International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-1540
Organized session / standard talks
Where biology meets anthropology (1): Philosophical discussions

Jay Odenbaugh (Lewis & Clark College, United States)

Human behavioral ecologists and anthropologists seek evolutionarily grounded explanations of human social behaviors on the expectation that such behaviors will tend to optimize fitness. They’ve been ‘successful’ in the sense that many current and recent social behaviors do seem to have optimized fitness. There are other cases—especially involving changes in family size—where the expectation seems to have been wrong. What should we say about the future of human behavioral ecology and anthropology in the light of such cases? How can we integrate the causal contributions of very different processes? Do humans have a robust enough life history to sustain causal generalizations?

Causation in evolutionary anthropology

Stephen Downes (University of Utah, United States)

Evolutionary anthropologists aim to explain human behavior. Many Evolutionary Anthropologists claim to be providing accounts of the ultimate causes of human behavior, appealing to Mayr’s proximate/ultimate cause distinction. Others claim that their approaches are guided by Tinbergen’s four questions and their explanations are couched in terms of Tinbergen’s four causes. There is a considerable amount of discussion about the merits of the proximate/ultimate cause distinction and a little discussion about the merits of Tinbergen’s four questions approach but there is very little discussion about relations between these approaches to causation and those discussed and defended in philosophy of science (Jun Otsuka, 2014) presents one way of beginning this latter discussion.). I plan to begin the process of assessing whether there is any overlap between approaches to causation invoked by Evolutionary Anthropologists and those presented and defended by Philosophers of Science. I use a few examples from work in Evolutionary Anthropology to anchor my discussion in scientific practice.

It's all in the game: Optimality models and the rules of behavior

Kenneth Blake Vernon (University of Utah, United States)

Behavioral ecologists often claim that “optimality models themselves are never tested.” This claim, although in one respect highly misleading, is nevertheless deeply insightful. Yet many still fail to appreciate its significance. This failure has unfortunate consequences. For proponents of behavioral ecology, it has often led to the needless adoption of a crude sort of instrumentalism about models. For critics, it has led to the hasty and unwarranted assimilation of behavioral ecology to other kinds of evolutionary analysis. To remedy this confusion, I explore the role optimality models play in behavioral ecology. I argue that optimality models, in addition to representing actual behavior, specify rules in accordance with which an individual must act in order to count as performing that behavior. In a word, they explicate the behavior’s meaning or nature. It is this nature that is never tested by any application of the model, at least not directly. Once this role of optimality models is recognized, the way is cleared for a more nuanced account of the possibility for the successful integration of behavioral ecology with other evolutionary approaches to the study of human behavior.

Human nature, anthropology and the problem of variation

Jay Odenbaugh (Lewis & Clark College, United States)

Philosophers of biology have largely agreed that species lack traditional essences. However, many have embraced Richard Boyd's Homeostatic Property Cluster (HPC) account of natural kinds as a successor. In this talk, I consider whether the amount of variation in the life history exhibited by Homo sapiens is consistent with this approach. Specifically, I examine cases studies from anthropology to determine whether we possess nature robust enough for inductive projection. That is, do inductive projections regarding our life history require us to consider groupings larger or smaller than the level of species?