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New online tutorials: Dynamical systems in cultural evolution

June 16, 2020 - updated July 21, 2020

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The Center for the Dynamics of Society Complexity (DySoC) and the Cultural Evolution Society (CES) announce a new online learning series presenting basic and applied lessons in the dynamics of cultural evolution.

To truly understand how culture evolves, scientists often turn to mathematical models to shed light on how culture and life history have interacted in shaping who we are and what we might become.

The CES online learning series, which includes seven modules, has been developed with self-guided study in mind. Through a variety of online learning methods, students will be able to independently work through the material to gain both a theoretical understanding of the method and practical experience using it.

The concepts and techniques covered in these modules are intended to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations. The modules could serve as a basis for intensive short courses, seminars, or as components of a regular quarter or semester course.

The modules were created by scholars from around the world through a competitive process as part of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation with principal investigators DySoC Director Sergey Gavrilets and past CES President Peter J. Richerson. Technical assistance was provided by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.

Five of the seven modules have been released (four on June 16th and one on July 21st) and are now available at

They are as follows:

Models of Social Dynamics: An Introductory Module (created by Paul E. Smaldino, Cognitive and Information Sciences, University of California, Merced). This module takes an interdisciplinary approach to modeling social behavior, drawing on insights from across the social sciences and evolutionary ecology. It focuses on constructing and analyzing simulations using the NetLogo programming language.

Animal Cultures: Core Discoveries and New Horizons (created by Andy Whiten, University of St Andrews, UK; Lucy Aplin, Max Planck Institute for Animal Behaviour, Germany; Nicolas Claidière, CNRS, Aix-Marseille University, France; Rachel Kendal, University of Durham, UK). This module offers an overview of core discoveries and new developments in the study of animal cultures. The significance of animal culture for evolutionary biology and ecology, understanding human cultural evolution, and conservation are highlighted.

The Neverending Story: Cultural Evolution and Narratives (created by Joseph Stubbersfield, Psychology Department, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK; Jamie Tehrani, Anthropology Department, Durham University, Durham, UK; Oleg Sobchuk, Max Planck Institute the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany). This module explores the universal and uniquely human behavior of narrative and how cultural evolution theory has provided vital insights into the transmission and evolution of narratives and why some become culturally successful.

Foundations of Cultural Evolution: A Question + Tools Approach (created by Adrian Bell, Department of Anthropology, University of Utah). An introductory guide to the body of formal theory in the study of the cultural evolution in humans and other animals, this module guides participants through the basic machinery of dynamic models and key results from a variety of cultural evolution topics.

Modeling the Dynamics of Cultural Diversification (created by Bernard Koch, UCLA; Erik Gjesfjeld, Cambridge University; Michael Alfaro, UCLA; Jacob Foster, UCLA; and Daniele Silvestro, University of Gothenburg, Sweden). This module helps you explore the concepts and methods used to examine the emergence, persistence, and extinction of population-scale cultural diversity through time.

The remaining modules will be released this summer. They include Dynamic Models of Human Systems and Cultural Evolution of Dynamic Learning.


The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis is a National Science Foundation-supported center that brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences. NIMBioS is supported through NSF Award #DBI-1300426 with additional support from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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