Journal of Bioeconomics

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 105–128 | Cite as

Applying evolutionary theory to human behaviour: past differences and current debates

  • Gillian R. BrownEmail author
  • Peter J. Richerson


The aim of this paper is to provide non-specialist readers with an introduction to some current controversies surrounding the application of evolutionary theory to human behaviour at the intersection of biology, psychology and anthropology. We review the three major contemporary sub-fields; namely Human Behavioural Ecology, Evolutionary Psychology and Cultural Evolution, and we compare their views on maladaptive behaviour, the proximal mechanisms of cultural transmission, and the relationship between human cognition and culture. For example, we show that the sub-fields vary in the amount of maladaptive behaviour that is predicted to occur in modern environments; Human Behavioural Ecologists start with the expectation that behaviour will be optimal, while Evolutionary Psychologists emphasize cases of ‘mis-match’ between modern environments and domain-specific, evolved psychological mechanisms. Cultural Evolutionists argue that social learning processes are effective at providing solutions to novel problems and describe how relatively weak, general-purpose learning mechanisms, alongside accurate cultural transmission, can lead to the cumulative evolution of adaptive cultural complexity but also sometimes to maladaptative behaviour. We then describe how the sub-fields view cooperative behaviour between non-kin, as an example of where the differences between the sub-fields are relevant to the economics community, and we discuss the hypothesis that a history of inter-group competition can explain the evolution of non-kin cooperation. We conclude that a complete understanding of human behaviour requires insights from all three fields and that many scholars no longer view them as distinct.


Human Behavioural Ecology Evolutionary Psychology  Cooperation Gene–culture co-evolution Cultural group selection 



This article stems from the authors’ attendance at a Max Planck symposium on ‘Biological determinants and contingencies of economic behavior’ at the Ringberg Castle, Munich. We thank the organiser, Prof. Ulrich Witt for the invitation to participate in the symposium, and we are grateful to the other participants for many stimulating discussions. We also grateful for comments on the manuscript from Curtis Atkisson, Clark Barrett, Rob Boyd, Joe Henrich, Robert Kurzban, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Kevin Laland, Lesley Newson, Ryan Schacht and three anonymous reviewers.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Psychology and NeuroscienceUniversity of St. AndrewsSt. AndrewsUK
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Science and PolicyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

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