In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Behavioral Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Textbooks
  • Inclusive Fitness, Cooperative Breeding, and Grandparental Investment
  • Inheritance
  • Cooperation
  • Conflict and Competition
  • Cultural Transmission (Dual-Inheritance Theory)
  • Environmental Extremeness, Unpredictability, and Risk Taking
  • Conservation: How Behavioral Ecology Predicts Patterns

Evolutionary Biology Human Behavioral Ecology
Bobbi Low
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0076


Human behavioral ecology (HBE) asks how environmental conditions—physical, biotic, and social—shape human lifetimes and behavior. Along with evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and dual-inheritance theory it is one of four major evolutionary approaches to the study of human behavior. Based in evolutionary theory, behavioral ecology tests hypotheses designed to understand the ultimate causation of the patterns we see—the selective pressures that shape these patterns. It seeks to understand the actual function of behaviors. Behavioral ecology employs selectionist logic (in any given environment, what strategy is fitness maximizing?), decision rules to understand conditional strategies and facultative traits, and optimization techniques. It begins with simple models and employs what we call the “phenotypic gambit”—a simplifying assumption that allows us to examine behaviors without regard to the particulars of inheritance. Analyses may be ethnographic studies of one society, comparative (e.g., cross-cultural), or experimental (game theoretic), or may employ modeling. Of course, in modern human groups, this gambit may or may not be effective; we change environments quite rapidly, but our behavior is extraordinarily flexible. Thus, great care is important in defining terms and making inferences. There is considerable overlap between HBE and evolutionary anthropology; a writer’s choice of terms appears to reflect his or her academic background. Dual-inheritance theory also overlaps greatly because it seeks to understand the roles cultural transmission has in shaping our evolution and behavior. The related field of evolutionary psychology caught journalists’ eyes, and the term has come to be widely used, even when it is not appropriate. Many evolutionary psychologists are concerned primarily with mental models and the forces that shape them, but journalists sometimes call papers on life history pacing, for example, “evolutionary psychology,” although they clearly are not. In short, interesting papers can be found in all these categories—which in fact can overlap greatly.

General Overviews

A number of works reflect the various approaches to HBE, ranging from overviews for a broad audience to more-detailed summaries and analyses of different approaches for specialists. Cronk 1991 and Borgerhoff Mulder 1991 are perhaps the earliest works to use the term “human behavioral ecology” in print; they are classic introductions. Smith 2000, an important contribution, delineates the sometimes-subtle differences among behavioral ecology and other approaches to studying adaptive responses of humans. Winterhalder and Smith 2000 is a coherent assessment of evolutionary (or behavioral) ecology from its beginnings, with excellent coverage. Low 2015 takes a life history approach to sex differences in traditional, historical, and (less deeply) modern Western societies. Nettle, et al. 2013 is a forward-looking summary; Brown and Richerson 2014 gives a nice analysis of modern controversies and tracks developments in cultural-evolution theory. Laland and Brown 2011 not only tracks the development of theory, but it treats early and nontrivial political attacks. A fine resource for anyone mastering early-21st-century papers is Kermyt Anderson’s online compendium of behavioral ecology papers from 2000 through 2013 (Human Behavioral Ecology Bibliography).

  • Borgerhoff Mulder, M. 1991. Human behavioural ecology. In Behavioural ecology: An evolutionary approach. 3d ed. Edited by J. R. Krebs and N. B. Davies, 69–98. London: Blackwell Scientific.

    This overview analyzes human patterns in the context of broad behavioral ecology. It may have been the first time a standard work on behavioral ecology written for biologists included a review of work on HBE. The volume was the third of a series of four edited volumes on current issues in behavioral ecology.

  • Brown, G. R., and P. J. Richerson. 2014. Applying evolutionary theory to human behaviour: Past differences and current debates. Journal of Bioeconomics 16.2: 105–128.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10818-013-9166-4

    This modern comparison of the fields considering human behavior has excellent summaries; it also clarifies and tracks early-21st-century advances in cultural evolution.

  • Cronk, L. 1991. Human behavioral ecology. Annual Review of Anthropology 20:25–53.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This cogent summary of the basics of HBE is one of the first scholarly treatments of the subject. Though much has been learned in the ensuing time, this continues to be a very nice introduction.

  • Human Behavioral Ecology Bibliography (HBEB).

    This is not, strictly speaking, an introduction to HBE; rather, it is a comprehensive collection of HBE papers from 2000 through 2013. A labor of love by Kermyt Anderson, it is a wonderful tool to uncover papers in HBE.

  • Laland, K. N., and G. R. Brown. 2011. Sense and nonsense: Evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is a balanced treatment of evolutionary approaches to human behavior, and a good summary of early political attacks. Its last chapter compares the approaches, using the broader “cultural evolution” rather than “evolutionary anthropology,” to make clear the concept that selective forces are still active in the early 21st century.

  • Low, B. S. 2015. Why sex matters: A Darwinian look at human behavior. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400852352

    This examines life history strategies and sex differences; original edition was published in 2000. Covers basics of selection (chapters 1, 2), life history (6, 7, 8), mating effort (2, 4, 5), cooperation and conflicts (9, 10), and warfare (13, 14). The final chapter (15) examines how our evolutionary past—the way we evolved to get and use resources—influences modern conservation issues.

  • Nettle, D., M. A. Gibson, D. W. Lawson, and R. Sear. 2013. Human behavioral ecology: Current research and future prospects. Behavioral Ecology 24.5: 1031–1040.

    DOI: 10.1093/beheco/ars222

    This assessment of the strengths of a behavioral-ecological approach emphasizes more-recent papers, including those on modern industrial populations. It summarizes the growth of HBE in a number of major journals. Commentaries follow the paper.

  • Smith, E. A. 2000. Three styles in the evolutionary analysis of human behavior. In Adaptation and human behavior: An anthropological perspective. Edited by L. Cronk, N. Chagnon, and W. Irons, 27–46. Evolutionary Foundations of Human Behavior. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Smith compares behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, and dual-inheritance theory in their approaches and assumptions, making clear the advantages and pitfalls of each. The boundaries can be fuzzy. This is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the similarities and divergences (and arguments) among these closely related fields.

  • Winterhalder, B., and E. A. Smith. 2000. Analyzing adaptive strategies: Human behavioral ecology at twenty-five. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 9.2: 51–72.

    This collection is a unified, coherent overview of advances in selectionist thinking from the mid-1970s to 2000. It covers theoretical foundations, closest kin, resources, work and space, and reproduction and social relations.

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