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A Science of Human Nature?

Philosophical Disputes at the Interface of Natural and Social Science

Seminars take place in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Free School Lane, CB2 3RH. Please direct any queries to Samuel Murison (


Easter Term 2016

4 May

Heidi Colleran/Contraceptive use and the meaning of ‘natural fertility’

The idea of ‘natural fertility’ permeates evolutionary anthropology and demography. In this talk I’ll provide an overview and a critique of this approach to human reproduction, from an anthropological and evolutionary perspective. I’ll argue that, quite apart from the ethical issues of consigning some populations to be ‘natural’ and others ‘modern’, natural fertility creates unnecessary theoretical and conceptual problems for evolutionary researchersFocusing on contraceptive behavior cross-culturally and in my own work in rural Poland, I will argue that if we take a behavior-based rather than a method-based approach to contraceptive use, there can be no such thing as natural fertility. 

This talk will take place at 2pm in the Board Room, Department of History and Philosophy of Science.


3 May

Heidi Colleran/Decisions, decisions: models of reproductive decision-making in evolutionary anthropology

Evolution relies on reproduction. And yet, as I’ll argue in this talk, evolutionary anthropology doesn’t have a comprehensive theory of reproductive decision-making. Such a theory should be general enough to explain how reproduction ‘functions’ in both high and low fertility contexts, and specific enough to delineate causal hypotheses that can deal with changing reproductive patterns. Evolutionary anthropology has been successful in accounting for aspects of reproductive decision-making in small-scale and so-called ‘natural fertility’ contexts, but it is struggling to make sense of the demographic transition to low fertility that characterizes most of the contemporary world. Reconciling alternative modeling approaches, in particular, bringing in insights from cultural evolution theory, may help in developing an overarching framework. But different subfields tend to consider their own view the more general one so there has been little integration. Conceptual overlaps make competing alternative hypotheses difficult to delineate, and there are many empirical and interpretive issues to be grappled with in the process. Using demographic transitions to low fertility as a focal point, I will highlight some of these problems, and try to sketch a way forward. 

This talk will take place at 2pm in Seminar Room 1, Department of History and Philosophy of Science.


18 April

Kim Sterelny/Artefacts, Symbols, Thoughts

Until relatively recently, it was often supposed that changes in the material record of hominin life indexed advances in hominin cognitive sophistication in a relatively direct way. In particular, the “Upper Palaeolithic Revolution” — an apparently abrupt increase in the complexity and disparity of our material culture — was thought to signal the arrival of the fully human mind. While the idea of a direct relationship between material complexity and cognitive sophistication still has some defenders, this view has largely been abandoned. It is now widely appreciated that aspects of ancient hominin’s demographic and social organisation have a powerful influence both on the material culture they need and the material culture they can sustain. But if this more nuanced view is right (and I shall defend it), what does the deep material record tell us about the evolution of hominin cognition? I explore that question in this paper, in the context of recent ideas about the evolution of social complexity.



Easter Term 2015

28 April

Gillian Brown/Evolutionary perspectives on sex differences in human behaviour

Many of the debates surrounding sex differences in human behaviour present dichotomies such as ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’, ‘biology’ versus ‘culture’, and ‘sex’ versus ‘gender’. Some examples of Evolutionary Psychology research appear to endorse this strongly dichotomous view of the causal processes underlying sex differences in behaviour. From my background as a biologist, I will critically evaluate this popularist Evolutionary Psychology perspective and describe how alternative evolutionary approaches can provide a more integrated view of sex differences by emphasizing developmental processes and behavioural diversity. My research has also investigated the effects of gonadal hormones exposure during early life on the development of sex differences in behaviour in mammals. I will critically evaluate the idea that gonadal hormones are responsible for ‘hard-wiring’ sex differences in the mammalian brain and discuss how the field of behavioural neuroendocrinology can instead contribute to an interactionist account of behavioural sex differences.


5 May

Heidi Colleran/The Cultural Evolution of Fertility Decline

Cultural evolutionists have long been interested in the question of why fertility declines as populations develop. Foundational texts in the field (e.g. Boyd & Richerson 1985; Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman 1981) cite fertility decline as a canonical example of how cultural transmission can maintain behavioural outcomes that do not maximise genetic fitness. By outlining plausible mechanistic links between individual decision-making and broader cultural evolutionary dynamics, these offer a promising new approach for integrating micro and macro level understandings of reproductive behaviour. However, only a modest number of theoretical models have been published and there are extremely few empirical tests of their assumptions and predictions. In this talk I will briefly review the existing cultural evolutionary literature on demographic transition, and outline its unique contributions to our understanding of human reproductive behaviour. Using examples from fieldwork in rural Poland, I will show how a cultural evolutionary approach provides added value in the understanding of fertility decline, but also why cultural evolutionary theory remains difficult to test in real-world conditions.


12 May

Fiona Jordan/The Bounded Diversity of Human Kinship: Unpacking Processes of Cultural Evolution

How do societies differ in who they class as family? Why do some societies allow cousins to marry, while others class cousins as akin to siblings? Why do some societies expect newlyweds to live with the groom's family, but others with the bride's? How do these norms change through time—and why do humans have such variable norms about family and kinship? In this talk I will introduce a new 5-year project, VARIKIN, in which I hope to answer some of these questions using a novel theoretical framework adapted from Tinbergen's ‘four questions’ about evolution. The project aims to understand kinship diversity across cultures from developmental, adaptive, cognitive, and interactional perspectives.


19 May

Kevin Laland/The Evolution of Culture

Both demographically and ecologically, humans are a remarkably successful species. This success is often attributed to our capacity for culture. But how did our species’ extraordinary cultural capabilities evolve from their roots in animal social learning and tradition? I will provide a provisional answer. After characterizing contemporary research into animal social learning, I will describe the findings of an international competition (the ‘social learning strategies tournament’) that we organized to investigate the best way to learn. I will suggest that the tournament sheds light on why copying is widespread in nature, and why humans happen to be so good at it. I will go on to describe some other theoretical and experimental projects suggesting feedback mechanisms that may have been instrumental to the evolution of culture. These include comparative statistical analyses across primates that revealed that innovation and social learning frequencies co-vary positively with relative brain size, suggesting that these abilities were instrumental in driving the evolution of the large primate brain, a mathematical model of the evolution of teaching, and an experimental study of the cognitive underpinnings of cumulative culture, in children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys.