Biocultural Anthropology

The Graduate Program in Biocultural Anthropology focuses on ecological, physiological, and demographic aspects of human biocultural variation within the frameworks of human adaptability and evolution.  Our research and teaching highlight factors that shape human diversity across the entire range of global and historical variation.

 Although human variation has long been a central concern of biological anthropology, the field has experienced a transformation from a largely descriptive science to one with a central focus on theoretical and analytical approaches. Consequently, our program embraces recent advances in statistical methods and laboratory analysis, allowing us to develop and test etiologic models of biology and behavior using field-based observations. Central to our research is an understanding that humans have evolved not only in response to environmental factors, but also continue to shape and modify their environments in response to perceptions, cultural constructs, behavior, and technology.

The diverse lines of inquiry in which members of the biocultural program engage are unified by a central focus on neo-Darwinian theory as it illuminates the nexus of biology and culture. Our approach draws on multiple levels of explanation, from the ultimate (in evolutionary, comparative terms) to the proximate (in molecular and behavioral terms). At many universities these levels of analysis—ultimate versus proximate—are separated along disciplinary and sub-disciplinary lines, affording limited intellectual exchange. Our holistic approach serves to minimize scholarly and academic divisions by emphasizing the integration of multidisciplinary approaches to the study of human biological and behavioral diversity.

Areas of Specialization

Areas of specialization in the biocultural program include:

  • Behavioral Ecology—provides a major bridge between the theoretical foundations of biological anthropology and evolutionary biology and the complexities of human behavioral and cultural variation.  Students are exposed to fundamental principles that guide current research in evolutionary studies of behavior, including optimization models, evolutionary game theory, levels of selection debates, phenotypic adaptation, and theories of cultural evolution.
  • Anthropological Demography—addresses the basic mechanisms of fertility, mortality, and population composition and structure in evolutionary perspective Our training places fertility and mortality within an integrated theoretical biocultural framework drawing from demography, biology, evolutionary theory, social network analysis, behavioral ecology, political economy, and cultural anthropology.  A new and growing focus in our program is biodemography.  Most of the biocultural faculty are affiliates of the University of Washington’s Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology (CSDE) a federally funded population center.
  • Human Ecology—examines the biological aspects of reproduction, health, stress, immune function and behavior, from mechanistic, cross-cultural and evolutionary perspectives. New methods and models have advanced this field rapidly in recent years, and our faculty specialize in these areas. Our Biological Anthropology and Biodemography Laboratory supports the anthropological study of human and non-human primate reproduction.
  • Human Disease Ecology—the health status of a population is regarded as a measure of the effectiveness with which individuals or groups adapt to their environment. Indicators of health include a variety of measures such as mortality, diet, nutritional status, growth patterns, and morbidity.  Unique to the approach of anthropologists is that we are interested in the interface between human biology and sociocultural practices. Moreover, from a historical perspective, we examine the interactions between biology, culture, and the environment to inform our understanding of the factors that have shaped human evolution, and which may continue to influence the welfare of our species in the future.  One of our foci within this set of interactions is the study of human behavior and social structure and their effects on infectious disease transmission and evolution.
  • Human Paleontology—is by its very nature highly interdisciplinary, requiring knowledge of biology, geology, human behavior, and archaeology, as well as the details of human paleontology itself. Within the Department of Anthropology, students of human paleontology will complete courses in osteology and human paleontology and may take courses in the sociocultural program concerning human ecology and field methods taught in the archaeology program. Outside our department, students are encouraged to take courses in vertebrate paleontology and evolutionary mechanisms as part of the UW Paleobiology group. Our faculty are particularly interested in the biomechanics and energetics of locomotion.
  • Nonhuman Primates–the study of our very close primate relatives provides comparative data for understanding the human condition from an evolutionary perspective. Additionally, they are useful biological models for research on the etiology of various biomedical conditions. Our faculty study non-human primate growth and development, reproduction, and aging of the musculoskeletal system. Faculty are affiliated with numerous primate research centers, including the Washington National Primate Research Center.

Graduate Students

One year of general biology and at least one core course each in cultural anthropology and archaeology are recommended before entering the Graduate Program in Biocultural Anthropology.

PhD graduate students must complete the core curriculum, take the comprehensive examination and the general examination, present a dissertation colloquium, fulfill a teaching requirement, complete a dissertation, and defend it in the final examination.  To find out more, please visit the Graduate Program part of our website.