Professor Quentin Douglas Atkinson


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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.


Teaching | Current

PSYCH 317 - Evolution, Behaviour and Cognition

PSYCH 725 - Evolution and Human Behaviour

PSCYH 715 - Psychology and Sustainability

SCISCHOL 201 - Introduction to Science and Innovation

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)

  • 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
  • Atkinson, Q. D., Coomber, T., Passmore, S., Greenhill, S. J., & Kushnick, G. (2016). Cultural and environmental predictors of pre-European deforestation on Pacific Islands. PLoS One, 11 (5).10.1371/journal.pone.0156340
  • Matthews, L. J., Passmore, S., Richard, P. M., Gray, R. D., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2016). Shared Cultural History as a Predictor of Political and Economic Changes among Nation States. PLoS One, 11 (4), 1-18. 10.1371/journal.pone.0152979
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Russell Gray
  • Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R. D. (2016). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature, 532 (7598), 228-231. 10.1038/nature17159
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Russell Gray, Joseph Bulbulia


Contact details

Primary office location

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

Web links