I’m an interdisciplinary scientist based in the Department of Anthropology at Boston University. I’m fascinated by understanding how humans create societies. Wherever people are, we produce complex emergent structures that facilitate coordination, cooperation, and solve conflicts of interest. Our ability to do this is remarkable--no other species comes close to this capability. My research tries to figure out how this occurs: what unique alchemy of biology, psychology, and sociology allowed us to go from small hunter-gatherer groups to the large-scale, highly interdepedent societies that we have today? Can knowledge of the social and cognitive factors that fueled this transition help us understand and anticipate changes in the contemporary world?
I also study the role of war and peace in our evolutionary history. When and why did our propensity for aggression or cooperation between groups develop? Using this knowledge, how do societies today prevent conflict and promote cooperation? I've done extensive field research on inter-tribal warfare in the Ilemi Triangle and urban political violence in east Africa. Currently, I'm studying the co-evolutionary relationship between intergroup conflict and peace in human evolution.
Click the image for fieldwork photos
I've spent nearly three years living with nomadic pastoralists in Ethiopia and around four decades immersed in WEIRD societies. My curiosity about humans comes from recognizing human societies as being much more similar than different—the dynamics of a group of hunter-gatherers are not necessary so different than those of industrial societies despite radical differences in livelihoods, technology, and social organization. I am motivated by a deep desire to understand the diversity of human experiences and the range of phenomenology we're capable of. This is in part because phenomenology is the stuff of our existence but also provides much fuel for cultural evolution.
My scientific publications have appeared in leading journals including Science, Nature Human Behaviour, PNAS, and Current Biology, and have been covered by media outlets including Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and the New York Times. I have written popular pieces for the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, but mostly I just enjoy learning about the world and sharing my passion with others.
After finishing my PhD and postdoc at Harvard University in Human Evolutionary Biology in 2016, I was a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France and a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University before coming to BU in 2021. I also founded and co-direct the Omo Valley Research Project, a non-profit scientific and philanthropic organization focused on education, health, and research in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. As part of our mission, we provide scholarships to students from the Omo Valley.
You can read a bit more about my background in this interview here. My Google Scholar page is here, and a copy of my CV here. I’m always interested in talking to curious and motivated persons interested in these issues, so please feel free to get in touch.
William Buckner has written for Quillette and Nautilus and writes at traditionsofconflict.substack.com/. William is interested in studying factors that promote or inhibit conflict and cooperation across cultures. He spends most of his time reading ethnographies, and he can play the flute...poorly.
Navdeep is a Ph.D. student at the University of Otago studying the interaction of culture and social cognition focusing on how social and environmental changes transform religious beliefs. Navdeep’s interest in psychological research took shape while building forts with her father, negotiating over french fries with her brother, and listening to the ‘stories of gods’ by her mother.
Affiliated Graduate Students
Penn State University
Dithapelo Medupe is a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University. She is curious about human social organization and how societies develop in different environments. She is also interested in Africanist research that corrects misconceptions about Africa or celebrates African heritage. Dithapelo grew up in Botswana. She received a BA from Stanford University and an MD from St George's University in Grenada and London. Before starting her PhD she worked as a medical doctor in Botswana for five years. She is happiest when playing with her children at any park but coming up with out-of-the-box theories about human behavior and human social organization comes a close second.
Brooke is a Ph.D, Student at Boston University. She is interested in cooperative behaviors among children and adolescents, particularly factors that drive patterns of friendship and social networks. Brooke’s interest in social development comes from her experiences in childcare and education, and she hopes to study social networks cross-culturally in the US and abroad.
Bhavya is interested in studying collective behavior across species. She is fascinated by leadership in particular and how communication and conflicts of interest affect the collective decision making of decentralized human societies.
Bhavya has a BS and MS in science from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali. She majored in Biology and have a minor in Science and Society Studies. She previously worked on the collective escape dynamics and leadership of Indian antelope herds in response to simulated predatory threats. Her dissertation research will integrate more robust statistical and network analysis to understand complex decision-making in groups.
Manvir Singh, Institute for
Advanced Study in Toulouse
Alice Baniel, Stony Brook University
Zach Garfield, Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse
University of Tennessee