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Human development is determined by biology and culture. Biologically seen, the history of evolution has brought us certain cognitive biases, whereas our cultural legacy is built through interactions with other people. OLIVIER MORIN pursues research at the intersection of these two legacies and his particular area of interest is cultural transmission. As he explains in this video, one thing we inherit from evolutionary history is a preference for certain kinds of lines. His research aims at finding out how writing expresses and reflects these deep preferences that come from our evolutionary history. A second question of interest, for him, is the timescale in which cultural evolution manages to invent new shapes. Morin has examined the letters of 116 writing systems from all over the world and found that, indeed, the deep cognitive bias for certain lines and shapes is expressed everywhere. More surprisingly, he could also establish that these ideal shapes do not underlie a very long timescale of cultural evolution.


Olivier Morin is Leader of the Minds and Traditions Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. He received his Ph.D. from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. His research focus is on cultural transmission and touches on the relations between anthropology, psychology and the philosophy of social science. He is a journal referee for a wide variety of publications, such as Nature Human Behaviour, Biological Theory or the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.


Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology

The Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology (MPI-GEA) focuses on the interrelationships between natural and human-made systems, looking into the deep past and distant future to examine how humanity has driven the emergence of the Anthropocene – the geological period in which human activities began significantly impacting our planet’s climate and ecosystems – and how we can still positively influence its course.

The transdisciplinary research at MPI-GEA will bring together research areas represented by all three scientific sections of the MPG: Biology & Medicine; Chemistry, Physics and Technology; and Human Sciences. Corresponding inter- and transdisciplinary research projects concern, for example, planetary urbanisation, the global food system, and global material, energy and information flows.

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Original publication

Spontaneous Emergence of Legibility in Writing Systems: The Case of Orientation Anisotropy

Morin Olivier
Cognitive Science
Published in 2017

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How Traditions Live and Die

Morin Olivier
Published in 2015