piet.vandenberg (at kuleuven.be)


Hi, I’m Piet. It’s pronounced Pete. I’m an Assistant Professor working at KU Leuven, in Belgium.

I try to take an interdisciplinary approach to understanding evolution from different perspectives. I study evolution a wide variety of organisms (from bacteria to humans), with focus on a wide variety of research questions (from social evolution to adaptation to uncertainty), using a wide variety of methods (from large interactive decision making experiments to evolutionary simulation models). My main interests include, but are by no means limited to:

  1. The evolution of social heuristics. Rather than fully analyzing the situation they find themselves in and identifying the optimal behavioral response, organisms often use rules of thumb to determine their behavior in many kinds of social and non-social circumstances. Many deviations from optimal decision making, such as the much-studied ‘cognitive biases’, seem to be a result of such crude behavioral mechanisms. Why does evolution produce simple and suboptimal decision making mechanisms, rather than refined responses to each possible situation that may arise? More specifically, how may such mechanisms arise for social behavior, given that social evolution can produce notoriously intricate dynamics? I try to answer these questions with a combination of evolutionary modelling (such as simulation models and evolutionary analysis) and decision making experiments.

  2. Evolutionary modes of adaptation to undercertainty. All organisms face change an uncertainty, and have to find ways to adapt to these pressures. There is a wide palatte of different possible reponses to such pressures, from genetic adaptations to plasticity (including forms of learning) and bet-hedging mechanisms. How do the circumstances impact which kind of adaptation to change and uncertainty evolves? I try to gain insight in this by developing computational and mathematical models, either agnostic of species or specifically applied to bacteria, humans, or anything in between. 

  3. Evolution and individual differences. Organisms from the same species differ from each other. When it comes to humans, psychologists have studied these differences for centuries. More recently, biologists have started to find out that animals of the same species also often exhibit clear and consistent individual differences. Can evolution produce such differences, and if yes, how? Why does evolution produce a variety of different types with relatively rigid behaviors, rather than a single type that flexibly adapts its behavior to the circumstances? I approach these questions with evolutionary modeling techniques such as evolutionary game theory.

In addition to these topics, I have worked on some other topics as well, such as the evolution of parent-offspring conflict over mate choice, and on models of the way people make major life decisions (such as a career).

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