Phenotypic Plasticity and Cultural Evolution

Why did the Greeks value children more in the Classical period than in the Archaic period? Why were romantic love stories more popular under the Roman Empire than under the Republic? Why was casual sex less accepted in the Ming and Qing dynasties than in the earlier Han and Tang dynasties?

Traditionally, it is assumed that change cannot be explained by biology because biology is synonymous with “fixed, innate, unchangeable”. But this assumption is based on a misconception. In fact, our genes have been selected to be able to modulate their expression in response to detectable and recurring changes in the environment, a capacity called ‘phenotypic plasticity’. For instance, individuals living in more favorable environments tend to invest more in parental care and in pair-bonding, that is to display a slower behavioral strategy (see Life History Theory and the Fast-Slow Continuum).

Such an ability to switch from a short-term to a long-term strategy may the prime mover historians have been looking for. As available resources increased over the course of history, individuals became “slower” and “slower”. The constellation of behaviors impacted by economic development – pair bonding, parental investment, social trust, cognitive exploration – may shed new lights on old questions in histoire des mentalités in the longue durée.


Baumard, N. Phenotypic Plasticity, 2017 : What Scientific Term Or Concept Ought To Be More Widely Known?, Edge.

Baumard, N. (2016) Why are religions so judgemental? Ask evolution, New Scientist, 230(3071), 34-35.

Baumard, N. (2019) Psychological Origins of the Industrial Revolution, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Target article, Commentaries and Response, 1-63.


Baumard, N., Huillery, E., Hyafil, A. and Safra, L. (2022) The cultural evolution of love in history, Nature Human Behavior (Supplementary material, supplementary review, data and code here)

Hyafil, A. & Baumard, N. (2022) Evoked and Transmitted Culture models: Using bayesian methods to infer the evolution of cultural traits in history, Plos One

Baumard, N., Huillery, E. and Zabrocki, L. (in review) The Economic Origins of Ascetic Values : Evidence from Medieval Europe

Fitouchi, L., André, JB, and Baumard, N. (2021) The intertwined cultural evolution of ascetic spiritualities and puritanical religions as technologies of self-discipline, Religion, Brain & Behavior

Safra, L., Chevallier, C., Grèzes, J., Baumard, N. (2020) Tracking the rise of trust in history using machine learning and paintings, Nature Communication

André, J. B., Baumard, N., & Boyer, P. (2020). The Mystery of Symbolic Culture: What fitness costs? What fitness benefits? Working paper

Jacquet, P.O., Pazhoohi, F., Findling C., Mell, H., Chevallier, C., Baumard, N. (in press) Predictive multivariate modelling of religiosity in 295 000 individuals from WEIRD and non-WEIRD populations, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications

André, JB., & Baumard, N. (2020) Cultural evolution by capital accumulation, Evolutionary Human Sciences, 2, E18.

Baumard, N. (2018). Increased affluence, life history theory, and the decline of shamanism. Comment on Manvir Singh’s The Cultural Evolution of Shamanism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 41.

Boyer, P. & Baumard, N., (2017) Cognitive attractors in the evolution and diffusion of religious representations in Luther Martin and Don Wiebe (Eds.) Religion Explained: The Cognitive Science of Religion Twenty-Five Years On

Boyer, P. & Baumard, N., (2017) The diversity of religious systems: An evolutionary and cognitive framework, in Liddle and Shackelford (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion

Baumard, N., & Chevallier, C. (2015). The nature and dynamics of world religions: a life-history approach. In Proc. R. Soc. B (Vol. 282, No. 1818, p. 20151593). The Royal Society.

Baumard, N., Hyafil, A. & Boyer, p. (2015) What Changed During the Axial Age: Cognitive Styles or Reward Systems?, Communicative and Integrative Biology. 8(5).

Baumard, N., Hyafil, A. Morris, I., and Boyer, P., (2015) Increased affluence explains the emergence of ascetic wisdoms and moralizing religions. Current Biology, 25(1), 10-15. (See press coverage in Science)

Baumard, N. & Boyer, P., (2013) Explaining Moral Religions, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17 (6) pp. 172 – 180.

Baumard, N. & Chevallier, C. (2012) What goes around comes around: The evolutionary roots of the belief in immanent justice, Journal of Cognition and Culture.