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Current Positions

2017 – Present
Postdoc in the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group at the University of Oxford. Oxford, United Kingdom.

2016 – Present
Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Jena, Germany.


Academic Articles

Gray, R.D., & Watts, J. (2017). Cultural macroevolution matters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

Bulbulia, J., Fraser, G., Watts, J., Gray, R.D. (2017). Can honest signaling theory clarify religion’s role in the evolution of social inequality? Religion, Brain & Behavior.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (2016). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature.

Watts, J. Bulbulia, J., Gray, R.D., & Atkinson, Q.D. (2016). Clarity and Causality Needed in Claims about Big Gods (Commentary). Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Watts, J., Greenhill, S., Atkinson, Q., Currie, T., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R. (2015). Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biology.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Greenhill, S.J., Gomes-Ng, S., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (2015). Pulotu: Database of Austronesian Supernatural Beliefs and Practices. PLoS ONE.

Atkinson, Q., Latham, A., & Watts, J. (2014). Are big gods a big deal in the emergence of big groups? Religion, Brain & Behaviour.

Low, J., & Watts, J. (2013). Attributing false-beliefs about object identity is a signature blindspot in humans’ efficient mindreading system. Psychological Science.

Book Chapters

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (Submitted). Ritual Human Sacrifice and the Darker Role of Religion in Human History. Empirical Studies in the Cognitive Science of Religion (Ed. D.J. Slone). Bloomsbury Academic.

Bulbulia, J., Watts, J., & Gray, R.D. (Submitted). The New Collaborative Scientific Study of Religious History.

Articles for a General Audience

Watts, J. (2016). How human sacrifice helped to enforce social inequality. Aeon.

Watts, J. (2016). The Function of Human Sacrifice in Ancient Societies. The Conversation, This View of Life and IFL Science.

Watts, J. (2015). Did Fear In Supernatural Punishment Build Complex Societies? This View of Life.


Greater political hierarchy predicts faster conversion to Christianity (Talk). European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association Annual Conference. Paris, France.

Pulotu, the Database of Pacific Religions: Construction and Data Analysis (Talk). Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University. Stanford, U.S.A.

Announcing Pulotu! A Public Database of Pacific Supernatural Belief and Practice (Talk). World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions. Erfurt, Germany.

The Social Control Hypothesis of Human Sacrifice (Talk). Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group, University of Oxford. Oxford, United Kingdom.

The Function of Human Sacrifice in Austronesia (Talk). Human Behaviour and Evolution Society. Columbia, Missouri, U.S.A.

The Evolution of Religion (Talk). Ph.D. Seminar Series. Auckland, NZ.

Big Gods and Big Societies (Talk). In-House Convention. Auckland, NZ.

The Evolution of Moralising Gods and Political Complexity (Talk). Allan Wilson Center Conference. Palmerston North, NZ.

Scholarships & Awards

Ph.D. thesis awarded place on Dean’s List, University of Auckland.

University of Auckland Ph.D. Scholarship.

John Templeton Foundation Ph.D. Scholarship, provided by grant to R.D. Gray.

3 x First in Course Awards, University of Auckland.

Summer Research Scholarship, Victoria University of Wellington.


Quantitative Methods Spring School, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Tutor for testing co-evolution using Pagel’s Discrete

Life Sciences Kolleg, German National Academic Foundation

Guest lecturer on the cultural evolution of religion (Postgraduate course)

School of Psychology, University of Auckland

Graduate Teaching Assistant for Evolution, Behaviour, and Cognition (seminar based tutorials for 3rd year undergraduate course)

Guest lecturer for Evolution, Behaviour, and Cognition (Undergraduate course)

School of Art History, Classics & Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

Invited lecture for Advanced Studies in Religion and Society (Postgraduate course)

Invited lecture for The World’s Religions (Undergraduate course)

Education & Workshops

Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences Masterclass. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany.

Ph.D., School of Psychology, University of Auckland

Anthrotree Workshop, Durham, U.S.A.

