Anthropology Evolutionary Theory
by
Jonathan Marks
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0080

Introduction

Evolutionary theory is often distinguished from the fact of the historical, genealogical relationships among species. There have been various theories proposed to explain different aspects of those relationships. Some have stood up poorly (such as the idea that an organism recapitulates its evolutionary history as an embryo). All have been enthusiastically applied to humans, with varying degrees of circumspection and merit. This has created a longstanding tension between anthropology and evolution, for “evolution” here may stand for many diverse ideas and schools of thought. The leading original theorist in evolutionary biology for the first half of the 20th century was the Russian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (b. 1900–d. 1975); and for the latter half of the 20th century was the American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (b. 1941–d. 2002).

Journals

The primary literature tends to incorporate the scholarly bifurcation of biology into neontological works (studying living organisms, generally using ecological and genetic data) and paleontological works (studying ancient organisms, generally using fossil anatomical data). Academic paleontologists tend to be housed in departments of geology, rather than biology. Biological anthropologists, however, tend to transcend these academic domains, incorporating paleontology and genetics, as well as animal behavior and physiology, into their evolutionary research and teaching. The relevant primary literature consequently spans a broad range of biology. Nevertheless, since human evolution incorporates many unusual elements (niche construction, symbolic thought, socio-sexual anatomy and behavior, etc.), it is often unclear just how applicable observations on other species may be to understanding our own evolution. The leading journals in biological evolution are Evolution, Systematic Biology, American Naturalist, and Trends in Ecology and Evolution, although there are few papers published specifically on human evolution. Likewise, Paleobiology and the Journal of Molecular Evolution publish key theoretical articles, although rarely specifically or directly applicable to anthropology. Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology and Philosophy make stronger efforts to focus on the relevance of evolutionary biology for understanding human ancestry.

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