Bob Aunger

Robert Aunger - MSc PhD

Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Public Health

+44 (0) 207 927 2097

383 North Courtyard, DCVBU, ITD,
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Keppel Street
London, WC1E 7HT


I have a Master's degree in urban planning from the University of Southern California, and a PhD in biological anthropology from UCLA, with a thesis on the cultural evolution of food taboos in a population of horticulturalists and pygmy foragers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I worked as a post-doctoral fellow in the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago in culture and mental health and at King's College Cambridge in evolutionary psychology before coming to LSHTM in 2003.

Further information can be gained from Robert's Personal Website

Teaching & Research


I teach seminars in the areas of health promotion and social science methods at LSHTM. I have previously taught biology, anthropology and psychology courses at UCLA, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Cambridge.


1) Evolution of behaviour

Together with my colleague Val Curtis, I have developed a typology of behaviour production mechanisms which have over evolutionary time led animals to increasing degrees of control over their behaviour. This typology distinguishes between reflexes, instincts, exploratory behaviour, drives, emotions, play and planning as types of behaviour production.
Future work in this area will describe how each of these classes of mechanism evolved in particular groups of animals.

2) Behaviour change theory

Together with Val Curtis, I have surveyed existing behaviour change theory using a strategy of consolidation to identify what is of value. This exercise will serve as the foundation for a ‘rebuilding’ of such theory on a broader foundation with insights from related disciplines such as ecological psychology, occupational therapy and prospective memory.

3) Maintenance behaviour

I believe there is a specific category of behaviour concerned with maintaining animals far from energy equilibrium. Animals need to constantly recharge themselves with expendable but non-storable resources (i.e., engage in ‘metabolic’ behaviour), and to continually invest in cleaning up the environment after metabolic activities to support their ability to draw further energy from their surroundings (called ‘hygienic’ behaviours).

Through the regular, oft-repeated practice of such behaviours, people learn to execute them automatically – that is they become habitual. A particular interest is explaining this psychological process of habit formation.

Much of my work on hand-washing and other hygiene behaviours falls into this area of research.

4) Motivation, disgust and morality

Together with Val Curtis, I have developed a means for deducing the set of evolved motives characteristic of humans, how disgust fits within this set as the evolved motive for protecting individuals from the threat of infectious disease, and how moral emotions may have evolved from disgust as a psychological system for promoting third-party punishment of social parasites in ultra-social human groups.

5) Evolution of technology

I have developed a framework which can explain how human technology evolved from technologies in non-human predecessors, beginning with the dwelling constructions of early animals such as worms and arthropods, as well as providing rigorous definitions of ‘technology’ and ‘artefact’ along the way.

I have also explained what psychological trait was necessary for humans to produce accumulating technological advances. I call this ‘second-order instrumentality’, or the ability to make an artefact having no intrinsic value, which is useful only as a means to an end. Future work in this area will identify the specific mechanisms of invention and innovation that allow rates of human technological change to accelerate.

6) Evolution of complexity: Perasmology

‘Big’ history is type of history that seeks to explain the evolution of complexity in our universe from the Big Bang to contemporary human culture as a conventional historical narrative (e.g. David Christian’s Maps of Time).

Perasmology (the science of ‘transitions’) seeks to cover the same ground, but using scientific methods, based on non-equilibrium thermodynamics and a novel analytical unit, the non-equilibrium steady-state transition (or NESST). A variety of NESSTs have been identified, each of which accounts for a major change in the level of free energy flowing through organized systems ranging from atoms to technological populations. A recent summary of this work is available here. (WARNING: 8MB file download)


Reflexive Ethnographic Science. AltaMira Press.
Aunger, Robert (2003).

The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think. Free Press (Simon and Schuster). [Spanish translation (Paidos) in 2004; Chinese translation forthcoming from CITIC Publishing]
Aunger, Robert (2002).

Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford University Press [Japanese translation (Sangyo Tosho) in 2004]
Aunger, Robert, ed. (2001).

*Warning* Copyright Notice: The publishers hold the copyright to these articles. PDFs are provided here to enable the rapid dissemination of scholarly work. It is understood that you will use them only in a manner consistent with the fair use provisions of the relevant copyright law. You may not distribute them or use them for any commercial enterprise.*Warning*

Peer-reviewed Articles:

‘Deducing the set of evolved human motives.’ Aunger, Robert and Valerie Curtis (submitted).

