I am a Research Associate at the University of Oregon Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences, and an affiliate of the University of Oregon Anthropology Department. My research focuses on cognitive adaptations for cultural transmission, with an emphasis on narrative. It begins with a deceptively simple question: why do humans tell stories? Many people spend several hours a day engaging in narrative worlds, including but not limited to movies, sitcoms, soap operas, tv dramas, cartoons, graphic novels, plays, novels, and tabloids. Storytelling is a uniquely human behavior, and anthropological evidence indicates that it is not a recent development--humans likely began telling stories tens of thousands of years ago. This means that storytelling emerged in response to the demands and constraints of foraging life. Thus, we can gain a better understanding of why people tell stories if we understand the environmental context in which this behavior initially developed. To this end, my research examines the ways in which our long evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers has shaped narrative content and structure.
Humans are distinguished zoologically from other species by their occupation of the cognitive niche: survival as a forager requires extensive, specialized knowledge, and to a greater degree than any other animal, humans acquire this knowledge from other humans. This begs the question, in the absence of writing, how did ancestral humans store and share information with one another? As Megan Biesele writes in Women Like Meat, "Basic to the adaptation which solved the problem of living successfully under these conditions are first, detailed knowledge and second, devices for remembering and transmitting it." My research suggests that narrative might be one such device. The oral traditions of foraging peoples contain a wealth of information regarding recurrent problems of forager existence, such as manipulating and being manipulated by others, resource acquisition, predator avoidance, free riding, and wayfinding.
Much of my research is conducted as part of the Cognitive Cultural Studies Project, which I founded in 1995 as a complement to the Human Universals Project at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, UC Santa Barbara, and continue to direct at the Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences at the University of Oregon. The aim of the CCSP is twofold: to understand pan-human cultural phenomena in terms of their evolved cognitive scaffolding, and to use pan-human cultural phenomena to illuminate design features of the mind.