Category Archives: Human Ecology

On Culture and Ecological Anthropology

Following up on a thread still circulating on the EANTH List, the question arose of how essential is the concept of culture for defining ecological anthropology. In an earlier post, I had objected to the idea that culture lies at the center of ecological anthropology. For instance, most scholars coming out of an ethological tradition (e.g., primatologists, human behavioral ecologists) see behavior as the focus of their analysis. Especially important for primatologists are relationships, which scale to yield social structure, an idea quite distinct from culture. In the continuing debate on EANTH-L, a suggestion was made that while culture may not be important for primatologists, primatologists are an abject minority of ecological anthropologists and therefore are not really relevant for defining the field. Without “culture” in the definition, ecological anthropology loses its heart. No mention was made of human behavioral ecology (HBE). Here, I post an edited version of my latest contribution to this debate in which I specifically address the role of HBE in ecological anthropology.

It is not just the primatologists among us anthropologists for whom culture is secondary. Surely, most anthropologists (at least in the United States) are primarily interested in culture. But defining a field based on the majority practice is rather hegemonic, no? Human behavioral ecologists, a group of scholars mentioned in the big-tent description of ecological anthropology also focus their analysis on behavior, and specifically decision-making. Culture may play a role in such decision-making processes, but it need not. Some HBE contributers to major questions of interest to ecological anthropologists, broadly construed, include: Mike Alvard on hunting and indigenous resource conservation, Smith and Wishnie on the relationships between conservation and subsistence, Rebecca Bliege Bird and Doug Bird on Aboriginal burning, successional dynamics and subsistence, Bram Tucker on subjective discounting, etc. I list some references following this text of work by human behavioral ecologists who are certainly not on the margins of what I would call ecological anthropology. None of these works rely on the analytic concept of culture as a primary explanation.

Those of us trained in the British Social Anthropology tradition may also be able to relate to a certain ambivalence toward the concept of culture. Though a primatologist by training, I find myself as much influenced by the Manchester School of Social Anthropology (e.g., Max Gluckman, John Barnes, Elizabeth Bott) as I am by Robert Hinde. Both primatologists (with their ethological background) and social anthropologists of the British School focus their analysis on social structure that arises through relationships and other social interactions. It was, after all, the Manchester school that gave rise to the field that came to be known as social network analysis, despite the fact that this field is generally associated with sociology today.

So, yes, by all means let’s pitch a big tent for what we call ecological anthropology, but let’s also cast our definitions of what counts as ecological anthropology in such as way as to be truly inclusive of the various historical traditions within anthropology. Recasting the suggested definition of ecological anthropology somewhat to account for this broader definition, I propose something like:

Ecological anthropology takes as its field of study the role of culture, social structure, and human agency in explaining the dynamic interactions between human populations and the ecosystems in which they are embedded.

This is a rough first approximation. I would like to work in Andrewartha and Birch’s definition of ecology as being the distribution and abundance of species in there as well, but that’s for another day…

Selected References.

Alvard, M. S. 1998. Evolutionary ecology and resource conservation. Evolutionary Anthropology 7 (2):62-74.

Bird, D.W., R. Bliege Bird, and C.H. Parker. 2005. Aboriginal burning regimes and hunting strategies in Australia’s Western Desert. Human Ecology 33: 443-464.

Bliege Bird, R. (2007) Fishing and the sexual division of labor among the Meriam. American Anthropologist 109:442-451.

Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Caro, T and A. O. Msago. 2007. Integrating anthropological, archeological, biological and historical research in a long term conservation study in the Katavi ecosytem. Conservation Biology 21(3): 647-658.

Gurven, M.D., K. Hill, H. Kaplan, A. Hurtado, R. Lyles. 2000. Food transfers among Hiwi foragers of Venezuela: tests of reciprocity. Human Ecology 28(2):171-218.

Hinde, R. A. 1991. A Biologist Looks at Anthropology. Man (n.s.) 26 (4):583-608.

Ruttan, L. M. and M. Borgerhoff Mulder. 1999. Are East African pastoralists truly conservationists? Current Anthropology 40(5):621-652.

Smith, E. A., and M. Wishnie. 2000. Conservation and subsistence in small-scale societies. Annual Review of Anthropology 29:493-524.

Tucker, B. 2006. A future discounting explanation for the persistence of a mixed foraging-horticulture strategy among the Mikea of Madagascar. In Behavioral Ecology and the Transition to Agriculture, edited by D. J. Kennett and B. Winterhalder. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pp. 22-40.

Tucker, B. and L. Rende Taylor 2007. The human behavioral ecology of contemporary world issues: Applications to Public Policy and International Development. Human Nature 18(3): 181-189.

