the old and the new

Near Buxton, Peak District.

Posts earlier than this one are from my old “Culture Evolves!” blog ( I’ve ported them here for longevity and archiving as they contain nine years worth of blogging activity, give or take the last three years of dormancy! At the very least they will give new members of my research group something to giggle over from the early days of science blogging.

New academic year, new job

This week I started my new position as a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Bristol. I’m in the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology (which is quite a mouthful when you’re introducing yourself!). Very happy to be here, “here” being the UK, Bristol, and in a department not too dissimilar to the one where I was an undergraduate (at the University of Auckland), doing the closest to four-field anthropology that the UK currently has. Head of Subject Alex Bentley has dubbed this “Big-A Anthropology”.

This year I’ll be teaching Intro to Social Anthropology, and a third-year survey course in Advanced Issues in Arch & Anth. In the years to come I’ll be adding courses on kinship, linguistic anthropology, and interdisciplinary perspectives on the Pacific.

Upcoming talk: the cultural evolution of land tenure, residence and labour

I’ll be giving the following talk in the Bristol Archaeology and Anthropology Research Seminar on February 8th 2012.

To the Manor Born? The cultural evolution of land tenure, residence and labour in Austronesian societies. 

Cross-cultural differences in norms of land tenure may reflect both individual and population-level adaptations to ecological and social factors. A complex interplay is likely to exist between kinship practices such postmarital residence and descent, the type and division of subsistence-related labour, and the form of land ownership. Here I present work from a number of comparative studies in which we have used phylogenetic and simulation methods to disentangle the (co)evolution of these factors in the Austronesian-speaking societies of the Pacific. This framework allows us to practice “virtual archaeology” to infer past states of social norms, and to test adaptive hypotheses derived from behavioural ecology and anthropology about both the coevolution of kinship and subsistence labour, and land tenure and kinship. More broadly, I hope to demonstrate how these approaches can bring together social anthropology, population prehistory, and evolutionary theory in a new cross-cultural anthropology.

Link and info here.

I’ve moved …

… to The Netherlands! I’m now at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, as part of a new research group called Evolutionary Processes in Language and Culture

The academic blog-urge has dwindled this last year; it seems to take a focussed person* to keep a blog going for more than 18 months or so. So now seems like as good a time as any to put Culture Evolves into permanent hiatus.Our group is just in the start-up phase, but once we’ve got our full contingent we’ll have a group website – blogging options yet to be decided.


* Or an anonymous one who thus has loads of indiscreet stories to tell!

The recreational habits of (life) scientists

[This post has been lurking about since, oops, May, so I thought I better put it out there!]

I’m sure everyone has favourite inductive hypotheses about the world that they mull over as potential research questions–if only they weren’t so utterly trivial. Besides, I usually only notice the confirmatory evidence for mine.

The co-incidence of a single case supporting both my pet hypotheses about the recreational habits of scientists came to my notice today: a life scientist who was both a musician and a rock-climber*.

Climbing blue musicians

Previous conversations with colleagues have usually revealed that most biologists (broadly construed) think there seem to be more-than-average numbers of musicians in science. The science/music overlap is one of my pet hobbies, and many popular accounts touch on this relationship as possibly having something to do with a certain kind of brain processing. Okay, whatever, personally I think the causation factor is an objectively defined measure of “cool” or “awesome”. But there’s no statistical evidence–least not that I can find–that musicians are overrepresented in the subset of humans who call themselves scientists, compared to, say, landscape gardeners or art historians. Controlling for age and socioeconomics and all that demographic stuff.

My other inductive hypothesis is that life scientists, especially those working in cultural evolution, seem to be rock-climbers more often than chance might predict. This might be a case of cultural transmission though, because rock-climbing is something that you generally have to be introduced to in a social context, seeing as how it is useful to have someone on the other end of the rope.

Data enabling proper testing of these hypotheses would require more effort than random conversations at the pub, so for the moment, the assertions go unverified.

* And who wasn’t me. Although I haven’t been climbing for so long I doubt I still qualify.

[Photo from mr_o‘s flickrstream]

five things to update

The not-blogging-because-I’ve-not-anything-meaningful-to-say phenomena has really got to stop. Email’s become like that, too. I put it off and then it’s three months later and I feel like I have to write a mini autobiography, when really, two lines at the time would’ve been sufficient. So, in points, some interesting things of late:

1. Modern Approaches to Investigating Cultural Evolution, a LERN/CECD postgrad/postdoc workshop organised by my friend Tom Currie here at UCL. We had 13 speakers and over 40 participants discussing the latest cool research in cultural evolution. Lots of empirical stuff on linguistics (yay for data!) but also a good coverage of archaeology, psychology, economics and anthropology as well. More details including photos are at the link.

2. Rediscovering Darwin: The real story of Darwin’s finches. John van Wyhe gave the CEE Grant Lecture this year. van Wyhe has been the man behind Darwin Online, (the project to put the complete works of Darwin on the internet), and he’s an historian of science who gives an entertaining talk. This one traced the evolution of a “meme”: the persistent myth that Darwin “discovered” evolution on the Galapagos while observing the beaks of the finches. The talk did a cracking job of pulling together all the strands of the myth, how and where they originated–nice example of scientific detective work.

