Fiona Coward, The Wisdom of Homo sapiens: "The Wisdom of the Crowd"? Promiscuous Sociality, Things, and Networks in Human Evolution


Fiona CowardFiona Coward

Homo sapiens are named for their perceived "wisdom." Until relatively recently, the nature of that wisdom – and that of our ancestors – was usually considered to be most obviously demonstrated by our technological prowess. In particular, the way in which groups applied their technological know-how to making a living – for example, whether they were mobile foragers, settled farmers, or industrialized producers – was considered a major determinant of all other social and cultural developments. More recently, however, researchers have begun to acknowledge the crucial importance of the kinds of intelligence involved in human social interaction for technology and subsistence, and to recognize the fundamental role it played in our evolution. In this talk, Coward discusses the fundamentally social nature of human wisdom. In particular, she focuses on the significance of "promiscuous sociality" – the incorporation of other-than-human entities such as things, other animals, places, and even non-corporeal "beings" such as spirits and gods, into our social networks. She argues that viewing material culture in particular in social terms provides a vital extension to, and enhancement of, human social cognition: this ability is what has allowed us to form often extremely large long-term communities such as villages, towns and cities, and to negotiate the globalized social networks that are such unique features of the modern world.


Fiona Coward is Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Sciences at Bournemouth University. Her work focuses on the evolution of human social life and the cognitive capacities that underpin complex social interactions. Her research explores how and why humans were able to scale up their social lives from the very small social groups in which we lived for much of our prehistory to the global social networks characterizing people’s lives today. She takes a multidisciplinary perspective emphasizing the interrelations between the physical and social environments in which human evolution has taken place, particularly the role of material culture in human social life. Coward was a member of the British Academy Centenary Project "From Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain." She is a founding member of The Connected Past group, working alongside colleagues from archeology, history, and network science to develop network science methods for use with archeological and historical datasets. She is a co-investigator in the AHRC/Xuan Truong Enterprise-funded SUNDASIA Project, exploring how prehistoric tropical communities adapted to paleoenvironmental change over the last 60,000 years in the Tràng, an landscape complex World Heritage Site, Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Coward received a B.A. (Hons) in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Cambridge, an M.A. in Osteoarchaeology and Ph.D. in Palaeolithic Archaeology from the University of Southampton.


University of Notre Dame (U.S.A.) in England
1-4 Suffolk Street
London, SW1Y 4HG

This event is part of the Human Distinctiveness: Wisdom's Deep Evolution conference. It is made possible by support from the John Templeton Foundation and Henkels Lecture Fund, Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame.