The winner of the Panmure House Prize
Dr Joseph Henrich of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University has been awarded the 2023 Panmure House Prize for his research on how collective thinking drives cultural innovation. The prize will help enable the publishing of his third book.
Research title: The Secret of our Success.
Dr. Henrich's research deploys evolutionary theory to understand how human psychology gives rise to cultural evolution and how this has shaped our species’ genetic evolution. Using insights generated from this approach, he has explored a variety of topics, including economic decision-making, social norms, fairness, religion, marriage, prestige, cooperation and innovation.
Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters or avoiding predators. Conversely, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into a vast range of diverse environments. What has enabled us to dominate the globe more than any other species, while remaining virtually helpless as lone individuals? This research shows that the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence but in our collective brains — on the ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another over generations.
Drawing insights from lost European explorers, clever chimpanzees, mobile hunter-gatherers, neuroscientific findings, ancient bones and the human genome, Joseph Henrich demonstrates how our collective brains have propelled our species’ genetic evolution and shaped our biology. Our early capacities for learning produced many cultural innovations, such as fire, cooking, water containers, plant knowledge and projectile weapons, which in turn drove the expansion of our brains and altered our physiology, anatomy and psychology in crucial ways. Subsequently, collective human intellect engendered and amalgamated powerful concepts, such as the lever, wheel, screw and written language, while also creating the institutions that continue to alter our motivations and perceptions. Henrich shows how our genetics and biology are inextricably interwoven with cultural evolution, and how culture-gene interactions launched our species on an extraordinary evolutionary trajectory.
Tracking clues from our ancient past to the present, The Secret of Our Success explores how the evolution of both our cultural and social natures produce a collective intelligence that explains both our species’ immense success and the origins of human uniqueness.
More about Dr Henrich
Dr. Henrich holds the Ruth Moore Professorship in Biological Anthropology in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Prior to his tenure at Harvard, he served as a professor in Economics and Psychology at the University of British Columbia for nearly a decade, holding the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution.
Dr. Henrich employs evolutionary theory to explore the relationship between human psychology, cultural evolution, and genetic evolution. Through this lens, he has investigated various topics, including economic decision-making, social norms, fairness, religion, marriage, kinship, prestige, cooperation and innovation. His methodological approach combines rich ethnography with experimental techniques from economics and psychology. More recently, he’s begun utilizing global datasets and natural language processing to study cultural and psychological changes that unfold over centuries. He has conducted extensive anthropological fieldwork in locations like Peru, Chile, and the South Pacific and has led major comparative research projects. Remarkably, Dr. Henrich has earned tenure and professorships in four different fields: anthropology, psychology, economics, and human evolutionary biology. At Harvard, he is affiliated with both the Psychology Department and the Kennedy School.
After earning his PhD from UCLA in 1999, Dr. Henrich was honoured with the Presidential Early Career Award for Young Scientists and Engineers by the National Science Foundation in 2004. In subsequent years, he received multiple accolades, including the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society (2009), the Wegner Prize for Theoretical Innovation from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2018). Between 2010 and 2019, he was a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, specifically within the Institutions, Organizations, and Growth group, and in 2021 he became a fellow in the Cognitive Science Society. In 2023, KU Leuven, a leading university in Belgium, awarded Professor Henrich an honorary doctorate.
Dr. Henrich's contributions include three books and over 100 scientific papers. His publications include Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation (Oxford University Press, 2007), The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Princeton University Press, 2016), and The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (FSG, 2020).