We are an international team collaboratively investigating how religion impacts family size, child health and child success.

Principal Investigators


Principal Investigators

Professor Rebecca Sear
Professor and Head of the Department of Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom

Rebecca Sear is a demographer, anthropologist and human behavioural ecologist. She uses an interdisciplinary approach to understand human behaviour, incorporating an evolutionary theoretical framework into her research. She is keen to promote a greater understanding of evolutionary explanations for human behaviour in the social and health sciences, and to facilitate interdisciplinary work more broadly. She works on questions of demographic and public health interest, including fertility and reproductive development, child health and mortality, and health inequalities; and has a particular interest in the family, and how family relationships influence these outcomes. For further information, see Rebecca’s website.

Rebecca is interested in promoting interdisciplinarity across the human sciences, not just in her research but also through involvement in academic service roles: in 2008, she co-founded the European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association and she is currently Honorary Secretary of the British Society for Population Studies, and a Board Member of the Centre for Ecology and Evolution.


Associate Professor John Shaver
Associate Professor, Religion Programme, University of Otago, New Zealand

John is an evolutionary anthropologist who mostly studies religion. He has conducted research in the Czech Republic, Fiji, Mauritius, New Zealand and the United States, and his work has appeared in anthropology, biology, neuroscience, religion, psychology and general science journals.


Associate Professor Mary K. Shenk
Associate Professor of Anthropology and Demography at Department of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University, United States.

Mary Shenk is a biocultural anthropologist, human behavioral ecologist, and anthropological demographer with interests in marriage, family, kinship, parental investment, fertility, mortality, and inequality. Mary has conducted field research on the economics of marriage and parental investment in urban South India, the causes of rapid fertility decline in rural Bangladesh, and the effects of market integration on wealth, social networks, and health in rural Bangladesh.

Mary’s fieldwork focuses on South Asia, particularly Bangladesh and India, but she is also interested in cross-cultural work. She employs both quantitative and qualitative methods of research, and believe that firsthand fieldwork is essential to a deep understanding of social phenomena as well as to ensure that analyses are appropriately designed and findings are understood in socioecological context.


Professor Richard Sosis
Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, United States

Richard Sosis is the James Barnett Professor of Humanistic Anthropology at the University of Connecticut. He is a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology and affiliated with the UConn Humanities Institute and Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. The central theme of his past and current research is human sociality. His work explores the relationship between religion, trust, and intra-group cooperation, with particular interests in ritual, magic, morality, reproductive decisions, and the dynamics of religious systems.

To explore these issues, he has conducted fieldwork with remote cooperative fishers in the Federated States of Micronesia and with various communities throughout Israel. He is co-founder and co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, which publishes research on the bio-cultural study of religion.



Dr Joseph Watts
Lecturer, Religion Programme, University of Otago, New Zealand

Joseph’s research interests span across the social sciences and he employs a range of innovative quantitative research methodologies. He uses phylogenetic comparative methods to identify broad cross-cultural patterns in human cultural systems, natural language processing to identify the structure and variation in people’s written explanations of the world, and he designs interactive online studies to simulate processes of cultural evolution in real time. Together, his research spans individual-level micro-evolutionary processes up to the cultural-level macro-evolutionary patterns of change in human history.

The findings of Joseph’s research have been published in major international science journals, such as Nature, PNAS and Nature Human Behaviour, and featured in articles in prominent media venues, such as The Times, The Guardian and The New York Times. An overview of Joseph’s research and ongoing projects can be found on his personal website.


Anne Cathrine Petersen
Project Manager, Religion Programme, University of Otago, New Zealand

Anne Cathrine has a MA in Economics from Aarhus University. She provides research administration and project reporting, and will organise workshops and progress meetings, and assist in co-ordinating the data collection and the secondary data sets.


Elic Weitzel
PhD student, Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, United States

Elic Weitzel is an evolutionary ecologist and archaeologist interested in applying theory and models from population and behavioral ecology to understand human behavior in both the past and present. More specifically, his work centers on quantitative analysis and modeling of the causes and consequences of demographic change. Elic has conducted archaeological fieldwork up and down the eastern United States as well as in southeastern Europe. He has published on topics such as the role of humans in Pleistocene megafauna population collapse and human population growth as a driver of the origins of farming in mid-Holocene North America. His dissertation work, in progress at the University of Connecticut, explores environmental changes resulting from human depopulation, looking specifically at Native American population decline in 17th century New England due to epidemic diseases, conflict, and marginalization under European settler-colonialism. For more information, see his website.


Dr Anushé Hassan
Research Fellow, Department of Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom

Anushé Hassan’s research interests are interdisciplinary, spanning demography, evolutionary anthropology, human behaviour ecology and population health. Her PhD draws from each of these disciplines to explore links between family structure, parental & alloparental care provision and children’s wellbeing in north-western Tanzania. Anushé was based in Mwanza Region, Tanzania for her PhD fieldwork, where she collected quantitative and qualitative data including on direct care and resource provisioning from parents, other kin and non-kin; variation in paternal residence; and child anthropometrics.

She is a member of the Evolutionary Demography Group and Population Studies Group in the Department of Population Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


Dr Laure Spake
Research Fellow, Religion Programme, University of Otago, New Zealand

Laure’s research interests centre around children and childhood and include questions related to growth, health, and demography. Her PhD dissertation was aimed at improving interpretations of past population health and growth in past populations by exploring the effects of mortality bias. As a biological anthropologist, Laure has experience working with quantitative data, particularly anthropometrics, and has written on topics such as secular trends, age and body mass estimation, and population variation.


Dr Robert Lynch
Postdoctoral Researcher, Pennsylvania State University, United States

Robert Lynch did his PhD at Rutgers with Robert Trivers and has just come from a three-year stint working with Virpi Lummaa at the University of Turku working on the impacts of immigration on life history traits. He has done fieldwork in Jamaica, and has worked extensively with datasets from Iceland and Finland. He has also worked with Napoleon Chagnon at the University of Missouri analyzing a database of previously uncontacted Yanomamo Indians from the Amazon rainforest.

Robert has varied interests in evolutionary demography, especially including parental investment, fertility, and marriage. Some of his other interests include the evolutionary function of humor and how childhood adversity affects outcomes in adulthood and social mobility.


Dr Susan Schaffnit
Postdoctoral Researcher, Pennsylvania State University, United States

Dr Susan Schaffnit is a social scientist whose research pulls on theory and methods from evolutionary anthropology, demography, and population health science. At the base of all her work is a desire to understand variation in and links between human health, family structures, and life transitions – into marriage, parenthood and adulthood.

Since completing her PhD in Epidemiology and Population Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Susan has worked on a variety of projects across the social and health sciences including an impact evaluation of interventions to reduce HIV incidence in sub-Saharan Africa, and a mixed methods study of early marriage and women’s health in northwest Tanzania. For more information please see her website.


The Evolutionary Dynamics of Religion, Family Size, and Child Success

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