Will Gervais

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  • Will Gervais (jer-vay, the “s” is silent) is an assistant professor of social psychology and director of the Beliefs and Morality (BAM!) Lab at the University of Kentucky.

    Will grew up in the mountains of Colorado and spent a lot of time exploring all things outdoors in the American Southwest. A lot of his intellectual biography can be told in terms of which books he read when.

    He completed his B.S. at the University of Denver. While at DU, he studied environmental science and biology before finally settling in as a psychology major. Around this time, he read a lot of books by Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins, and became fascinated by evolutionary biology. Unsure what to do in psychology, he took a semester off to travel. Jobless and broke in Sydney, Australia, he spent a lot of time raiding the University of New South Wales library. He stumbled across The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker and Consilience by E.O. Wilson in a used bookstore, and had a bit of an “aha!” moment. He didn’t have to choose between evolutionary biology and psychology; he could apply evolutionary principles to human behavior. So, although his undergraduate research focused primarily on visual attention, he applied to graduate programs in social psychology with faculty adopting evolutionary perspectives.

    Around this time, he read the excellent Not by Genes Alone, by Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd. Prior to reading this book, Will thought of culture and evolution as fundamentally distinct. Perhaps evolution built humans (and our brains) a couple hundred thousand years ago, and then culture took over. Or perhaps for a given trait, it was either a product of evolution or a product of culture. This book convinced him that evolution vs. culture is a fundamentally flawed distinction. We’re a species with dual inheritance, products of evolution, culture, and their interaction. Culture only makes sense when viewed in terms of the evolved cognitive capacities that enable it; human evolution only makes sense in light of culture.

    Will headed to the University of British Columbia in drizzly Vancouver to pursue his graduate studies under the tutelage of his primary advisor, Ara Norenzayan, and many other researchers who adopted a similarly integrative approach to evolution and culture (including Mark Schaller, Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ted Slingerland). This was pretty much the perfect graduate program. Productive faculty, nice people, great graduate students, and an overall vibrant intellectual culture.

    What, specifically, to study? Will had long been casually interested in religion. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s a little puzzling (picture anteaters, mandrills, bees, or yaks in groups of thousands, prostrate before an altar, and you get the idea here). And Ara was one of the leaders of a new resurgence of psychological interest in religious cognition. So Will happily joined his team. As he began perusing the religious cognition literature, he noticed a puzzling trend: there was plenty of discussion of why nearly everyone throughout history has had religious beliefs, but nary an acknowledgement that, today, there are nearly a billion nonbelievers on the planet (Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God was another eye-opener). What’s the deal with atheists? In one way or another, that question shaped most of Will’s research for the past several years.

    Aside from the academic stuff, Will really enjoys the outdoors. Camping, hiking, biking, soccer, skiing, sea kayaking, you name it. He also likes to cook when he has the time. Aside from being a great place for graduate school, Vancouver was also heaven for an aspiring home chef and oenophile. These days, Will spends a lot of time taking in the tranquil surroundings of Lexington, Kentucky, or traveling somewhere else, with his wife Drew and daughter Mina.