Alternative statistical approaches to the use of data as evidence for hypotheses in human behavioral ecology


  • Mary C. Towner,

    1. Mary C. Towner is a human behavioral ecologist and postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. She has used archival records and computer modeling to investigate human dispersal in historical New England and is currently developing new methods for studying cultural evolution and trait transmission in cross-cultural datasets
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  • Barney Luttbeg

    1. Barney Luttbeg is a behavioral ecologist in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on how behavioral flexibility shapes ecological and evolutionary dynamics
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In their ambitious Evolutionary Anthropology paper, Winterhalder and Smith1 review the history, theory, and methods of human behavioral ecology (HBE). In establishing how HBE differs from traditional approaches within sociocultural anthropology, they and others laud its hypothetical-deductive research method.1–3 Our aim is to critically examine how human behavioral ecologists conduct their research, specifically how they analyze and interpret data as evidence for scientific hypotheses. Through computer simulations and a review of empirical studies of human sex ratios, we consider some limitations of the status quo and present alternatives that could strengthen the field. In particular, we suggest that because human behavioral ecologists often consider multiple hypotheses, they should use statistical approaches that can quantify the evidence in empirical data for competing hypotheses. Although we focus on HBE, the principles of this paper apply broadly within biological anthropology.