Pascal Boyer

Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology and Psychology​
Henry Luce Professor of Collective and Individual Memory
PhD, Universite de Paris-Nanterre
research interests:
  • Cognitive Processes
  • Cultural Transmission
  • Cognitive Development
  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • Cross-Cultural Psychology
  • Religion
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    contact info:

    mailing address:

    • Washington University
    • CB 1114
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    ​In Professor Boyer's work, he combines experimental (laboratory) studies with field research to answer the following question: What cognitive processes are engaged in the acquisition, use and transmission of cultural knowledge?

    One way to answer this question is to study cognitive development, the period during which initially similar brains receive information that will make them conversant with a particular set of cultural norms and concepts. In the past Boyer has used such developmental studies, combined with fieldwork, to describe and perhaps explain some aspects of the transmission of religious concepts. More generally, the aim of all this is to show how human brains, by virtue of their evolutionary history, share certain conceptual dispositions which in turn make certain kinds of cultural concepts particularly easy to learn and transmit, and therefore very frequent in otherwise diverse human cultures. He also uses these psychological and anthropological techniques to describe the interaction between "collective memory," how people in a group remember their past, and "individual memory," in particular autobiographical memory. His most recent work bears on the early development of concepts of agency and personhood (what makes persons and animals different from inert objects) and on early mathematical concepts, as well as on the specifically human neural structures that support such competencies.

    recent courses

    Cognition and Culture (L48 3383)

    This course examines the influence of evolved cognitive dispositions (the way natural selection engineered the human mind) on the transmission of cultural knowledge. Dispositions present from early childhood make certain kinds of cultural knowledge particularly easy to acquire, and therefore, culturally stable. We also consider the evidence for differences in cognitive processes triggered by different social environments. Emphasis is on empirical studies and experimental methods in the study of cultural similarity and differences. Prerequisite: Psych 100B, Anthro 160B or permission of instructor.

      The Good Cause: Psychological Anthropology of Moral Crusades (L48 Anthro 4118)

      Why do people join moral crusades? These are social movements based on powerful moral institutions, ranging from the abolitionist and suffragette movements to witch hunts, insurgency and ethnic riots. Such movements are extremely diverse, yet their unfolding and the dynamics of recruitment show remarkably common properties. We will examine a series of empirical cases, including recent events, and assess the relevance of models based on individual psychological dynamics, intuitive moral capacities, and human motivation for participation in collective action.

        Human Evolutionary Psychology (L33 Psych 4099)

        How did evolution by natural selection shape the way human beings think and behave? Does evolution explain human cooperation and friendship, human morality, reproductive decisions and social interactions? What sex differences in cognition or behavior are caused by evolution? This course introduces the concepts and findings of evolutionary psychology, mostly through reading of primary sources--articles from psychology and biology journals--and discussion and presentation of empirical cases. PREREQ: At least 6 units of upper-level, home-based Psychology coursework, OR Anthro 3383.

          Selected Publications

          1994 The Naturalness of Religious Ideas. A Cognitive Theory of Religion, Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California Press.

          2001 Cultural Inheritance Tracks and Cognitive Predispositions: The Example of Religious Concepts, in H. Whitehouse (Ed.), The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Ethnography, Oxford: Berg, pp. 57-89.

          2001 Religion Explained. The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, London: Random House, New York: Basic Books.

          2001 (with Bedoin, N. & Honoré, S.) Relative contributions from kind- and domain-concepts to inferences concerning unfamiliar exemplars, Cognitive Development 15: 345- 362.

          2003 Religious Thought and Behaviour As By-products of Brain Function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7(3):119-124.

          Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create

          Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create

          Integrating recent insights from evolutionary biology, genetics, psychology, economics, and other fields, Boyer offers precise models of why humans engage in social behaviors such as forming families, tribes, and nations, or creating gender roles. In fascinating, thought-provoking passages, he explores questions such as, Why is there conflict between groups? Why do people believe low-value information such as rumors? Why are there religions? What is social justice? What explains morality? Boyer provides a new picture of cultural transmission that draws on the pragmatics of human communication, the constructive nature of memory in human brains, and human motivation for group formation and cooperation.

          The Fracture of an Illusion; Science And The Dissolution Of Religion

          The Fracture of an Illusion; Science And The Dissolution Of Religion

          Pascal Boyer argues that religion is largely an illusion. The anthropologist traces religion's cognitive and evolutionary aspects. By "religion" he means a kind of existential and cognitive "package" that includes views about supernatural agency (gods), notions of morality, particular rituals and sometimes particular experiences, as well as membership in a particular community of believers. The package, however, does not really exist as such. Notions of supernatural agents, of morality, of ethnic identity, or ritual requirements and other experience, all appear in human minds independently. This implies that there is no such thing as a conflict between science and religion. Boyer takes the reader onto a journey through science and the dissolution of religion.