‘Consolidating behaviour change approaches.’ Aunger, Robert and Valerie Curtis (submitted).

‘Causal chain mapping: a novel method to analyze treatment compliance decisions, with application to lymphatic filariasis in Alor, Indonesia’. Krentel, Alison and Robert Aunger (submitted).

‘Types of technology.’ Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Aunger, Robert (2010)

‘Disgust as an adaptive system for disease avoidance behaviour.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Curtis, Valerie, Míchèal DeBarra and Robert Aunger (in press).

‘What’s special about human technology?’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 34:115-123.Aunger, Robert (2010)

‘Three kinds of psychological determinants for hand-washing behaviour in Kenya.’ Social Science and Medicine 70: 383-391.Aunger, Robert, Wolf-Peter Schmidt, Ashish Ranpura, Yolande Coombes, Peninnah Mukiri Maina, Carol Nkatha Matiko and Valerie Curtis (2010)

‘Determinants of handwashing practices in Kenya: The role of media exposure, poverty and infrastructure.’ Tropical Medicine and International Health 14: 1534-1541. Schmidt, Wolf-Peter, Robert Aunger, Yolande Coombes, Peninnah Mukiri Maina, Carol Nkatha Matiko, Adam Biran and Valerie Curtis (2009)

‘Experimental pre-testing of potential public health interventions: The case of handwashing with soap’. American Journal of Pubic Health 99:S405-S411.Judah, Gaby, Robert Aunger, Valerie Curtis, Wolf-Peter Schmidt and Susan Michie (2009)

‘Planned, motivated and habitual hygiene behaviour: an eleven country review.’ Health Education Research 24(4): 655-673.Curtis, Valerie, Lisa Danquah and Robert Aunger (2009)

Kinds of behaviour.” Biology and Philosophy.
Aunger, Robert, and Valerie Curtis (2008).

Tooth-brushing as routine behaviour.’ International Dental Journal 57 (5): 364-376.
Aunger, Robert (2007).

Major transitions in ‘big’ history”. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 74(8):1137-1163.
Aunger, Robert (2007)

A rigorous periodization of ‘big’ history”. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 74(8):1164-1178.
Aunger, Robert (2007).

Marketing hygiene behaviours: Which communications channels are most likely to change hygiene behaviours at scale: Results of a mid-term evaluation of a national handwashing campaign in Ghana.” Health Education Research.
Scott, Beth, Wolf-Peter Schmidt, Robert Aunger, Nana Garbrah-Aidoo, and R. Animashaun (2007).

Serotonin: A link between disgust and immunity?” Medical Hypotheses 68(1): 61-66.
Rubio-Godoy, Miguel, Robert Aunger and Valerie Curtis (2007).

Y-STR haplotypes from eight south Indian groups based on five loci.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 49(4): 847-8.
Cordaux, Richard, Gillian Bentley, Robert Aunger, S.M. Sirajuddin and Mark Stoneking (2004).

Independent ” Current Biology 14:231-5.
Cordaux, Richard, Robert Aunger, Gillian Bentley, Ivane Nasidze, Nilmani Saha, S.M. Sirajuddin and Mark Stoneking (2004).

Quantitative evidence that disgust evolved to protect from risk of disease.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Suppl.): Biology Letters 4:S131-S133.
Curtis, Valerie, Robert Aunger and Tamer Rabie (2004).

Mitochondrial ” European Journal of Human Genetics.
Cordaux, Richard, Nilmani Saha, Gillian R. Bentley, Robert Aunger, S. M. Sirajuddin and Mark Stoneking (2003).

Comparative cultural phylogenetics and the transmission of belief in an oral society. Unpub. MS.
Aunger, Robert (2002)

Exposure versus susceptibility in the epidemiology of ‘everyday’ beliefs.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 2 (2):113-154.
Aunger, Robert (2002)

“The life history of culture learning in a face-to-face society.” Ethos 28(2):1-38.
Aunger, Robert (2000).

“The 9-bp deletion between the mitochondrial lysine tRNA and COII genes in tribal populations of India.” Human Biology 72 (2):273-285.
Clark, Vanessa J., Shanthi Sivendren, Nilmani Saha, Gillian R. Bentley, Robert Aunger, S.M. Sirajuddin, and Mark Stoneking (2000).

“Women’s strategies to alleviate nutritional stress in a rural African society,” Social Science and Medicine 48:149-62.
Bentley, Gillian R., Robert Aunger, Alisa M. Harrigan, Mark Jenike, Robert C. Bailey and Peter T. Ellison (1999).

