2011).Hygiene: new hopes, new horizons. The Lancet Infectious Diseases11(4): 312-321.

Mesoudi, A., D. Veldhuis, et al. (2010). Why aren’t the social sciences Darwinian? Journal of Evolutionary Psychology8(2): 93-104. Introduction to a special issue on this topic; see also other papers in this volume.

Roberts, S.C. (2011) Applied Evolutionary Psychology.Oxford University Press.

Thaler, R.H. and Sunstein, C.R. (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. Yale University Press

Tucker, B. and L. R. Taylor (2007). The human behavioral ecology of contemporary world issues: applications to public policy and international development.Human Nature18: 181-189. Introduction to a special issue on this topic; see also other papers in this volume.

Tucker, B. (2007). Applying behavioral ecology and behavioral economics to conservation and development planning: An example from the Mikea forest, Madagascar. Human Nature18: 190-208.



Published On: March 4, 2012

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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