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Developing the Field Site Concept for the Study of Cultural Evolution: An Evolutionary Biologist’s View

The study of human cultural evolution has made enormous strides over the last three decades. For most of the 20th century, evolutionary biology was highly gene-centric and the human behavioral sciences developed largely without reference to evolution. Now, the study of evolution is increasingly becoming centered on the concept of heredity, with genes constituting only one mechanism of inheritance. Other mechanisms include epigenetics, forms of social learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human (Jablonka and Lamb 2006). The human capacity to transmit large amounts of learned information across generations is now properly seen as both a product of genetic evolution and a process of evolution in its own right. More than ever before, human cultural diversity is being studied with the same set of theoretical and empirical tools as the study of biological diversity (Henrich et al. 2008; Henrich 2015; Richerson and Christiensen 2013; Richerson and Boyd 2006; Wilson 2012; Wilson et al. 2016)

Field studies are the backbone of research in evolutionary biology because the only way to understand the properties of species is in relation to their environments. Laboratory research is also essential but must be informed by field research; otherwise, it runs the risk of asking misleading and nonsensical questions. Reliance on field studies is second nature for an evolutionary biologist.

Field studies take place at geographical locations, or field sites. Many biological field sites are just the places where individual scientists conduct a single study, but some field sites become locations where studies build upon other studies. Famous examples include the field site established Peter and Rosemary Grant for the study of Darwin’s Finches (Grant and Grant 2014) and Gombe Park in Tanzania for the study of Chimpanzees (Goodall 2010). Some field sites are established and operated in a top-down fashion, such as the Hubbard Brook experimental forest in New Hampshire, USA, or the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network funded by the National Science Foundation in America. Others become established in a bottom-up fashion starting with a single modest study, an important point to which I will return below.

Field studies have a different status in the human behavioral sciences. They form the backbone of research in cultural anthropology and sociology, but these disciplines have historically been the least inclined to adopt an evolutionary perspective and many cultural anthropologists also eschew scientific methods. Most of the other branches of the human behavioral sciences do not study people in relation to their past and present culturally influenced environments or base laboratory research on field studies, with the attendant risk of asking misleading and nonsensical questions.

Since field studies have such a marginal status in the human behavioral sciences, it follows that the concept of field sites is also underdeveloped. The best examples come from quantitative sociological research such as the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) headed by Robert J. Sampson. While site-based research projects such as this one are admirable and sophisticated in many respects, they are typically not informed by a modern biocultural evolutionary perspective.

It follows that work is required for field studies and field sites to play a role in the study of human cultural evolution comparable to the role that they play in evolutionary biological research.  Some of the work is conceptual—making the role of field studies second nature as part of adopting an evolutionary perspective. Some of the work is physical—creating an infrastructure at geographical locations for studies to build upon other studies.

The purpose of this target essay is to place the development of field sites firmly on the radar screen of the newly formed Cultural Evolution Society (CES) and other individuals and organizations that want to promote the study of human cultural evolution. I plan to do this in a conversational way, through the lens of my own experience as someone trained in evolutionary biology, who conducted numerous field studies on nonhuman species earlier in my career, and who now conducts human-related field research in my city of Binghamton, New York (Wilson 2011). A companion essay by my friend and colleague Harvey Whitehouse will relate his experience as a cultural anthropologist who conducted traditional ethnographic research earlier in his career and is now actively engaged in field-oriented human evolutionary research in sites around the world.

Before telling our own stories, we want to stress that we regard ourselves as fellow travelers, rather than leaders, in developing the field site concept for the study of cultural evolution. Our efforts have been marked by failures in addition to successes and we hope that both will be instructive. Others have made as much or more progress than we have and some of them will be sharing their stories in commentaries on our target articles.  We hope that the combined experience of the commentators and ourselves will help to catalyze the creation of field sites for the study of cultural evolution around the world, with the CES playing a lead role.

The Experience of an Evolutionary Field Biologist
I was lucky to enter graduate school in the 1970’s when the historically separate disciplines of ecology, evolution, and behavior were growing together. This was the decade that included Dobzhansky’s (1973) declaration that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, the award of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Konrad Lorenz, Karl von Frisch, and Niko Tinbergen, and the publication of E.O. Wilson’s (1975) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.

