DLF 17/18: Weissing

DLF 17/18: Franjo Weissing
Franjo Weissing is Professor of Theoretical Biology from the University of Groningen. He was awarded the ninth Distinguished Lorentz Fellowship and will hold this position for the academic year 2017/18.

Research Project
Toward a Mechanistic Theory of Cultural Evolution
Understanding cultural change that is changes in language, customs, attitudes, beliefs, social norms, knowledge, technology, or skills is a major challenge in the humanities and the social sciences. Various researchers have pointed out that cultural change is in many respects similar to genetic evolution. The argument is that, like genes, cultural traits exhibit variation, that this variation is transmitted between individuals, and that the variants differ in their efficiency to spread in a population. In other words, cultural traits show heritable variation in transmission efficiency, the prerequisite for evolution by natural selection.

Based on this fundamental insight, the vivid research field of \u201ccultural evolution\u201d has emerged, which adopts concepts, methods and ideas from the theory of genetic evolution and applies them to cultural processes, such as the spread of language or technology. Some researchers even suggest that an evolutionary approach may provide a synthetic framework for unifying the social sciences, just as genetic evolution is a unifying principle underlying all life sciences. Although such ideas may sound appealing, one must realize that cultural evolution theory is much less well established than its biological counterpart. In particular, there is no generally accepted view of the nature of cultural traits, the laws governing their transmission, and the meaning and dynamics of cultural selection.

Weissing is convinced that the cultural evolution framework needs a new theoretical foundation, which is not based on the analogy between genes and cultural traits but on the mechanisms underlying the emergence and spread of cultural innovations. During his DLF project, he will work on the establishment of such a framework, hopefully profiting from intense discussions with social scientists, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, and other experts that have detailed knowledge of the processes underlying cultural change.

Prof.dr. Franjo Weissing has a distinct interdisciplinary profile. He graduated in Mathematics with minors in Biology, Physics, Economics, and Psychology. Weissing wrote his PhD thesis in the area of evolutionary game theory, under supervision of the economist (and later Nobel laureate) Reinhard Selten. At the Centre of Interdisciplinary Research of the University of Bielefeld, Weissing wrote his first publications together with the political scientist (and later Nobel laureate) Elinor Ostrom.

Since 1989 he has been at the University of Groningen and is currently Full Professor of Theoretical Biology and Founding Director of Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Course Evolutionary Biology (MEME). Weissing has published many multi-disciplinary papers in high-impact journals such as Science, Nature and PNAS.

Franjo Weissing