David Nolin, Ph.D.

David Nolin, Ph.D.

David Nolin, Ph.D.

Penn State University
Postdoctoral Scholar: Shenk Lab, Department of Anthropology
Faculty Affiliate: Population Research InstituteCenter for Human Ecology

I am an evolutionary cultural anthropologist with methodological expertise in biostatistics, social network analysis, and demography, and a theoretical specialization in human behavioral ecology. My field research focuses on cooperative institutions in the traditional fishing and whaling village of Lamalera, Indonesia. My current work in the Shenk Research Group is a cross-cultural study of marital assortment by wealth in small-scale societies and how such assortment contributes to persistent inequality.

Current Work


  1. The evolution of human sociality and cooperation, especially as manifested in social networks of cooperative production and food sharing.
  2. The origins of and persistence of inequality in small-scale societies and its relationship to social institutions such as marriage and inheritance.
  3. The evolutionary demography of human marriage and reproduction, especially marriage delay and fertility decline.

Whaling, Sharing, and the Behavioral Ecology of Cooperation

Since 1997 I have spent nearly two years conducting field research in the traditional whaling and sea-hunting village of Lamalera, Indonesia, where I study how cooperative institutions are organized and how cooperatively acquired common-pool natural resources are managed and distributed. A combination of large-prey hunting and high-variance subsistence has made the village an ideal field site for studying cooperative subsistence behavior and human-environment interactions. I am especially interested in how cultural institutions and systems of norms can provide solutions to cooperative dilemmas and the problems posed by collective action. As a human behavioral ecologist, I am also interested in investigating the adaptive mechanisms that underpin human cooperative behavior.

This research relies heavily on social network statistics and modeling to test hypotheses about the organization of cooperative institutions and networks of social support. The results of this research show that several different adaptive mechanisms each explain part of the variation in cooperative behavior and that the underlying hypotheses are not mutually exclusive: kinship, reciprocity, and signaling all play a role in shaping patterns of cooperation and support. However, evolutionary mechanisms do not tell the whole story: social institutions, especially patrilineal kinship, corporate groups, and a complex system of norms governing harvest distributions all contribute to the maintenance of cooperation in this setting. Results from this work can be found in Current AnthropologyHuman Nature, and Evolution and Human Behavior.

Evolutionary Demography of Marriage and Reproduction

My demographic research focuses on the ecological factors that influence the onset and timing of reproduction in humans. My recent collaborative work with John Ziker (Anthropology, Boise State) has focused on demographic modeling of the abrupt decline in fertility in his field site of Ust’-Avam in central Siberia following the fall of the USSR. Over a ten-year span the population total fertility rate (TFR) fell from five to one. We were able to show that this precipitous fall in fertility is likely due to a cessation of reproduction in the face of economic and ecological uncertainty following the collapse of the USSR. Results from this collaborative work have recently been published in Human Nature and Sustainability Science.

I use similar methods to investigate marriage delay in Lamalera. This community displays several peculiar demographic features for a subsistence fishing and whaling village, including a very late age of marriage (31 for men and 29 for women), a high rate of female celibacy, and a surprising number of children entering the clergy. This project uses historical demographic methods to analyze these trends in over a century’s worth of church parish records from Lamalera. Borrowing from life history and ecological constraints theory, I relate these demographic trends to the changing socioecology of the village and the effects of household composition and sibling competition on life history outcomes.

Origins and Persistence of Social Inequality in Small-Scale Societies

Since 2007 I have been involved in a Santa Fe Institute initiative studying the origins and persistence of inequality in small-scale societies. Through a series of SFI-hosted workshops, the initial project focused on the role intergenerational transmission of wealth plays in creating and maintaining wealth inequalities. This project pooled together data from 21 different societies (including Lamalera) to examine how wealth inequality was patterned cross-culturally with results published in Science and Current Anthropology. Our Shenk Lab project on marital assortment in small-scale societies, described above, is an extension of this earlier work.

Since receiving my Ph.D. in 2008 I have taught at several institutions, including the University of North Carolina, Duke University, the University of Cincinnati, the University of California at Davis, Boise State University, and the University of Missouri. Because human behavioral ecology sits at the intersection of biological and cultural anthropology, I have taught courses from both of these subdisciplines. I also have extensive experience teaching statistics and methods, including social statistics, social network analysis, and field methods and research design. For four summers I co-taught a faculty-level workshop on Statistics in Ethnographic Research for the National Science Foundation. I have also mentored several graduate students in R-programming and statistics.

Courses Taught

Undergraduate, Lower Division

  • Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
  • Human Evolution and Adaptation
  • Ecology, Nature, and Society

Undergraduate, Upper Division

  • Human Behavioral Ecology
  • Kinship and Social Organization
  • Economic Anthropology
  • Hunter-Gatherers
  • Quantitative Field Methods
  • Cultures of Southeast Asia


  • Adaptation and Human Behavior
  • Statistical Methods in Anthropology
  • Human Cooperation in Evolutionary Perspective

Faculty Seminars & Workshops

  • Advances in the Theory and Method of Social Network Analysis
  • Statistics in Ethnographic Research

Other Potential Classes

  • Statistical Analysis of Social Networks
  • Materials and Methods of Demography
  • Social Evolution and Political Complexity

Nolin, D. and Ziker, J. (2016) Reproductive responses to economic uncertainty: fertility decline in post-Soviet Ust’-Avam, Siberia. Human Nature 27: 351-371.

Ziker, J., Rasmussen, J., and Nolin, D. (2016) Indigenous Siberians solve collective action problems through sharing and traditional knowledge. Sustainability Science 11: 45- 55.

Ziker, J., Nolin, D., and Rasmussen, J. (2016) The effects of wealth on male reproduction among monogamous hunter-fisher-trappers in Northern Siberia. Current Anthropology 57: 221-229.

Nolin, D. (2015) Disaggregating whom from how much. Current Anthropology 56:722-723. (Comment on: Kasper, C. and Borgerhoff Mulder, M. Who helps and why? Cooperative networks in Mpimbwe.)

Nolin, D. (2012) Food-sharing networks in Lamalera, Indonesia: Status, sharing, and signaling. Evolution and Human Behavior 33: 334-345.

Nolin, D. (2011) Kin preference and partner choice: patrilineal descent and biological kinship in Lamaleran cooperative relationships. Human Nature 22: 156-176.

Nolin, D. (2010) Food-sharing networks in Lamalera, Indonesia: Reciprocity, kinship, and distance. Human Nature 21:243-268.