Faculty, staff and students from EEB gathered on May 18, 2023 to celebrate the end of the semester, recognize award-winners, and honor retirees. Check out this YouTube video to see all of the winners, along with some photos from the celebration.
In the years since social media became part of our daily lives, an increased number of individuals are self-organizing online around identity, social topics, and various other interests. This transition leads to a new type of cultural authority and one that researchers are investigating to understand how the online human world interacts with the offline human world at both the individual and collective level.
Sergey Gavrilets, Distinguished Professor in the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to research the emergence of these new digital authorities on social media. The $1.2 million grant is the largest Templeton Foundation award in UT history.
“I’ve always been puzzled by how presumably reasonable people can come up with completely different strong beliefs or understandings about the same events or processes that happened or are happening in different situations affecting their personal life or our society,” Gavrilets said. “Over the last couple of years, with the 2020 elections and COVID, these differences have become particularly striking and their real and potential consequences particularly dangerous.”
The big question he wants to answer? “How are contemporary social media changing human social and cultural evolution?”
Understanding How New Authorities Develop
Gavrilets and colleague Neil Johnson from the George Washington University will leverage recent work on online behaviors to build a new understanding of how these new authorities develop and function. They will look at how these new authorities contribute to cultural polarizations and how their efforts and impacts are influenced.
“We will study the emergence of self-organized groups spouting extremism, hate, and vaccine hesitancy within and across social media platforms,” Gavrilets said. “We will look at their structure and try to understand how its composition defines who listens and how these new identity groups emerge.”
Gavrilets, a mathematical biologist whose work focuses on human social behavior, will borrow ideas and theoretical tools from ecology and evolutionary biology and apply them to human social behaviors online.
“This work will not only help us to understand online human social behaviors better, but also how our attitudes and beliefs are shaped,” said Gavrilets, who also is the director of the Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity at UT.
“Misinformation about science, climate change, vaccination, COVID, and political processes and events has a potential to affect the life, prosperity, and wellbeing of everyone in a negative way,” Gavrilets said. “By understanding how new social and cultural authorities are formed online, we can develop better policies for governments and businesses to counter misinformation and simultaneously promote public understanding of science-based policies aiming to improve our life and prosperity.”
About the John Templeton Foundation
Founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation supports research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. They fund work on subjects ranging from black holes and evolution to creativity, forgiveness, and free will. They also encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, theologians, and the public at large. Their aspiration is to help people create lives of meaning and purpose and to become a global catalyst for discoveries that contribute to human flourishing.
With an endowment of $3.8 billion and annual giving of approximately $140 million, the Foundation ranks among the 25 largest grantmaking foundations in the United States. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, their philanthropic activities have engaged all major faith traditions and extended to more than 57 countries around the world.
Sergey Gavrilets, a distinguished professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has received more than $1.1 million in grants from the Army Research Office for study into societal resilience using evolutionary models and theories of revolution.
Gavrilet’s research is funded by the Department of Defense’s Minerva Program, which is dedicated to predicting future socio-political crises in the world and societies’ resilience to various political, economic, environmental, and health-related shocks.
“I work with mathematical models to develop a theory that hopefully will be useful to predict or identify certain problems or uncover gaps in our knowledge,” Gavrilets said. “I used to work a lot in biology and biological evolution, but lately I’ve shifted towards social and cultural evolution and behavior.”
By using new and improved modeling tools, analysts will be able to assess political stability risks, improving predictions and explanations for societal unrest.
“The reason why we want to do this is because life is getting pretty complicated, especially over the last 10 to 20 years,” he said. “Conflicts are popping up in different places and usually come completely unexpected. Naturally, everyone wants to understand them better and hopefully predict them.”
Gavrilet’s research will also yield theoretical and modeling approaches with applications in fundamental sciences such as psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology.
–By Kelly Alley
The University of Tennessee wishes to acknowledge Lisa Troyer at the Army Research Office for supporting these projects.
UT is home to a new Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity (DySoC), led by Director Sergey Gavrilets. Other EEB faculty involved in the center include Nina Fefferman and Lou Gross.
“The goal of the Center is to promote connections and collaborations between different researchers focusing on various aspects and levels of human social behavior. We use theoretical and empirical methods and work at the interface of mathematical, biological, social, and computational sciences. Our topics of interest include cooperation, conflict, cultural evolution and dynamics, mass behavior and psychology, human origins, emergence and evolution of human societies, social norms, and societal resilience and (in) stability to various shocks. We are interested in combining system thinking, modeling tools, and big data to develop testable predictions and practical agendas.”
Sergey Gavrilets has coauthored a recent paper in PNAS called “Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization.” Following social norms can sometimes be costly for individuals if norms require sacrifice for the good of the group. The study sheds light on the power of norms and the origins of cooperation. Read the NIMBioS press release about the article, here.
Distinguished Professor Sergey Gavrilets has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Founded in 1780, the American Academy is of the nation’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers. The academy has served the nation as a champion of scholarship, civil dialogue, and useful knowledge. Its membership encompasses over 4,600 Fellows and 600 Foreign Honorary Members and reflects the full range of disciplines and professions: mathematics, the physical and biological sciences, medicine, the social sciences and humanities, business, government, public affairs, and the arts.
Gavrilets is a theoretical evolutionary biologist. His research interests span a variety of topics, including social and cultural evolution, speciation and adaptive radiation, sexual conflict, holey fitness landscapes, and micro-evolutionary processes and macro-evolutionary patterns.
The induction ceremony will take place on October 7, 2017 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
EEB Professor Sergey Gavrilets has a new paper out in Scientific Reports called “The evolution of extreme cooperation via shared dysphoric experiences.” It’s only been a week, but people all over the world are excited about the research; check out the press links, below!
Sergey Gavrilets is co-organizing a workshop on warfare this week at NIMBioS, called “Evolutionary approaches to the understanding of decentralized warfare.“He was recently interviewed on NPR because of the workshop. Gavrilets’s research on warfare has attracted other media attention in the past, including Huffington Post, Popular Mechanics, and Nature.
His interview was featured in Tennessee Today.
Sergey Gavrilets and collaborators have a new paper out in Molecular Ecology that made the cover of the journal. Congratulations!
“The genomic signature of parallel adaptation from shared genetic variation” Mol Ecol 23(16):3944-3956.
The abstract can be viewed at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mec.12720/abstract.