B.Sc. Psychology, Honours (First Class), University of Auckland

B.Sc. Psychology and Philosophy, Victoria University of Wellington

Other Editorial, Research & Leadership Experience

Regional Editor for The Database of Religious History.

Managed, oversaw and designed Pulotu, the database of Austronesian religion and culture.

Fieldwork, Tanna Island, Vanuatu (26th June till the 24th July).

Fieldwork, Tanna Island, Vanuatu (11th March till the 14th April).

Media Coverage


Science. Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex. By Emily Benson.

Nature. How human sacrifice propped up the social order. By Philip Ball. Re-posted in Scientific American.

IFL Science. Human Sacrifice May Have Played A Role In The Evolution Of Modern Societies. By Janet Fang.

The Guardian. Study shows human sacrifice was less likely in more equal societies. By Tim Radford.

New York Times. Why Some Societies Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice. By Tatiana Schlossberg.

Washington Post. The ‘darker link’ between ancient human sacrifice and our modern world. By Sarah Kaplan. Re-posted in The Independent, Stuff.co.nz, and The Age.

Nature podcasts. Sacrificial Man. With Kerri Smith and Adam Levy.

CBC Radio. Human sacrifice helped build complex civilizations. With Bob McDonald.

The Huffington Post. Ritual Human Sacrifice Maintains Heirachy, Says University of Auckland Study. By Cayla Dengate.

Smithsonian. Human Sacrifices May Lie Behind the Rise of Ancient Social Status. By Maya Wei-Haas.

New Scientist. Has ritual human sacrifice shaped societies and class systems? By Colin Barras.

NZ Herald. Human sacrifice in NZ used to keep power.

Daily Mail. Human sacrifice played a key role in shaping ancient societies: Brutal butchery of the lower classes created a hierarchy and helped the elite gain power. By Sarah Griffiths.

NPR (US National Public Radio). Human Sacrifice Is Linked To Social Hierarchies In New Study. By Bill Chappell.

Radio NZ. The History Of Human Sacrifice. With Jesse Mulligan.

Radio Live NZ. Historical human sacrifice about class warfare. With Alison Mau and Willie Jackson.

Popular Science. Human Sacrifice May Have Helped Create Complex Societies. By Grennan Milliken.

International Buisness Times. Human sacrifice: How religious rituals played dark role in rise of complex societies. By Hannah Osborne.

Anthropology.net. Ritual Human Sacrifice Paved Way For Complex Societies. By Kambiz Kamrani.

ZME Science. Human sacrifice may have helped the elite consolidate its position. By Tibi Puiu.

The Christian Science Monitor. Did human sacrifice create our social hierarchies? By Eva Botkin-Kowacki.

ABC Online. Human sacrifice may have helped build and sustain social class systems. By Dani Cooper.

The Conversation. Why did early human societies practice violent human sacrifice? By Joseph Watts. Re-posted in IFL Science.

Ars Technica. Thanks to math, we can calculate the benefits of human sacrifice. By Annalee Newitz.

Tech Times. Human Sacrifice May Have Helped Shape Complex Societies. By Alyssa Navarro.

Nature World News.
Ritual Human Sacrifices Helped Build Up Social Classes, New Study Reveals.
By Jhay Are See.


Nature. Complex societies evolved without belief in all-powerful deity. By Philip Ball. Re-posted in Scientific American, and The Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Science. To foster complex societies, tell people a god is watching. By Lizzie Wade.

International Business Times. Belief in supernatural punishment not ‘big gods’ gave rise to complex societies. By Hannah Osborne.

Daily Mail. Civilisation does NOT need faith in God: Belief in supreme being doesn’t play a role in forming complex societies, study finds. By Richard Gray.

This View of Life. Did Fear In Supernatural Punishment Build Complex Societies? By Joseph Watts.

Nautilus. Which Comes First, Big Cities or Big Gods? By Robert Hackett.