Tinbergen’s (1963) now classic article titled “The Methods and Aims of Ethology” was part of my core reading as a graduate student. In his effort to establish ethology (the study of animal behavior) as a branch of biology, Tinbergen pointed out that four questions must be addressed for all products of evolution, concerning their function, history, mechanism, and development.  Ever since, “Tinbergen’s Four Questions” have been cited as a compact description of a fully rounded evolutionary approach—and they are relevant to all products of evolution, no matter what the mechanism of inheritance (see Wilson and Gowdy 2013 for a discussion of Tinbergen’s Four Questions in relation to economic theory and practice).

All four questions require knowledge of the organism in relation to its environment. This goes without saying for the function and history questions, but it also holds for the mechanism and development questions. To illustrate this point, imagine being told to study the developing and mature brains of two species of birds without being told anything about their ecology. Unbeknownst to you, one species migrates south during the winter and is adapted to memorize the night sky as a nestling. The other species does not migrate and is adapted to memorize the locations of thousands of food items that it stores every fall. How many decades would be required for you to discover these brain mechanisms, in the absence of information about each species in relation to its environment?

picture1dswSomething else that I learned in graduate school was that fieldwork could be fully scientific.  Uncontrolled observations could be quantified with methods such as focal sampling and controlled experiments could take place in the organism’s natural habitat in addition to the laboratory. In fact, if a laboratory experiment doesn’t simulate the natural environment of a species in key aspects, then the response of the organism to an evolutionarily novel environment can be extremely difficult to interpret. The mismatch can also be extremely revealing if the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” is kept in mind. As one of many examples, raising kittens in a visual environment that includes only horizontal or only vertical lines results in profound impairment of vision, demonstrating the importance of environmental inputs during eye development (Hubel 1988).

Fieldwork was therefore mandatory for my PhD research and for all of my graduate student peers, unless they were studying a species that had already been extensively studied in the field. In my case, field sites were easy to come by. Any lake would do for a study of zooplankton, any woods for a study of carrion beetles. If a question focused on a particular environmental variable, such as the role of fish predators in the evolution of vertical migration in zooplankton, then any sample of lakes with and without predators, holding other variables constant as much as possible, would do. In this fashion, the field sites for a large fraction of field research in evolutionary biology last no longer than one or a few studies.

While these studies are good as far as they go, there is a big added value to conducting many studies at a single location. This is why most large universities maintain field stations, such as the University of Michigan’s Douglas Lake Biological Station, where I conducted research on carrion beetles for several years, and Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station, where I served on the faculty for eight years and studied adaptive intraspecific variation in fish among other topics. Most of the research that takes place at biological stations is not centrally planned.  It is up to individual researchers what to study, but the fact that the studies take place at a single location and that social interactions take place within the community of researchers and their students (indeed, they are among the most socially charming places on earth!) naturally leads to projects that build upon other projects, in much the same way that termite mounds are built by workers depositing secretions on top of the secretions of previous workers, without any centralized planning.

Centralized planning plays a larger role at some field sites, especially when supported by major funding from public and private sources. An example is the Long Term Ecological Research Network, which is supported by a dedicated branch of the National Science Foundation. This kind of “Big Science” is required to tackle some questions, but there can also be inefficiencies associated with centralized planning and large bureaucracies of all sorts.

Envisioning a Comparable Role for Field Sites in the Study of Cultural Evolution
Against this background, what would the study of cultural evolution be like if it were comparable to the study of biological evolution? Researchers would employ Tinbergen’s fully rounded “Four Questions” approach. They would use quantitative observational and experimental methods in the field whenever possible and their laboratory experiments would be based upon a foundation of fieldwork. Colleges and Universities would maintain field sites for the study of cultural evolution and at least some centrally planned “Big Science” projects would be funded by public and private foundations.

Obviously, the actual study of cultural evolution is a far cry from this description, but it is useful to keep it in mind as something to work toward. In addition, it is encouraging to know that long-term field sites aren’t required for many kinds of field research (any location will do) and can come into existence incrementally using the “termite” model, without requiring the major initial investment required by the “Big Science” model.

It is especially feasible for any college or university to create a field site for the study of cultural evolution. Biological field sites require a relatively large area of natural habitat, living facilities and laboratories on site, and so on.  For the study of cultural evolution, the community surrounding the college or university can be the field site, faculty and students already live on the site, and the laboratories are already located on campus. All the ingredients of a field site are present without formal designation required.

Something that is not always present, however, is the right mindset for the faculty and students conducting the research. As I stressed at the beginning of this essay, conceptual work is required in addition to physical work for field sites to play the same role for the study of cultural evolution as for the study of biological evolution.  At almost all colleges and universities, the administration is eager to foster good relations with the community and numerous faculty and students are already doing community based research and action. At my university, which is located several miles away from the city of Binghamton, a downtown building was recently constructed that houses the College of Community and Public Affairs, including the departments of Social Work, Human Development, and Public Administration. Without wanting to disparage the research that takes place in these departments (at many colleges and universities, not just my own), the following statements are empirically supportable.

