Chapter 1. What is Human Ecology?
Chapter 2. Environment, Technology, and Culture
What Is Human Ecology?
Chapter 1. WHAT IS HUMAN ECOLOGY?
Another Unique Species
(Title of Robert Foley’s 1987 book on evolutionary human ecology)
What is human ecology? Human ecology is an approach to the study of human behavior marked by two committments. First, human ecologists think that humans should be studied living systems operating in complex environments. The human sciences are balkanized into several social science, humanistic, and human biological disciplines. Ecologists are used to thinking that systemic nature of individual organisms and populations of organisms mean that we typically have to understand how diverse parts of the system operate together to produce behavior. The traditional human science disciplines take people apart; human ecologists endeavor to put us back together. Breaking complex problems down to operationally tractable parts is a great strategy, but only so long as some are comitted to puting them back together in the end! Second, human ecologists think that humans are subject to very similar ecological and evolutionary processes as any other species.
Of course, humans are unique, and this fact has important consequences. However, we think that the deep rifts between human biologists and social scientists (and between scientists and humanists for that matter) are a deeply embarassing scandal that honest scholars are obligated to repair as expeditiously as possible.
Why study human ecology? As Dr. Vila puts it: “I regard the study of human ecology as much more than an enjoyable intellectual challenge. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life dealing with human aggression and violence: as a young Marine in Viet Nam; as a street cop in Los Angeles; as a police chief in the emerging island nations of Micronesia; and as one of the people responsible for planning for the continuity of our national government in the event of a nuclear war. These experiences have led me to believe that it is imperative that we gain a fundamental understanding of why humans sometimes cooperate and behave altruistically—and why they sometimes act in the opposite fashion.”
The lack of good, well-verified answers to the big questions in human ecology, and in the human sciences more generally, is a bit scary. Our high level of ignorance of the causes of human behavior is not reassuring. Several of the ideas we will introduce are positively chilling. For example, we will discuss the idea that arms races and the dangerous game of war are virtually a natural phenomenon and thus extremely difficult to control. We will also discuss evidence that there is no guarantee that human collectivities can act according to
What Is Human Ecology?
simple norms of rationality, and how absurd cultural norms can arise through simple systematic processes involving positive feedback (i.e., vicious cycles). Sleepless nights can result from the realization that we share the planet with a large, dangerous, unpredictable animal—each other. Writing some lectures in this course sometimes feels a bit like writing the script for a horror movie, except that it really happens! Perhaps the most important practical message of this course is this:
THE PRACTICAL MESSAGE:
We do not yet know enough about humans to reliably control our more dangerous and destructive behaviors. Until we do, the human adventure is liable to be often a little more exciting than one would like. No need to panic right here right now, but, as you know from the newspaper things can get hairy!
Of course, people are often beautiful, charming and certainly always interesting. For scientists, there is the challenge of the unknown. If people were well understood they’d also be boring. Let us not overdo the misanthropy!
Welcome to the frontier! Human ecology is an area of science where the frontier