W. Penn Handwerker

I was trained as a general anthropologist with an emphasis on the intersection of biological and cultural anthropology. I have published in all four fields of the discipline, and have also undertaken many applied research projects. My current research focuses on the hypothesis that the shared assumptions, norms, and patterns of behavior that constitute cultures originate unexpectedly and are subject to selective processes that optimize a cultural participant’s ability to survive and eat well reliably. We ordinarily characterize the evolution of bipedal humans by the emergence of a gendered division of labor, tools and tool kits of increasing sophistication, and an increasingly fat head and large Encephalization Quotient.

AFC Wallace pointed out half a century ago that our life in cooperating groups (he didn’t call them teams but that, in point of fact, what he referred to) gave huge selective advantages to brains which could produce, comprehend, and effectively use innovations like fire. Because individuals break easily and teams don’t, a huge selective advantage went to brains that both created new ways to think about and act but also forced closely coordinated behavior to make the most of these innovations.

Intelligent information processing produces new ideas (hat tip to Homer Barnett and William Calvin) that our Interpreter (hat tip to Michael Gazzaniga) uses to speculate about the nature of the world and to reason about what those postulates imply about moral (aka “fair”) behavior. Evolved cognitive biases quicken our ability to make choices based on prior experience with opportunities and dangers, and to weight most heavily the consensus of ideas and behavioral responses of the people who comprise our community. The cognitive bias that weights the risk of choice alternatives (hat tip to Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) in ways that force us to hate losing more than we love winning produces sharp behavioral differences. Treatment judged fair elicits commitment to that community and the coordinated (teamwork) behavior that allows us to achieve orders of reality that individuals cannot achieve. Treatment judged unfair elicits defensive action. As power differences grow larger the fair behavior that characterizes interaction between equals shifts increasingly rapidly to increasingly exploitative and, eventually, violent behavior – which elicits an equivalent response.

I developed and have tested this hypothesis in a series of studies on a wide range of topics, including public sector corruption, entrepreneurship, human fertility, the origins and evolution of intelligence, human rights, and the causes and consequences (particularly for sexual behavior) of violence to women and children. In the process, I developed new methods and strategies with which to study cultures. Key publications include articles in the American Anthropologist (1989, 1997, 2002), Current Anthropology (1997), the American Journal of Human Biology (2001), and Ethos (2003), a chapter on sample design in the Encyclopedia of Social Measurement (2005), and the books Women’s Power and Social Revolution (1989) and Quick Ethnography (2001). I summarize part of the argument in The Origin of Cultures (2009). I outline the rest in a new book, Our Story: How Cultures Shaped People to Get Things Done (c. 2013).

This hypothesis grounds an integrated teaching curriculum. ‘Other People’s Worlds’ shows how to identify cultures, differentiate one from another, identify the clashing cultural assumptions that produce conflict, and explores how cultures accomplish goals. ‘Introduction to Anthropology’ uses an integrative view of human evolutionary ecology to explore how and why we became creatures who accomplish goals only through cultures. ‘Violence & Human Rights’ explores interdependencies between these ostensibly conflicting phenomena to examine how violence and human rights may have evolved as integral components of each other. ‘Cultural Designs for Sustainability’ asks how we humans, as highly imperfect beings with built-in propensities to make huge mistakes, may most effectively construct resilient (hence, sustainable) cultures. ‘Quick Ethnography’ provides an overview of research methods suitable for the study of cultures. A prospective course ‘Modeling Cultural Dynamics’ will apply dynamic modeling to the study of evolving cultures.

Curriculum Vitae: here

Graduate Students: here