Winterhalder, B., and F. Lu. 1997. A forager-resource population ecology model and implications for indigenous conservation. Conservation Biology 11(6): 1354-1364.

The Requirements for an Ecological Anthropology Curriculum

A question was posted today on the ecological anthropology listserv: What are the basic requirements for an ecological anthropology graduate program? I don’t claim to be qualified to say what these are for the field as a whole, but I am qualified to say what we have decided on in setting up our new ecological and environmental anthropology Ph.D. program at Stanford. Here I include an edited version of the reply I sent to the thread.

At the risk of essentializing, there are, broadly speaking, two general classes of ecological anthropologists: (1) those who use human relationships with the environment as a lens through which to study problems in cultural anthropology (e.g., agency, social structure, the construction of meaning, etc.), and (2) ecologists who study humans as their primary organism. The majority of practitioners currently falling under the latter category are probably human behavioral ecologists, though I can think of some notable exceptions to this. This is the approach our program emphasizes.

In addition to departmental requirements, EE students are required to take the following:

  • Evolutionary Theory
  • Research Methods in Ecological Anthropology
  • Data Analysis in the Anthropological Sciences

All students need to know how to integrate theory, method, and application, but the specific nature of the courses in which they learn that doesn’t matter that much. Therefore, we require three courses from a list of theory-driven graduate classes, including (but not limited to):

  • Advanced Ecological Anthropology
  • Human Behavioral Ecology
  • Conservation and Evolutionary Ecology
  • Demography and Life History Theory
  • Environmental Change and Emerging Infectious Disease

Required classes deal with what you know, but equally important is how you know. We expect our students to engage in research from the outset of their graduate studies. Students attend weekly lab meetings. These can be within the Anthropology department (e.g., Rebecca Bird and I run a joint meeting or we have a joint spatial interest meeting this quarter) or in other departments (e.g., Biology, Woods Institute).  Students also attend a colloquium (comprised of visiting speakers) one quarter out of the year.

We’re big on methods, but we don’t legislate what methods students learn (other than research design and statistics).  Most students are interested in remote sensing and GIS, but we also have students working on social network analysis, demographic methods,  and advanced statistical methodology.

So, that’s our idea for a graduate program.  We will have  a proper web page describing the program in detail some time in the future.

Emerging Screwworm Myiasis

Screwworm myiasis, a disease in which blowflies lay their eggs around wounds or mucous membranes of mammalian (including human) hosts and the developing maggots eat the flesh of their living host, has recently emerged in Yemen.  First reports in Yemen come from December 2007.  The screwworm larvae are very sensitive to cold temperatures so one wonders if this emergence may be related to global warming.  The disease used to be endemic in the  southern United States but was eliminated some time ago. If the emergence of this infection on the Arabian Peninsula is indeed related to changing (probably nighttime) temperatures, then one also has to wonder about the possibility for re-emergence in North America…

Declines in Nature-Based Recreation

A paper by Pergams and Zaradic in the most recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that we are experiencing “a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation.” Using a variety of time series measurements of nature-based recreation (e.g., national park visitations, hunting licenses issued, survey-based estimates of camping participation), Pergams and Zaradic find that per capita participation in such activities has decreased since 1987 at a rate of more than 1% annually. Does this portend dark times for future environmentalism? Maybe. There is evidence (cited in the paper) that people become more environmentally responsible from direct contact with nature and that for adults to care about natural areas, they must be exposed to them as children. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to guess what types of recreational activities are competing with national-park going to cause this decline. Indeed, the authors have coined the term “videophilia” to describe “the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.”


Pergams, O.R.W. and P. A. Zaradic. (2008) Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation PNAS 2008 105: 2295-2300. doi:10.1073/pnas.0709893105

Multi-Species Outbreak of Yellow Fever

There is a troubling outbreak of yellow fever currently affecting a number of South American countries, including Brazil and Paraguay.  Yellow fever is a multi-host infection that can be transmitted between monkeys and humans.  It is almost always fatal for species in the genera Alouatta and Ateles (howler and spider monkeys respectively).  The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has taken note of the real conservation concerns that arise for small populations of these monkeys in the context of the continuing yellow fever outbreak.  In a world of increasingly fragmented local wildlife populations, where human-wildlife contact increases from human intrusion of forests and other ecosystems, control multi-host epidemics is likely to become an integral part of the conservation ecologist’s portfolio.

Why We Pack Our Kids' Lunches

The New York Times reported the largest recall of ground beef ever (143 million pounds) this week.  The recall happened because a California slaughterhouse was caught using downer cows. According to the article:

Of the 143 million pounds that were recalled, 37 million went to make hamburgers, chili and tacos for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs, officials said.

Makes you feel good about these public programs, no?