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Human Behavioural Ecology

  1. Monique Borgerhoff Mulder,
  2. Ryan Schacht

Published Online: 15 AUG 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003671.pub2



How to Cite

Borgerhoff Mulder, M. and Schacht, R. 2012. Human Behavioural Ecology. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. University of California at Davis, Davis, California, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 AUG 2012


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.


  • adaptation;
  • evolutionary psychology;
  • foraging theory;
  • life history theory;
  • optimality