Humans share and coordinate labour, resources and information at a scale and complexity that is unrivalled in the animal kingdom. Moreover, these behaviours are not hard-wired in our genes, but are shaped by the behaviour, language, norms and institutions of those around us – they are inherently cultural phenomena. My research examines how our cognition and culture evolve and interact to shape three key aspects of human sociality –politics, religion and language. This work is relevant to unravelling our evolutionary past as well as how we might best tackle the major challenges of today, such as climate change, inequality and ideological extremism.  


What determines our views on taxation and crime, healthcare and climate change, welfare and gender roles? Why do opinions about these seemingly disparate aspects of our social lives coalesce the way they do? And why do some populations succeed in navigating their differences, while others fracture or succumb to autocracy? We use survey and experimental data, together with evidence from psychology, behavioural genetics, behavioural economics and primatology to gain novel insight into the biological and cultural basis of political ideologies.

Selected papers:

Claessens, S., Fischer, K., Chaudhuri, A., Sibley, C. G., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2020). The dual evolutionary foundations of political ideology. Nature Human Behaviour, 4:336–345.

Ruck, D. J., Matthews, L. J., Kyritsis, T., Atkinson, Q. D., & Bentley, R. A. (2020). The cultural foundations of modern democracies. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(3), 265-269.

Sookias, R. B., Passmore, S., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Deep cultural ancestry and human development indicators across nation states. Royal Society open science, 5(4), 171411.

Matthews, L. J., Passmore, S., Richard, P. M., Gray, R. D., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2016). Shared cultural history as a predictor of political and economic changes among nation states. PloS One, 11(4), e0152979.

Brock, G. and Atkinson, Q. D. (2008). What can examining the psychology of nationalism tell us about our prospects for aiming at the cosmopolitan vision? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 11(2): 165-179.



Our research in this area seeks to characterise patterns of recurrence and variation in religious beliefs and practices in cultures around the world. We explore the link between features of these beliefs and practices and the evolution of large-scale cooperation. We also investigate what it is about the human mind that makes certain types of religious beliefs and practices particularly appealing. This work uses a variety of approaches, from cross-cultural data to lab-based studies, online experiments and field research on Tanna Island in Vanuatu.

Selected papers:

Vardy, T., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2019). Property damage and exposure to other people in distress differentially predict prosocial behavior after a natural disaster. Psychological Science, 30(4), 563-575.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Bulbulia, J., Gray, R. D. & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Christianity spread faster in small, politically structured societies. Nature Human Behaviour. DOI:10.1038/s41562-018-0379-3

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J. & Gray, R. D. (2016). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature, 532:228-231. doi:10.1038/nature17159  link

Purzycki, B. G., Norenzayan, A., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Cohen, E., McNamara, R. A., Willard, A. K., Xygalatas, D. & Henrich, J. (2016). Moralizing Gods, Supernatural Punishment, and the Expansion of Human Sociality. Nature, 530, 327-330. doi:10.1038/nature16980. link

Atkinson, Q. D., Latham, A. J., & Watts, J. (2015). Are Big Gods a big deal in the emergence of big groups?. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 5(4), 266-274.

Watts, J., Greenhill, S. J., Atkinson, Q. D., Currie, T. E., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R. D. (2015). Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B.  282: 20142556  doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2556  link 

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Greenhill, S. J., Gnomes-Ng, S., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J. & Gray, R. D. (2015). Pulotu: Database of Austronesian Supernatural Beliefs and Practices. PLoS ONE, 10(9): e0136783. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136783 link

Atkinson, Q. D. & Whitehouse, H. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32:50-62

Atkinson, Q. D. & Bourrat, P. (2011). Beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32:40-49.


Languages evolve in ways that parallel biological evolution. Language diversity around the globe provides a window into human prehistory and the workings of the human mind. By combining large databases of linguistic diversity with computer models of language evolution inspired by biology, my work aims to test theories about ancient human population migrations and the mode and tempo of language evolution.