3. Gave a lecture for our Bio Anth Masters on Comparative Methods in Anthropology. This was my first “methods only” seminar, so it had some interactive bits, and hopefully seeded the idea that anthropologists can use phylogenetic/comparative methods for a whole range of interesting questions–not just how primates are related to each other!

4. Reviewed some papers, and cracked on with writing my own. (Interesting for me!)

5. Speaking of papers, have become more and more enamoured of Papers, a great little bit of Mac software that does what I couldn’t manage if left to my own devices: organise my PDF library. It’s a bit like iTunes for papers. The latest update has allowed for automatic matching of PDFs with their bibliographic information in the Web of Science and Google Scholar, filling the gap neatly for social sciences. Previously the automatic matching facility had only been in PubMed. You can also do full searches of databases from within the program, and set it all up so your choice of directory structure is created on your drive and each new paper filed into it. The user interface is pretty as well. Check it out.

On a more recreational note, I saw Barry Adamson and Matana Roberts at the London Jazz Festival this week. The drummer for Matana Roberts, Frank Rosaly, was phenomenal to hear and watch. Highly recommended.

favourites and alternates

Matt B. asked the Nature Network bloggers a couple of questions. I meant to answer them on Friday but I couldn’t decide the first one!

Who’s your favourite scientist (dead or alive) and why?

The reason I couldn’t decide was I couldn’t figure out what my criteria for “favourite” should be! There are scientists who have been inspirational or instrumental to me becoming a scientist … but mainly through their communication of ideas, rather than the science they themselves performed.

Then there are people who I know: mentors or colleagues, but that just seems like unfair weighting when they’re people you can chat to in the pub.

So I thought I’d pick someone outside of anthropology or biology: the physicist Richard Feynman. He was a marvellous communicator and teacher, and knew the importance of inspiring people–but he also did groundbreaking theoretical work and defended vociferously the importance of “big idea” science as well as the individual sense of satisfaction from puzzle-solving. And he was the ultimate geek who thought safe-cracking was a fun hobby. And he played the bongos.

Edit: Read everyone else’s answers to the question here.

If you could have another job or career outside of science, what would it be and why?

I have had a job outside of science: I was a jewellery designer for a couple of years. It was rewarding when it was good and dreadful when it wasn’t.

But my alternate life is the one where I became a professional cellist, played with an innovative chamber group like the Kronos Quartet, and had a top ten indie/classical crossover album. Why? Because music is as creative and intriguing and rewarding as science.


Huzzah, have submitted the magnum opus to the Ministry, and am now gainfully employed in one of those fabulous postdoc things. More on the exact nature of that later.

I started composing a list in my head of things NOT to say to PhD students in the final death throes of writing up, but decided that actually, what was necessary was a blanket ban on any conversation that wasn’t (a) offers of help, whether practical, material, or emotional; (b) idle gossip about celebrities; (c) “Have you heard X’s new album? Here, let me give it to you.” That pretty much covered it.

This last week has been strange without the hour-to-hour countdown; at the end of writing-up I got into this interesting rhythm of not even needing a to-do list. Hadn’t looked at iCal since the beginning of February. The immediacy of writing the next paragraph, fiddling with the next table, doing the colour-coding on the next figure–they all slotted into their own timetable without needing me to arrange them.

Now I have all this perceived TIME and I notice I have become enamoured of scheduling and organising. It’s all patently false of course; I have huge amounts to do, but I have the leisure to think in terms of alternatives (which of these things shall I do, rather than which of these things shall I do next?). And, obviously, the leisure to make blog posts.

So, while I was writing up, my friends have been doing exciting things.

Simon @ Auckland has set up Henry, the Human Evolution News RelaY, which gathers all sorts of newsy tidbits from the scientific literature and press. You can contribute stories, too, as long as you pass Simon’s stringent journalistic criteria.

Mhairi @ Bristol and Eshetu @ Addis Ababa have won a 3-year British Academy grant for the UK-Africa Partnership to investigate population change in 21st century Africa, with a focus on Ethiopia.

Laura @ UCL has set up the Ethnographic Database Project, which aims to gather cultural information on Indo-European societies in a systematic and freely-available fashion. This is a pilot for what may be a larger venture, and one close to my academic heart, so if you can contribute, please do!

Later this month is the second European Human Behaviour and Evolution Conference, at which I’ll be presenting and which looks to be great fun.

updated website

I finally updated my academic website.

  • Updated CV with two publications 🙂
  • Changed old diary to point here.
  • Updated the Links page to point to my bookmarks, as keeping that kind of thing current is a time-vortex best left unvisited.

In the process, discovered that my site counter/stats tracker code was incorrect, and hasn’t been logging visits for the last three years. *headdesk* I’m really annoyed at myself for this, because part of setting up a blog was to have it point there, and now I’ve lost that tracking info. Que sera, I suppose, but if you’re reading and have visited my UCL page before, I’d be rather grateful for your catch-up click.