“Against Idealism/Contra consensus [Theory in “Culture as Consensus”]” Current Anthropology 40:S93-S101.
Aunger, Robert (1999).

“Acculturation and the persistence of indigenous food avoidances in northeastern Zaire,” Human Organization 55(2):206-218.
Aunger, Robert (1996).

“On ethnography: Story-telling or science? [with commentaries]” Current Anthropology 36:97-130.
Aunger, Robert (1995).

“Sources of variation in ethnographic interview ” Ethnology 33:65-99.
Aunger, Robert (1994).

“Are food avoidances maladaptive in the Ituri Forest of Zaire?” Journal of Anthropological Research 50:277-310.
Aunger, Robert (1994).

“The nutritional consequences of rejecting food in the Ituri Forest of Zaire,” Human Ecology 20:263-291.
Aunger, Robert (1992).

“Humans as primates: The social relationships ” International Journal of Primatology 11:127-146.
Bailey, Robert C., and Robert Aunger (1990).

“Net hunters vs. archers: variation in women's subsistence strategies in the Ituri Forest,” Human Ecology 17:273-297.
Bailey, Robert C., and Robert Aunger (1989).

“Significance of the social relationships of Efe pygmy men in the Ituri Forest, Zaire,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 78:495-507.
Bailey, Robert C., and Robert Aunger (1989).

Book Chapters:

‘Three Roads to Cultural Replication’. Evolutionary Psychology and Information Systems Research: A New Approach to Studying the Effects of Modern Technologies on Human Behavior, edited by Ned Kock. Springer Verlag. Robert Aunger (in press)

‘Stage models of behaviour change’. Health Psychology (2nd edition), edited by David P French, A Kaptein, K Vedhara and John Weinman. Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell. Sniehotta, Falko and Robert Aunger (in press)

Human communication as niche construction,” in Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution, ed. by Stephen Shennan. University of California Press.
Aunger, Robert (in press).

Practical aspects of evolutionary medicine’, in Sarah Elton and Paul O’Higgins, eds. Medicine and Evolution: Current Applications, Future Prospects, SSHB series volume 47.
Bentley, Gillian and Robert Aunger (in press)

Memes,” in Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychology, ed. by Leslie Barrett and Robin Dunbar. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Aunger, Robert (2007).

What’s the matter with memes?” in Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, ed. by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Aunger, Robert (2006).

An agnostic on memes,” in Social Information Transmission and Human Biology, ed. by Jonathan Wells, Simon Strickland and Kevin Laland. London: Taylor and Francis, pp. 89-97.
Aunger, Robert (2006).

“Memes,” in The Social Science Encyclopedia (3rd ed), ed. by Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper. London: Routledge.
Aunger, Robert (2004).

“Cultural transmission and diffusion,” in Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, ed. by Lynn Nadel. London: MacMillan.
Aunger, Robert (2003).

Introduction” in Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, ed. by Robert Aunger, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-23.
Aunger, Robert (2001).

Conclusion” in Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, ed. by Robert Aunger, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 205-32.
Aunger, Robert (2001)

“Qualitative methodology,” in The Dictionary of Cultural Anthropology, ed. by Thomas Barfield, London: Basil Blackwell, pp. 386-7.
Aunger, Robert, and Malcolm Dow (1997).

“Sexuality, infertility, and sexually transmitted disease among farmers and foragers in Central Africa,” in Sexual Nature/Sexual Culture, ed.University of Chicago Press, pp. 195-222.
Paul R. Bailey, Robert C., and Robert Aunger (1995). Abramson and Steven D. Pinkerton,

Articles in Popular Journals & Magazines:

Culture vultures” The Sciences 39 (5):36-42
Aunger, Robert (1999).

The end of the nation-state” The Edge, vol. 62
Aunger, Robert (2000).

Is the Central Dogma of biology inviolate?” The Edge, vol. 80
Aunger, Robert (2001).

What now? [reflections on the terrorist attacks in the US]” The Edge
Aunger, Robert (2001).

Is technology going to ‘wake up’ or ‘come alive’ anytime in the future?” The Edge
Aunger, Robert (2002).

Anthropologist as science advisor to the US President.” The Edge
Aunger, Robert (2003).

Aunger’s Laws” The Edge
Aunger, Robert (2004).

Should you require a copy of a paper that is not available here please use the contact form above or click HERE. Please mark the message for the attention of Robert Aunger.

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