Joseph WattsDr Joseph Watts

BSc (VUW) BSc Hons PhD (Auckland)


Joseph is a Research Fellow working with Dr John Shaver on the project "The Evolutionary Dynamics of Religion, Family Size, and Child Success." This project is funded by the Templeton Foundation and investigates how religion affects fertility rates and child outcomes. This research involves the collection of demographic and social data from over 6,000 participants from five different societies and is in collaboration with an international team of evolutionary anthropologists and demographers.

Prior to joining the University of Otago, Joseph was a Research Fellow in the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Group at the University of Oxford, as well as a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. He remains an ongoing external Research Associate as part of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.


Religious systems exhibit variation within and between societies, can be transmitted over generations, change rapidly within generations, and differ in their ability to gain and retain members. As such, religious systems have the key properties of an evolutionary system. Joseph’s research focuses on the cultural evolution of religious systems and what the dynamics of these systems can tell us about human cognition and behaviour.

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.

Postgraduate Students

Joseph is happy to discuss potential research projects and thesis ideas, both within and outside of religious studies, with prospective postgraduates. He enjoys working with students with a broad range of academic interests and backgrounds.

Selected Publications

Watts, J., Passmore, S., Jackson, J.C., Rzymski, C., Dunbar, R.D. (Submitted). Christians show greater variation in explanations of the natural world than non-religious people.

Jackson, J. C., Watts, J., Henry, T. R., List, J., Forkel, R., Greenhill, S., Lindquist, K. (Submitted). Emotion Varies in Semantic Structure Across Language Families.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Bulbulia, J., Gray, R.D., & Atkinson, Q.D. (2018). Christianity spread faster in small politically structured societies. Nature Human Behaviour.

Gray, R.D., & Watts, J. (2017). Cultural macroevolution matters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(30), 7846-7852.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (2016). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature, 532(7598), 228-231.

A complete list of publications, book chapters and media coverage are available here.

University of Otago Religious Studies Programme