  • Most of the research is oriented toward the solution of practical problems and does not contribute much to basic scientific knowledge.
  • Each problem tends to be considered in isolation, resulting in an “archipelago” of research communities with little communication among “islands”.
  • The quality of empirical research is highly variable. The best is very good indeed, but many studies are entirely descriptive and many programs are poorly designed and assessed.

All of these problems can be solved by adopting evolution as a unifying theoretical perspective.

  • If basic scientific knowledge requires studying people in relation to their culturally influenced environments, then field research in one’s community can merit publication in top academic journals in addition to addressing practical problems. It is possible to have one’s cake and eat it too with respect to basic and applied research.
  • Evolutionary theory provides a common theoretical language that can integrate previously isolated research communities.
  • A unified theoretical perspective and enhanced communication among research communities can improve the average quality of empirical research.

The Binghamton Neighborhood Project
My own attempt to use my city as a field site, which I dubbed the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (Wilson 2011), can be used to illustrate these points. The concept is transferrable, as Daniel Nettle has shown with his Tyneside Neighbourhood Project in the UK (Nettle 2015).  In termite-like fashion, the BNP started with a single study that was conducted without any external funding. With my PhD student Daniel O’Brien, I collaborated with the Superintendent of the Binghamton City School District to give a survey to public school students in grades 6-12. In practical terms, the survey measured internal and external assets that are required for healthy human development. In basic scientific terms, the survey measured the conditions required for prosociality (behaviors and attitudes oriented toward the welfare of others and society as a whole) to evolve as a social strategy in a Darwinian world—whether by genetic evolution, cultural evolution, or the expression of behaviors in phenotypically plastic individuals. Very simply, for prosociality to succeed as a social strategy, those who give must also receive. We were able to demonstrate an impressively high correlation between the prosociality of the individual student and the prosociality of the student’s social environment, including family, neighborhood, school, religion, and extracurricular activities. In fact, the correlation coefficient was higher than the correlation coefficient between full siblings (r) in simple models for the genetic evolution of altruistic behaviors (Wilson, O’Brien and Sesma 2009).

picture2dswAlthough social support need not be spatially based, it has a very strong spatial component, as we saw when we combined our survey data with the residential locations of the students from school records as shown in Figure 1 (abiding by human subject research guidelines, of course).  On a scale where individuals can vary between 0 and 100 in their self-reported prosociality, the average prosociality of students in a neighborhood can vary by as much as 50 points.

This study led to other studies to validate and extend the survey results. We made naturalistic observations of prosocial behaviors in neighborhoods, played experimental games with students in their classrooms, and employed the “lost letter method” from the field of social psychology to experimentally demonstrate variation in behaviors in the different neighborhoods (see Wilson 2011 for a book-length account). In one set of experiments, Binghamton University college students viewed photographs of different neighborhoods and then played experimental economic games with public school students from the neighborhoods (O’Brien and Wilson 2011). We could do this because we had previously played economic games with the public school students in their classrooms. Knowing their residential locations, we could pair their responses to the responses of the college students in the subsequent study. The results showed that merely viewing a photograph of a neighborhood strongly influences the propensity to cooperate or defect in an experimental game.  Daniel Nettle (2015) has gone even further by bussing students into different neighborhoods to complete surveys and play experimental games, with huge effects compared to the same surveys completed and games played on campus.

This research is immensely interesting and relevant to the practical concerns of our community partners, while also resulting in publications in top-ranked academic journals such as the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (O’Brien and Wilson 2011) and Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Wilson, Hayes, Biglan, and Embry 2014), illustrating the positive tradeoff that can exist between basic and applied research. It unites previously isolated research communities by showing that prosociality is a master variable: Having it results in multiple assets and not having it results in multiple liabilities (Biglan 2015).

Challenges to Establishing a Field Site
Based on my experience and Nettle’s parallel effort, I am convinced that every college and university, anywhere in the world, can become the nucleus for a field site for the study of cultural evolution. The field sites can grow incrementally based on resources at hand, like a termite mound, without requiring a large initial “Big Science” investment.  However, I have also encountered severe challenges in my efforts to develop Binghamton into a field site, which can be grouped into the following categories.

