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Professor Quentin Douglas Atkinson


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Before coming to the University of Auckland in 2010 Quentin was a research fellow in the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Wolfson College. He has also held research positions in the School for the Study of Religion at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and with Professor Mark Pagel in the Zoology Department at the University of Reading, UK. Quentin teaches stage III and postgraduate courses on Evolutionary Psychology and in 2011 he started a new postgraduate course with Dr Niki Harré on Sustainability and Psychology. He is Associate Editor for Evolution and Human Behavior, a guest editor for PNAS, and on the editorial board of Diachronica. In 2012 he was awarded a 5-year, Royal Society of New Zealand, Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.

Research | Current

Language, religion and large-scale cooperation are among the most interesting and unique characteristics of our species. Yet the language we speak, what we hold sacred and whether we can cooperate to solve large scale problems like climate change are not hard wired in our genes, but are shaped by the behaviour and norms of those around us – they are inherently cultural.

Quentin’s research draws on lab and field experiments, computer modelling and evolutionary theory to shed light on how and why various aspects of human culture evolved. His work on the evolution of language, religion, prosociality and the human expansion from Africa has been published in Nature and Science and regularly features in international media outlets including the BBC, New Scientist, the NY Times, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Quentin is also a keen environmentalist and working to promote understanding and action around climate change. In 2007 he published an edited volume with Dr Niki Harré on how New Zealanders can tackle climate change and in 2019 co-founded the climate action group Claxon.

Some Media Coverage

Times, UK – Power, not poverty, spreads Christianity study finds.

Science Daily - Intensification of agriculture and social hierarchies evolve together.

The Guardian - Most Australian Indigenous languages came from just one place.

New York Times - Why Some Societies Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice.

The Washington Post – Fear of a vengeful God may explain humanity’s global expansion.

Science - Monogamy May Have Evolved to Prevent Infanticide.

The Washington Post - Linguists identify 15,000-year-old ‘ultraconserved words’.

Nature NEWS - Genes Mix faster than Stories.

New Scientist - Genes Mix Across Borders More Easily Than Folktales.

The New York Times - Family Tree of Languages Has Roots in Anatolia, Biologists Say.

Nature - A Turkish origin for Indo-European languages.

Washington Post - Researchers identify present day Turkey as origin of Indo-European languages.

BBC - English language ‘originated in Turkey’.

Over 300 more articles on the 2012 Indo-European paper here.

The Daily Telegraph - Switch to daylight made us sociable.

Nature - Evolutionary biology: The path to sociality.

The New York Times - Phonetic Clues Hint Language is Africa-Born.

The Wall Street Journal - The Mother of All Languages.

The Economist – The evolution of language: two origin stories.

Nature - Language: The language barrier.

The Telegraph - Language development mirrors species evolution.

Nature - An invisible hand.

Nature Video podcast (2007) -

The New York Times - A biological dig for the roots of language.


Teaching | Current

PSYCH 317 - Evolution, Behaviour and Cognition

PSYCH 725 - Evolution and Human Behaviour

Postgraduate supervision

Those interested in Honours, Masters or PhD level research positions in the Language, Culture and Cognition Lab should email me with a CV, academic transcript and writing sample. Current research projects include: -

  1. online experiments investigating the psychological foundations of politics and religion,
  2. experimental and ethnographic fieldwork in Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands examining prosociality, resource management and their relation to politics and religion,
  3. experimental work on the evolutionary foundations of pro-environmental behaviour,
  4. tracking the spread of beliefs and behaviours through online and face-to-face social networks,
  5. using computational models to infer ancestral relationships between the world’s languages and understand how languages evolve.
  6. online experiments investigating the drivers of human prosociality.


2017 Vice Chancellor’s Excellence Award in Environmental Sustainability, University of Auckland
2016 Vice Chancellor’s Research Excellence Award, University of Auckland
2012-2018 Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Royal Society, New Zealand
2007-2010 Research Fellow, Wolfson College, University of Oxford
2006 Best Doctoral Thesis Award, University of Auckland, New Zealand
2003-2006 Bright Futures Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship, New Zealand,
2004/2005 New Zealand Young Scientist of the Year (People and Society)
2002 Science Faculty Senior Scholarship, University of Auckland
2002 Senior Scholar in Psychology, University of Auckland
2002 Senior Prize in Philosophy, University of Auckland

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Claessens, S., Fischer, K., Chaudhuri, A., Sibley, C. G., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2020). The dual evolutionary foundations of political ideology. Nature human behaviour, 4 (4), 336-345. 10.1038/s41562-020-0850-9
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Chris Sibley, Ananish Chaudhuri
  • Ruck, D. J., Matthews, L. J., Kyritsis, T., Atkinson, Q. D., & Bentley, R. A. (2020). The cultural foundations of modern democracies. Nature human behaviour, 4 (3), 265-269. 10.1038/s41562-019-0769-1
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Thanos Kyritsis
  • Vardy, T., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2019). Property Damage and Exposure to Other People in Distress Differentially Predict Prosocial Behavior After a Natural Disaster. Psychological science, 30 (4), 563-575. 10.1177/0956797619826972
  • Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Bulbulia, J., Gray, R. D., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Christianity spread faster in small, politically structured societies. Nature human behaviour, 2 (8), 559-564. 10.1038/s41562-018-0379-3
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Joseph Bulbulia, Russell Gray
  • Sookias, R. B., Passmore, S., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Deep cultural ancestry and human development indicators across nation states. Royal Society open science, 5 (4)10.1098/rsos.171411
  • Sheehan, O., Watts, J., Gray, R. D., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). Coevolution of landesque capital intensive agriculture and sociopolitical hierarchy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115 (14), 3628-3633. 10.1073/pnas.1714558115
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Russell Gray
  • Bouckaert, R. R., Bowern, C., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2018). The origin and expansion of Pama-Nyungan languages across Australia. Nature ecology & evolution, 2 (4), 741-749. 10.1038/s41559-018-0489-3
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Remco Bouckaert
  • Maurits, L., Forkel, R., Kaiping, G. A., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2017). BEASTling: A software tool for linguistic phylogenetics using BEAST 2. PloS one, 12 (8)10.1371/journal.pone.0180908


Contact details

Primary office location

SCIENCE CENTRE 302 - Bldg 302
Level 3, Room 361
New Zealand

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