Associate Professor Quentin Atkinson


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Associate Professor


Quentin came to the University of Auckland in 2010 following a postdoctoral research fellowship in the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has also held postdoctoral 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 choose to cooperate are not coded 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 in 2007 published an edited volume with Dr Niki Harré on how New Zealanders can tackle climate change.

Some Media Coverage

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.


Postgraduate supervision

I supervise Honours, Masters and PhD level research. Current research projects include: -

  1. using computational models to infer ancestral relationships between the world’s languages and understand how languages evolve;
  2. experimental and ethnographic fieldwork in Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands to infer how cooperation and resource management may be affected by religion, norms and institutions;
  3. tracking the spread of pro-environmental behaviours through social networks; and,
  4. online experiments investigating the drivers of human prosociality.


Rutherford Discovery Fellow

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Kamilar, J. M., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2014). Cultural assemblages show nested structure in humans and chimpanzees but not orangutans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (1), 111-115. 10.1073/pnas.1313318110
  • Opie, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Dunbar, R. I. M., & Shultz, S. (2013). Male infanticide leads to social monogamy in primates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110 (33), 13328-13332. 10.1073/pnas.1307903110
  • Pagel, M., Atkinson, Q. D., S Calude, A., & Meade, A. (2013). Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 110 (21), 8471-8476. 10.1073/pnas.1218726110
  • Atkinson, Q. D. (2013). The descent of words. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 110 (11), 4159-4160. 10.1073/pnas.1300397110
  • Bowern, C., & Atkinson, Q. (2012). Computational phylogenetics and the internal structure of Pama-Nyungan. Language, 88 (4), 817-845. 10.1353/lan.2012.0081
  • Bouckaert, R., Lemey, P., Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Alekseyenko, A. V., Drummond, A. J., ... Atkinson, Q. D. (2012). Mapping the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family. Science, 337 (6097), 957-960. 10.1126/science.1219669
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Russell Gray, Remco Bouckaert, Alexei Drummond
  • Shultz, S., Opie, C., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2011). Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates. Nature, 479 (7372), 219-222. 10.1038/nature10601
  • Atkinson, Q. D., & Bourrat, P. (2011). Beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32 (1), 41-49. 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.07.008


Contact details

Primary location

SCIENCE CENTRE 302 - Bldg 302
New Zealand

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