Selected papers:

Tambets, K., Yunusbayev, B., Hudjashov, G., Ilumäe, A., Rootsi, S., Honkola, T., Vesakoski, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Skoglund, P., Kushniarevich, A., Litvinov, S., Reidla, M., Metspalu, E., Saag, L., Rantanen, T., Karmin, M., Parik, J., Zhadanov, S. I., Gubina, M., Damba, L. D., Bermisheva, M., Reisberg, T., Dibirova, K.,Evseeva, I., Nelis, M., Klovins, J., Metspalu, A., Esko, T., Balanovsky, O., Balanovska, E., Khusnutdinova, E. K., Osipova, L. P., Voevoda, M., Villems, R., Kivisild, T., Metspalu, M. (2018). Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic speaking populations. Genome Biology, 19:139. link

Bouckaert, R., Bowern, C. & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). The origin and expansion of Pama–Nyungan languages across Australia. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2:741-749. https://doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0489-3

Bouckaert, R., Lemey, P., Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Alekseyenko, A. V., Drummond, A. J., Gray, R. D., Suchard, M. A., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2012). Mapping the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family. Science, 337:957-960. DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6097.989-b

Atkinson, Q. D. (2011). Phonemic Diversity Supports Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. Science, 332:346-349.

Atkinson, Q. D., Meade, A. M., Venditti, C., Greenhill, S. J. and Pagel, M. (2008). Languages evolve in punctuational bursts. Science, 319: 588.

Pagel, M., Atkinson, Q. D. and Meade, A. (2007). Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Nature, 449: 717-20. pdf

Atkinson, Q. D. and Gray, R. D. (2005). Curious parallels, curious connections – Phylogenetic Thinking in Biology and Historical Linguistics, Systematic Biology, 54(4): 513-526.

Gray, R. D. and Atkinson, Q. D. (2003). Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature, 426: 435-9.

Related work

The evolution of primate sociality and culture

Kamilar, J. M. & Atkinson, Q. D. (2014). Cultural assemblages show nested structure in humans and chimpanzees but not orangutans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 111(1):111-115. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1313318110

Opie, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Dunbar, R. I. M. & Shultz, S. (2013). Male infanticide leads to social monogamy in primates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 110(33):13328-13332.  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1307903110

Shultz, S., Opie, C. & Atkinson, Q. D. (2011). Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates. Nature, 479:219-222.

The human expansion from Africa

Atkinson, Q. D., Gray, R.D. and Drummond, A. J. (2009). Bayesian coalescent inference of major human mtDNA haplogroup expansions in Africa. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lon. B. 276: 367-373.

Atkinson, Q. D., Gray, R. D. and Drummond, A. J. (2008). mtDNA variation predicts population size in humans and reveals a major southern Asian chapter in human prehistory. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 25(2):468-474.

Saunders, T., Taylor, A. H. & Atkinson, Q. D. (2016). No evidence that a range of artificial monitoring cues influence online donations to charity in an MTurk sample. Royal Society Open Science, 3:150710. doi: 10.1098/rsos.150710 link

The cultural evolution of music

Savage, P. E., Cronin, C., Müllensiefen, D., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Quantitative evaluation of music copyright infringement. In Proceedings of the 8th International Workshop on Folk Music Analysis (FMA2018) (pp. 61–66).

Savage, P. E., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2015). Automatic tune family identification by musical sequence alignment. 16th International Society for Music Information Retrieval Conference, 2015: 162-168.

Other work on cultural evolution (folktales, residence patterns, kinship)

Moravec, J. C., Atkinson, Q. D., Bowern, C., Greenhill, S. J., Jordan, F. M., Ross, R., Gray, R. D., Marsland, S. and Cox, M. P. (2018). Post-Marital Residence Patterns Show Lineage-Specific Evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior. 39(6): 594–601.

Ross, R. M. & Atkinson, Q. D. (2016). Folktale transmission in the Arctic provides evidence for high bandwidth social learning among hunter-gatherer groups. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(1):47-53. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.08.001

Opie, C., Shultz, S., Atkinson, Q. D., Currie, T. & Mace, R. (2014). Phylogenetic reconstruction of Bantu kinship challenges main sequence theory of human social evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 111(49): 17414–17419. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1415744111

Ross, R. M., Greenhill, S. J. & Atkinson, Q. D. (2013). Population structure and cultural geography of a folktale in Europe. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B. 280(1756) doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.3065