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Davis, California

Saturday, April 13, 2024

DNA of UCD: Peter Richerson

Peter Richerson has traveled the world learning about ecology and biology. Since his time as a UC Davis undergraduate and graduate student in the 1960s, he has written two books and has helped pioneer the field of cultural ecology. After returning to UC Davis as a faculty member in 1971 he has done research on topics ranging from plankton populations in Lake Tahoe to the role of culture in human evolution.

Richerson is currently a distinguished professor with the department of environmental science and policy.


I noticed you have an interest in cultural ecology; what exactly is that?

Cultural ecology is the study of cultural adaptations. Culture evolves, something like genes do, and many cultural changes result in improved adaptations. The Inuit of the high Arctic had tailored clothing, kayaks, dog sleds and many other traditional products that allow a tropical ape to survive at very high latitudes.

How did you first get interested in your field?

I was enticed to teach a course in human ecology when I was a first-year faculty member. I discovered that cultural ecologists actually had not worked out a proper theory of cultural adaptation. So my interest became a research project as well as a course. By now, my long time collaborator Robert Boyd (UCLA) and I have published two books and many papers on this topic. Many others have entered the field and it is now a thriving area of research.

What is one thing you think everyone should know about your field of study?

That culture evolves by Darwinian processes. Darwin’s own theory actually fits culture better than genes since culture allows for the inheritance acquired variation, something Darwin thought affected organic inheritance too.

Since you study ecology, what do you think is the best place in Northern California to visit this time of year to look at nature?

You have an embarrassment of riches! I’d get out a map, look for some back road I’d never been on before and head out. It is hard to go wrong. For example from Davis you could take Highway 16 and [Highway] 20 to Lower Lake in Lake County and then the back roads from Lower Lake to Lake Berryessa and on home to Davis via Winters.

What do you teach at UC Davis? Do you have a favorite?

I teach ESP 30 and a course in social and cultural evolution (ESP/ANT 105). I love teaching both of them. I also teach a variety of grad classes and grad students that are always nice to work with.

Are you working on any projects now? If so what?

Too many projects! Mostly related to my interest in cultural evolution. For example, I’m working with a guy on mathematical models of the evolution of male chauvinism.

What do you like to do when you’re not studying ecology?

I’m an avid gardener.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I sometimes feel guilty getting paid good money to do what I most like to do!


KELLY KRAG-ARNOLD can be reached at features@theaggie.org. 



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