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Social Evolution: Fostering Diversity in the Cultural Evolution Society

This is a commentary inspired by Pete Richerson’s helpful target article “What are the roles of scientists in policy-making?” Pete delivers sage advice for scientists wishing to influence public policy. I would like to expand upon one way that scientists can make a difference in public policy that is becoming increasingly common. Namely, by cleaning up their own ‘houses’ to ensure that under-represented groups are not discriminated against in their departments and scholarly networks (e.g., academic societies, journals, grant committees etc.). Since some forms of academic discrimination can be due to unconscious bias, overt policies regarding diversity need to be adopted. For example, I am currently developing a Speaker Policy for our Department, which has been welcomed by Junior and Senior academics alike. The issue of diversity in science appears to be an example of where the significant proportion of scientists, the public, social media and governmental institutions agree, thus making the issue of increasing diversity in science a genuine opportunity for culture change. This is not to say that resistance to facilitating diversity does not exist, it surely does.

Wealthy white males have long dominated the study of social evolution. Indeed this has been the case for much of the sciences. Biases in selection of senior academics are one issue, but biases in scientific discourse are equally troublesome. Despite the ethically questionable hypotheses that have haunted the study of social evolution since its origins, we can now agree that non-human animals, different races or disabled people are not intermediate rungs on an evolutionary ladder. Indeed there is no evolutionary ladder despite the deep allure of such ideas in popular culture.

Scarcely a year passes without an erudite scholar reminding us that the study of social evolution has been particularly guilty of destructive biases against minorities or under-represented groups of people. I will not highlight them here other than to propose that despite the strides to rid such ideological biases (e.g. racism and sexism) from the study of social evolution, such biases still exist today, sometimes in much subtler forms than in the past. The bias I am most concerned about here is the lack of diversity in scientific societies and how we go about trying to remedy this problem in the newly forming society for the study of cultural evolution.

Diversity among cultural evolutionists
As a young student attending early evolution and human behavior meetings in 1990s I was struck by the cultural homogeneity of the scientists and students in attendance. As a working class person with autism I clearly felt separate, but that could easily have been my own biased perception of the world (e.g. feeling different than others). Regardless, the fact remains that the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, like most scientific societies, is horribly homogeneous and we should not stand by accepting this situation as an immutable fact or driving principle of nature, surely it is not.

As those interested in biology and culture it should go without stating that diversity is a fundamental engine of change. Indeed the minimal requirement for any kind of evolutionary process is variation and without it, science or the science of culture more narrowly, would be at a severe disadvantage.

So what can be done when forming a new society? 

  1. Place diversity as part of the societies’ mission statement.
  2. Appoint a diversity officer or diversity committee.
  3. Get involved in diversity campaigns across science and society.
  4. Empirically study diversity issues within the society.

 Current initiatives as models for the Cultural Evolution Society
Scientific cultures appear to be finally increasing awareness of diversity issues. Statistics are available showing how people from different backgrounds are under-represented. In the UK, the Royal Society has provided this document on the picture of the scientific workforce.

Similar initiatives are underway in the US. For example, the National Science Foundation (see Further Reading at end of this commentary) has published a useful website that includes data with regards to diversity issues in STEM.

Back in the UK, esteemed Professor Uta Frith has developed an excellent video illustrating the problems of unconscious bias and has made very useful and specific recommendations.

The key policy point made by Professor Frith is that our unconscious biases require us to: (a) Deliberately slow down collective decision-making; (b) Reconsider reasons for decisions; (c) Question cultural stereotypes; and (d) Monitor each other for unconscious bias.

I agree with Pete Richerson’s suggestion that “Analytic methods are a key to the application of expertise to policy.” For this reason, I feel as researchers we have a responsibility to use our skills to investigate symptoms, causes or consequences of biases inherent to our academic society. If we cannot root out diversity bias in the Cultural Evolution Society how can we hope to make a difference in public policy?

Tacit compliance with bias is no longer acceptable. Granted we cannot expect all scholars to be aware of the inherent problem of unconscious biases in academic structures. This is why I believe that one function of a Diversity Officer or Diversity Committee would be to draw attention to lack of variation and/or ensuring our society welcomes all people, regardless of background. I am in agreement with Peter Richerson’s point that we should “build networks” with those on the front lines of public policy. For example, if the Cultural Evolution Society decides in favour of having a Diversity Officer on its Executive Committee, this person should reach out to other groups who have more expertise on diversity issues. A final caveat point made by Pete is that to make real change takes time (i.e., “Participate for long periods of time”). Indeed, we have known for years that there are problems with pay equity and discrimination against women in science, but change is slow coming. Simply view Professor Jonathan Eisen’s blog on diversity issues being ignored ‘daily’ by esteemed scientific societies worldwide.

I feel if the Cultural Evolution Society places diversity issues in the foreground of its structure and by-laws, our science and public policy recommendations should be stronger.

Further reading
Hinde, K. (Jan 18, 2016) Work in progress: Changing academic culture

Martin JL (2014) Ten Simple Rules to Achieve Conference Speaker Gender Balance. PLoS Comput Biol 10(11): e1003903. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003903

NSF. 2013. Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. In Special Report NSF 13-304: NSF Arlington, VA.

Wellenreuther, M & Otto, S. (2015).  Women in evolution – Highlighting the changing face of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary Applications


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