Human Behavioural Ecology


Human behavioural ecology emerged in the mid‐1970s as a result of applying the theory of evolution by natural selection to the study of human behaviour. Using explicit models to derive hypotheses that are tested with quantitative data primarily drawn from traditional human communities, it offers a natural science of sociocultural diversity. Recent activity in this field lies in the study of the family, in life history theory and in individual and collective interests, and increasingly the field of enquiry moves from traditional communities to modern industrial societies. Current challenges include incorporating the mechanisms underlying adaptive behaviour, and the developmental and historical causes of human behavioural variability.

Key Concepts:

  • Human behavioural ecology (HBE) relies on the phenotypic gambit, the claim that how a trait is inherited does not seriously constrain adaptive responses to ecological variation.

  • HBE derives testable hypotheses from either graphical or mathematically explicit models anchored in basic principles of evolution by natural selection.

  • An HBE perspective integrates topics that are typically somewhat distinct in conventional anthropology – subsistence, marriage, reciprocity, kinship, demography, politics, ritual and health – into a unified theoretical enquiry.

  • Initial explorations of HBE were in the field of foraging (hunter‐gatherer) subsistence behaviour, drawing explicitly from optimal foraging theory.

  • An early and enduring focus in HBE is why human communities exhibit such variable culturally sanctioned mating patterns, formalised as marriage rules and marital payments.

  • Organisms face two major allocation decisions, the first between growth and reproduction, and the second between the number of offspring produced and the amount to be invested in each.

  • Distinctive features of human life histories, compared to those of other primates and mammals, include: a very large brain, an exceptionally long lifespan, an extended period of juvenile dependence, support of reproduction by older post‐reproductive individuals and other kin, and men's support of reproduction through the provisioning of women and their offspring.

  • The individual selectionist perspective of behavioural ecology highlights the conflict of interests among individuals at each level as well as the potential for cooperation within and between groups, as do some schools within economics, political science and sociology.

  • The focus of behavioural ecology (both human and other) is principally on adaptive function, whereas evolutionary psychology focuses on mechanism, and cultural evolutionary theory on the transmission of cultural traits.

  • Behavioural ecologists predict matching between behavioural strategy and context irrespective of whether humans reach this adaptive strategy as a consequence of genes, psychological mechanism or the learning of culture.

Keywords: adaptation; evolutionary psychology; foraging theory; life history theory; optimality

Figure 1.

Direction of parental sex‐bias. The vertical axis shows the ratio of the benefit of inherited wealth to sons (BS) and daughters (BD). The horizontal axis shows the probability of paternity (P). The solid black line BS/BD=1/P shows when it is equally adaptive to invest in sons’ and daughters’ children. For values above this line, it is adaptive to invest in sons; for values below this line, it is adaptive to invest in daughters. Broken lines show empirically derived values of BS/BD for two African societies, the Gabbra (dotted line) and Chewa (dashed line). The point where these lines cross the solid line (BS/BD=1/P) shows the critical value of P needed to make daughter biased wealth inheritance adaptive in that society (P<0.36 in the Gabbra, P<0.94 in the Chewa). Adapted with permission from Holden C, Sear R and Mace R (2003) Matriliny as daughter‐biased investment. Evolution and Human Behavior24: 99–112. Copyright by Elsevier.

Figure 2.

The relationship between fertility and reproductive success. According to life‐history theory, an organism that maximises fitness will face a trade‐off between female fertility and offspring survivorship. These data from the Dogon of Mali (West Africa, n = 55 woman) show the predicted nonlinear relationship between women's fertility and reproductive success. Reproductive success is measured as survival to age 10, and each ‘petal’ on a data point represents an additional case; the regression line in bold is shown with 95% confidence limits. Adapted with permission from Strassmann BI and Gillespie B (2002) Life‐history theory, fertility and reproductive success in humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B269: 553–562. Copyright by The Royal Society.

Figure 3.

Women's age at first birth increases nonlinearly with life expectancy at birth (Smoothing Spline Fit, λ=2000; R2=0.677). Countries are denoted by their Human Development Index (HDI) rank (a complex measure of quality of life). The association between life expectancy and age at first birth is positive and statistically significant within all three HDI ranks, although high, moderate and low human development countries occupy different parts of the curve. The pattern among countries with high HDI rank (Norway, United States, Japan, etc.) suggests a relatively strong relationship between life expectancy and age at first birth within the most developed nations. Adapted with permission from Low et al.. Copyright by Sage Publications.

Figure 4.

Mean dictator game offers for each population plotted against market integration. Market integration is associated with greater fairness, as measured by an individual's contribution to an anonymous coplayer made in the dictator game across 15 different communities. These findings suggest that new social norms and informal institutions may have emerged in our species to support social interaction in ever‐widening socioeconomic spheres with non‐kin and strangers. Error bars are bootstrapped standard errors on the population mean. Adapted with permission from Henrich et al. (2010). Copyright by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.



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Further Reading

Cronk L, Changon N and Irons W (eds) (2000) Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Dunbar R and Barrett L (eds) (2007) Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Richerson PJ and Boyd R (2005) Not by Genes Alone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith EA and Winterhalder B (1992) Evolutionary Ecology and Human Behavior. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Voland E (2000) Contributions of family reconstitution studies to evolutionary reproductive ecology. Evolutionary Anthropology 9: 134–146.

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Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique, and Schacht, Ryan(Aug 2012) Human Behavioural Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003671.pub2]