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Modernizing Evolutionary Anthropology

Introduction to the Special Issue


Evolutionary anthropology has traditionally focused on the study of small-scale, largely self-sufficient societies. The increasing rarity of these societies underscores the importance of such research yet also suggests the need to understand the processes by which such societies are being lost—what we call “modernization”—and the effects of these processes on human behavior and biology. In this article, we discuss recent efforts by evolutionary anthropologists to incorporate modernization into their research and the challenges and rewards that follow. Advantages include that these studies allow for explicit testing of hypotheses that explore how behavior and biology change in conjunction with changes in social, economic, and ecological factors. In addition, modernization often provides a source of “natural experiments” since it may proceed in a piecemeal fashion through a population. Challenges arise, however, in association with reduced variability in fitness proxies such as fertility, and with the increasing use of relatively novel methodologies in evolutionary anthropology, such as the analysis of secondary data. Confronting these challenges will require careful consideration but will lead to an improved understanding of humanity. We conclude that the study of modernization offers the prospect of developing a richer evolutionary anthropology, by encompassing ultimate and proximate explanations for behavior expressed across the full range of human societies.

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    Although historical demography is another common approach to this issue (see, e.g., Clarke and Low 2001; Voland 2000).

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    This is not to suggest that human evolution always proceeds slowly.


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David Lawson and Mary Shenk provided many important insights on this paper that helped to sharpen the discussion. Conversations with the participants of the AAA symposium in which these ideas were developed, including the authors of articles herein and those who were not able to contribute, also stimulated us to think critically about how modernization can be incorporated into evolutionary anthropology. Finally, we thank Charles Darwin for extending insights based on a modern, contrived process [artificial selection] to an invisible, but deeply influential process [natural selection] shaping humanity, past and present.

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Correspondence to Siobhán M. Mattison.

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Mattison, S.M., Sear, R. Modernizing Evolutionary Anthropology. Hum Nat 27, 335–350 (2016).

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  • Human behavioral ecology
  • Evolutionary behavioral anthropology
  • Modernization
  • Demography
  • Biomarkers
  • Mixed methods