research

 

PhD candidate

Department of Human Evolutionary Biology

Harvard University

 

Fulbright scholar, University of Copenhagen (Centre for Social Evolution), 2012-2013

ScB, Brown University, 2012

Shamanism, witchcraft, origin myths, property rights, sharing norms, lullabies, dance music, and gods have appeared in human societies everywhere, from nomadic hunter-gatherer bands to complex, industrial, mega-urbanized states. My research program aims to explain why societies develop complex, recurrent traditions such as these. Focusing on canonical puzzles from law, religion, and art, I ask three questions:

Q1. How do certain traditions compare across human societies? Are there procedures of justice that follow conflict across human societies? Do religions around the world, extending from those of Australian hunter-gatherers to renewal Pentecostalism, share basic beliefs or practices? What are the universal features of music? To answer these questions, I conduct comparative work, such as by collecting and analyzing cross-cultural datasets (e.g., Singh, 2018; Singh, in press; Mehr & Singh et al., 2018; Mehr, Singh et al., 2019).

Q2. What are the processes by which these near-universals develop? From Q1, we might conclude that human societies recurrently exhibit some practice like shamanism or laws against killing. My research investigates why. How do human psychology, sociality, and cultural evolution interact to sculpt these shared traditions? To answer this question, I integrate insights from across the behavioral sciences, developing accounts to explain the patterns in practices and beliefs (e.g., shamanism: Singh, 2018; witchcraft and sorcery: Singh, in press; rules: Singh et al., 2017).,

Q3. How well do these accounts explain cultural realities? I study these social and culture practices through fieldwork with the Mentawai people of Siberut Island, Indonesia. The field studies serve two purposes. First, they aim to answer as-of-yet unanswered questions about the design of cultural practices. For instance, in a recent study of a punitive crocodile spirit, I challenged the common view that the 'small gods' of animist traditions lack moral concerns (Singh et al., submitted). Second, field studies provide a venue to test explanations for why near-universals develop. For example, an ongoing examination of prohibitions on shamans tests among several hypotheses for why religious self-denial exists, including one proposed in my theory of shamanism (Singh & Henrich, in revision).

With Luke Glowacki and Samuel Mehr, I co-direct the Natural History of Song, an investigation of the universal features of human song.  I am advised by Richard Wrangham and Joe Henrich.

If you would like to collaborate, learn more about these projects, chat about research, or connect for any other reason, please send me an email. You can find a copy of my CV here.

Mehr, S. A.*, Singh, M.*, York, H., L. Glowacki, and Krasnow, M. M. 2018. Form and function in human song. Current Biology 28:356-368. [pdf]

coverage in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Economist, Smithsonian, and more; interviews on Morning Edition (NPR)Science Friday (PRI)Quirks and Quarks (CBC), and The Naked Scientists (BBC)

 

Singh, M., Wrangham, R. W., and Glowacki, L. 2017. Self-interest and the design of rules. Human Nature 28:457-480. [pdf]

Singh, M., Glowacki, L., and Wrangham, R. W. 2016. Self-interested agents create, modify, and maintain group-functional culture. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39:e52. [Commentary on 'Cultural group selection plays an essential role in explaining human cooperation.'] [pdf] 

 

C. C. Ioannou, Singh, M., and Couzin, I. D. 2015. Potential leaders trade off goal-oriented and socially oriented behavior in mobile animal groups. The American Naturalist 186:284-293. [pdf]

Singh, M. and Boomsma, J. J. 2015. Policing and punishment across the domains of social evolution. Oikos 124:971-82. [Editor's choice] [pdf]

in preparation

 

Singh, M. & Henrich, J. (in revision) Self-denial by shamans promotes perceptions of religious credibility. [pre-print pdf]

Singh, M., Kaptchuk, T. J., and Henrich, J. (submitted) Small gods, rituals, and cooperation: The Mentawai crocodile spirit Sikaoinan. [pre-print pdf]

Singh, M. (in progress) The evolutionary and psychological foundations of universal narrative structure. [pre-print pdf]

Singh, M. (submitted) Culture evolves to satisfy people's evaluation criteria for achieving regular goals. [pre-print available on request]

 

Singh, M., Acerbi, A., Caldwell, C., Danchin, É., Molleman, L., Scott-Phillips, T., Tamariz, M., Van der Berg, P., van Leuwen, E., and Derex, M. (in preparation) Mechanisms of cultural evolution beyond social learning behaviors.

publications

in press/in print

* denotes equal contribution

Singh, M. (in press) Magic, explanations, and evil: On the origins and design of witches and sorcerers. Current Anthropology. [pre-print pdf]

 

Singh, M. (in press) People don't divine by flipping coins. Current Anthropology 39:e52. [Commentary on 'Why divination? Evolved psychology and strategic interaction in the production of truth.']

Mehr, S. A., Singh, M., Knox, D., Ketter, D. M., Pickens-Jones, D., Atwood, S., Lucas, C., Egner, A., Jacoby, N., Hopkins, E. J., Howard, R. M., Hartshorne, J. K., Jennings, M. V., Simson, J., Bainbridge, C. M., Pinker, S., O'Donnell, T. J., Krasnow, M. M., and Glowacki, L. (2019) Universality and diversity in human song. Science 366:eaxx0868. [pdf]

Singh, M. 2018. Why is there shamanism? Developing the cultural evolutionary theory and addressing alternative accounts. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 41:e92. [Response to commentaries on 'The cultural evolution of shamanism.'] [pdf]

Singh, M. 2018. The cultural evolution of shamanism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 41:e66. [pdf]

fieldsite: mentawai, indonesia