The First Great Divergence: how culture transformed our species

Hosted by the Latin America and Caribbean Centre (LACC)

Old Theatre, Old Building


Professor Robert Boyd

Professor Robert Boyd

Origins Professor and Research Affiliate, Institute of Human Origins (ASU)


Professor Jean-Paul Faguet

Professor Jean-Paul Faguet

Professor of the Political Economy of Development (LSE)

This public lecture was part of the 2nd Annual LSE-Stanford-Universidad de los Andes Conference on Long-Run Development in Latin America.

Since emerging from Africa 60,000 years ago, humans have spread to virtually every terrestrial habitat, we have evolved to become the most dominant species on Earth. This astonishing transformation and our capacity for rapid adaptation, is usually explained in terms of cognitive ability—people are just smarter than all the rest. But in this lecture, Professor Robert Boyd argues that cultural learning—our ability to learn from each other—has been the essential ingredient of our remarkable success. Unlike any other animal, people acquire important components of their behaviour by observing the behaviour of others.

Professor Boyd shows that while people are smart, we are not nearly smart enough to have solved the vast array of problems that confronted our species as it spread across the globe. Over the past two million years, culture has evolved to enable human populations to accumulate superb local adaptations that no individual could ever have invented on their own. It has also made possible the evolution of social norms that allow humans to make common cause with large groups of unrelated individuals, a kind of society not seen anywhere else in nature. This unique combination of cultural adaptation and large-scale cooperation has transformed our species and assured our survival—making us the different kind of animal we are today.

Professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, at Arizona State University, Robert Boyd is considered a forerunner in the field of cultural evolution. Specifically, his research focuses on the evolutionary psychology of the mechanisms that give rise to – and influence – human culture, and how these mechanisms interact with population dynamic processes to shape human cultural variation. This work is summarized in three books, two co-authored with P. J. Richerson: Culture and the Evolutionary Process, and Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution.


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