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Huxley Lectures: Stephen Shennan & Stephen Levinson

December 14 2021 @ 1:30 pm - 5:30 pm


Tuesday 14 December in the BP Lecture Theatre, Clore Education Centre, the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG.

1.30pm – the 2020 Huxley Lecture from Prof Stephen Levinson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

3.00pm – the 2021 Huxley Lecture from Prof Stephen Shennan, University College London


Prof Stephen Levinson

The ‘interaction engine’: the evolution of the infrastructure for language

Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, believed in the underlying unity of the human species but on the voyage of HMS Rattlesnake was struck by the cultural and linguistic diversity of Melanesia. Indeed, the deep structural diversity of languages suggests that our language capacities are not based on any single template but rather on an underlying ability and motivation for infants to acquire a culturally transmitted system (Darwin’s ‘instinctive tendency to acquire an art’). The hypothesis presented here is that this ability has an interactional base that has discernable precursors in other primates – a behavioural parallel to the anatomical similarities that Huxley was the first to point out in detail. This interactional base is more or less invariant across cultures, constitutes the context for language use and learning, and acts like a machine tool for producing languages.  In this lecture I explore two specific evolutionary routes that may have allowed humans to develop this interactional foundation for an elite communication system.


Prof Stephen Shennan

Population and the dynamics of culture change

In a paper published in Current Anthropology in 2000, I argued that we should see the changes documented in the archaeological record as the result of processes of cultural ‘descent with modification’, by analogy with Darwin’s term for biological evolution. I proposed that understanding these changes required archaeologists to return to many of the issues raised by the culture-history agenda rejected 30-40 years previously and largely despised ever since. I suggested that the single most important factor in understanding culture change was population dynamics. First, because past populations had been much more dynamic, in terms of processes of expansion and contraction, than had been appreciated. Second, this mattered because many of the skills involved in artefact production were acquired by children from their parents or other close relatives of the older generation, so, if a particular local population expanded, then so would the artefact forms associated with it; correspondingly, the opposite would be the case if the population declined or disappeared. The importance of this link between cultural and demographic patterns, had almost certainly been underestimated.

In the intervening 20 years there has been an explosion of theoretical and empirical work addressing the relationship between cultural and demographic patterns, using new lines of evidence and novel perspectives. In this lecture, I will review some of that work, with a focus on areas where I have been involved, in particular the spread of farming into Europe and its aftermath, where I will show the way in which new methods and sources of evidence have changed ideas and in doing so borne out some of my suggestions and modified others.


The event is free, but places must be booked. Please book your place here

Enquiries to: RAI, 50 Fitzroy St, London W1T 5 BT; tel 020 7387 0455; email


Location: BP Lecture Theatre, Clore Centre
British Museum
Great Russell Street
United Kingdom


December 14 2021
1:30 pm - 5:30 pm
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