Jon Gorrie

Thesis title: Does culture evolve? Testing evolutionary theories of culture through a case study of El Khiam points from three sites in the Pre Pottery Neolithic A of the Southern Levant

Start year: 2020


Supervisor(s): Dr Sam Smith, Professor Simon Underdown

Research topic

Evolutionary approaches to culture cover a large, complex and highly interrelated field. Prominent theories and ideas include the social brain hypothesis, social learning and cultural intelligence, cultural niche construction, gene culture co-creation and group norms and psychology. Also integral are ideas about cognitive evolution, including understanding the intentions of others, and theory of mind and language. Theoretical evolutionary approaches are frequently based on mathematical models or on the similarities and differences between humans and other primates, based on a presumed last common ancestor with chimpanzees. These are by nature not precise about the period when cumulative culture may have actually emerged and its historical development and change. The idea that the origins of human culture might be subject to an underlying causal principle such as evolution is contested. However, arguably historical methods and evolutionary models are complementary not competing. Testing models and theories empirically through the archaeological record provides a way to test models and give space to alternative approaches.

Central to many of the theories about cumulative culture are ideas about microscale human transmission processes operating in short time scales, such as conformist transmission and prestige biases, which are not readily susceptible to empirical analysis of the archaeological record. Social networks and the archaeological remains of social groups and their interaction – such as technology, decorated artefacts or ornaments, building and burial practices and flora and fauna remains – are more susceptible to investigation using empirical analytical techniques. Two key approaches that can be used are network analysis and phylogenetic analysis.

My research considers different approaches to the origins of culture to put the evolutionary approaches in context, and reviews theories and evidence about cumulative culture and social networks to develop an integrated model. Key aspects of that model, focusing on social networks are tested using analysis of archaeological data from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Neolithic in southwest Asia. This involves exploring data sets that can address some of the key issues and questions reviewed, and determining and applying appropriate analytical techniques to answer these. By researching these issues I hope to shed light on ways of looking at change that could provide insight to historical accounts of change and in planning for development and change in contemporary societies.


Cultural evolution, cognitive evolution, social learning, niche construction, social networks

General research interests

Cultural evolution, theories and models of change, historical change in ways of seeing the world, international development

Academic school / department

School of Law and Social Sciences

Further details

Academic and professional training

  • 2018–2019 Graduate Diploma in Anthropology (Distinction) Oxford Brookes University
  • 1985–1988 CIPFA (accountancy qualification) CIPFA Education and Training Centre
  • 1982–1985 BA (Hons) History 2:1 University of Bristol

Other experience and professional activities

I am a trustee of an international development youth leadership charity, called Restless Development, and also of the SCI Foundation, which manages a global health programme, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, aiming to eradicate debilitating parasitic infections affecting 200 million people around the world. In addition I am a member of the Executive Committee of the British International Studies Association (BISA) which develops and promotes the study of International Studies, Global Politics and related subjects through teaching, research and the facilitation of contact between scholars.