Lacking the evolutionary perspective: The need for a unified theoretical perspective cannot be overstated. It makes the difference between the unfocused and often low quality research taking place in communities everywhere and focused research that contributes to basic scientific knowledge while also addressing practical problems. It sounds imperious to make this claim—especially to people who do not yet “get it”–but the power of a unified theoretical framework has already been proven by the history of the biological sciences.  A community of scientists and their students who understand the meaning of Tinbergen’s fully rounded “Four Question” approach is therefore necessary to get started.  One reason that I was emboldened to begin field research in Binghamton in 2006 was because I had previously established a campus-wide evolutionary studies program in 2003 (Wilson 2007; Wilson et al. 2011), providing a critical mass of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students who could become involved. Even in my case, it was primarily my own laboratory that started the BNP and there is a constant need to educate people–both inside and outside of the Ivory Tower–about the evolutionary perspective.

Social instability and disruptive influences beyond one’s control: Even when a research project can be conducted with the resources at hand, it requires the cooperation of community partners, such as my collaboration with Binghamton’s school superintendent.  Whenever a community partner retires or moves on to another position, the collaboration must be renegotiated with his or her replacement. It is distressing how often this happens. In a school for at-risk youth that the BNP helped to design in collaboration with the same superintendent (Wilson, Kauffman, and Purdy 2011), we had to orient four principals that were assigned to us over a period of three years. Then the whole program was terminated by a new school superintendent who trusted her gut instincts more than the results of our randomized control trial. Other projects that began with the help of a progressive Mayor withered with the election of a more conservative major. The turnover of college presidents, provosts, and deans—each anxious to establish their reputation as a change agent before moving on—is also distressingly high. A long-term field site must be designed to withstand these disruptive influences, a point to which I will return below.

Putting one foot in front of the other: As if these problems weren’t bad enough, even for projects that receive unanimous support, it can be difficult to collectively put one foot in front of the other. As one example, the county health department reports a treasure trove of information at the spatial scale of zip code, but this information would be much more valuable and commensurate with our own data at the spatial scale of census block groups. In principle this should be doable, both technically and legally, but the work required proved to be insurmountable given the financial and human resources at hand.  As a second example, the idea of sponsoring a friendly competition among neighborhoods to increase school attendance, using attendance maps (similar to the prosociality map shown above) that are updated monthly, met with universal approval.  The school had the necessary information, but it was entered into commercial software packages sold to schools that are designed to issue reports, not to work with the data in unscripted ways. The small IT staff of the Binghamton City School District was too preoccupied with more immediate concerns and efforts to interest faculty and graduate students of Binghamton University’s computer science department also failed, so an interesting project in applied cultural evolution, with the possibility of an important educational outcome (increasing school attendance) didn’t materialize.

I hope that these examples give a flavor of what it’s like to create a field site for the study of cultural evolution in “termite” mode, without requiring the massive support required by the ”Big Science” mode. The good news is that it can be done with whatever resources are at hand. The motto of the BNP is “Don’t wait for the money!” Indeed, over-reliance on external funding has been the death of many research programs. The capacity of a college or university to conduct community-based research without dedicated funding is impressive when one pauses to think about it. The faculty are already on salary. Many of the graduate students are supported as well on teaching or research assistantships. Faculty and graduate students alike are on the lookout for interesting new research projects and many have an intrinsic motivation to help their community. Undergraduate students are eager to work for course credits, very affordable hourly wages, or on a volunteer basis.  Community partners also have a latent capacity with their paid staffs and operation budgets, although often to a lesser extent due to understaffing and the short-term demands of their jobs. These latent capacities can be activated by having a clear sense of what to do.

One hidden benefit of the “termite” model is that trying to accomplish positive cultural change with the resources at hand is an education in cultural evolution all by itself. The challenges that my associates and I encounter aren’t always fun, but they teach us things that we never would have learned from the purely academic study of cultural evolution. We are developing street smarts to go along with our book smarts.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the investment of additional resources for the creation and support of field sites wouldn’t help, especially when targeted to solve some of the instabilities and disruptions described above. The contractual obligations that come with dedicated funding can help in addition to the actual money. And some of the biggest and most important questions in the study of human cultural evolution will require the “Big Science” model to address.

The larger the community of scientists who adopt the evolutionary paradigm, the sooner the field site concept will acquire the same status for the study of cultural evolution as for the study of biological evolution.  This is why the creation of the Cultural Evolution Society is of historic significance. For the first time, over a thousand scientists and scholars from around the world who speak a common theoretical language have a means to communicate and coordinate their actions. I hope that the creation of field sites will be among their top agenda items.

