Vanessa Ferdinand

Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow, The Santa Fe Institute

An early interest in human genetic evolution led Vanessa to study anthropology, where she came to appreciate that culture itself evolves, and it may do so outside of direct genetic control. Cultural artifacts, such as language, music, and technology, survive and replicate by passing from mind to mind, and this makes cognition the locus of cultural change. Further study of cognitive science gave her the computational and experimental tools to study cognitive biases as the driving forces behind cultural evolutionary change. Because artifacts and behaviors are never directly copied, but are always reverse engineered via repeated cycles of perception, processing, and production, cognitive biases create selection pressures on culture. Her PhD addressed language as a prime example of a culturally evolving system and focused on the selective elimination of variation in language, known as regularization, as well as identified special concerns in modeling drift of cultural artifacts over time. Currently, she is working on appropriate baseline models of drift in culturally evolving systems and exploring the coevolutionary dynamics of culture and cognition.

She holds a PhD in language evolution from the University of Edinburgh, supervised by Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith, a MSc in cognitive science from the University of Amsterdam, supervised by Jelle Zuidema, and dual-major BA in anthropology and linguistics from the University of Georgia. She attended SFI’s Complex Systems Summer School in 2012.