Human cultures emerge in a cauldron of randomness, contingency, agency, and organization. Can evolution provide a framework for understanding the processes by which cultures and their features arise, endure, and die?

At the Santa Fe Institute, we study the artifacts of human culture, applying advanced computational methods—machine learning, statistics, networks, probabilistic analysis, and more—to extensive, historical, often time-stepped data sets...wherever hidden patterns may lie. We analyze video games and the internet to examine how ideas migrate through a population. We quantify word meanings and pronunciation to reveal how languages change from one generation to the next or adapt to invasive languages. We want to know why different societies organize themselves differently and what role globalization plays in cultural diversity.

Our researchers have found patterns in the frequency of global terrorist attacks and described a genetics of ideas in patent records. We’ve quantified shifts in social norms, from the online etiquette adopted by Wikipedia editors to our legal system’s evolving differential treatment of capital crimes and misdemeanors. We’ve examined decision-making and the formation of conflict-stabilizing hierarchies in human and animal societies.

By teasing out the individual processes of how we come to speak, think, and act the way we do, we seek to illuminate what drives the diversity and adaptability of human culture, perhaps our most distinctive trait among species.