Literature Cited

Biglan, A. (2015). The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications; 1 edition.

Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher, 35, 125–129.

Goodall, J. (2010). Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe. Stewart, Tabori and Chang.

Henrich, J. (2015). The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Henrich, J., Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2008). Five Misunderstandings about Cultural Evolution. Human Nature, 19, 119–137.

Hubel, D. H. (1988). Eye, Brain, and Vision. New York: W.H. Freeman.

O’Brien, D. T., & Wilson, D. S. (2011). Community Perception: The ability to assess the safety of unfamiliar neighborhoods and respond adaptively. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 606–620.

Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richerson, P. J., & Christiensen, M. H. (2013). Cultural Evolution. Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press.

Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift Für Tierpsychologie, 20, 410–433.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. New York: Delacorte.

Wilson, D. S. (2011). The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. New York: Little, Brown.

Wilson, D. S. (2012). Human Cultures are Primarily Adaptive at the Group Level. Social Evolution Forum.

Wilson, D. S., Geher, G., Waldo, J., & Chang, R. S. (2011). The EvoS Consortium: Catalyzing Evolutionary Training in Higher Education. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4(1), 8–10.

Wilson, D. S., Hartberg, Y., MacDonald, I., Lanman, J. A., & Whitehouse, H. (2016). The Nature of Religious Diversity: A Cultural Ecosystem Approach. Religion, Brain & Behavior, in press. Pp 1-20 DOI 10.1080/2153599X.2015.1132243

Wilson, D. S., & Gowdy, J. M. (2013). Evolution as a general theoretical framework for economics and public policy. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S3–S10.

Wilson, D. S., Kauffman, R. A., & Purdy, M. S. (2011). A Program for At-risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science. PLoS ONE, 6(11), e27826.

Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human prosociality from an evolutionary perspective: variation and correlations at a city-wide scale. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(3), 190–200.

Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press .


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  1. Helga Vierich says:

    There is a guide to field methods in the study of humans that has been frequently revised since it was first written. It was originally commissioned by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1839 as an aid to collecting information on human life in far flung corners of the British empire. It was however continually updated and eventually became a fieldwork tool of the British ethnological study society when it was formed in 1841. You can find discussion of updates and utility here link to

    I employed a 1970 edition in my own fieldwork on the evolution of hunter-gatherer cultural adaptations to contact with agro-pastoral peoples in the ecotone between the sandveldt and the hardveldt – the southeastern edge of the Kalahari. My field site was located in the Kweneng District of Botswana. I did three years there, doctoral research, which covered the long term history of the entire region, aided by collection of oral history augmented by archival research at the Botswana Archives, as well as archaeological research by Jim Denbow which established the dating of the arrival of the people with the other economic system (some 800 years ago), and Landsat assisted imagery for mapping the entire area of my field site (roughly 10,000 square miles). Extensive survey of local ecology plant and animal species, water sources. temperature records and rainfall records were all fairly routinely accomplished as stipulated by the introductory section of Notes and Queries. The interviews and long term intensive observational data collection on energy expenditure and intake, sources of food and necessary material cultural items like tools and clothing – as well as mapping of all the occupied sites and the assessment of land use patterns among some 400 households followed, and then more detailed observations of interactions between the people using two different economic systems were made in three localities over three years of seasonal interaction. The final year was marked by severe drought.

    The fieldwork suggestions in Notes ands Queries were valuable throughout.
    I would urge your teams to haver a copy of this book.

    By the way, you might find it useful to look into the work of the following researchers who were extremely concerned with the issue of cultural evolution and used an evolutionary perspective in studying human behaviour: Andrew Vayda:
    link to
    Harold Conklin, late of Yale; especially the following reports: (1959a) “Facts and Comments. Ecological Interpretations and Plant Domestication” American Antiquity, Vol. 25, No. 2. pg. 260-262
    (1959b) “Linguistic Play in Its Cultural Context” Language, Vol. 35, No. 4. pg. 631-636.
    (1963) The Study of Shifting Cultivation. Washington: Technical Publications
    (1967) An Ethnoecological Approach to Shifting Agriculture
    (1980) Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao: A Study of Environment, Culture, and Society in northern Luzon
    Also see the work of Melvin Konner, who recently wrote a book on the Evolution of Childhood.. See link to in which he said: “There will be hundreds more such insights as the complex interplay of biological, psychological and cultural factors is better understood. Some innovative interventions will be in parenting, some in education, some in medicine, some even in play. New discoveries will trounce old ideologies and open all our minds about what to do for children and how to do it.”

    Read more: link to
    link to