Table of contents
Table of contents
Biological Anthropology
Unit 5

Human Behavior

An illustration shows silhouettes of people fighting in front of a background of black silhouetted hands holding up their index and middle fingers.

Biological anthropologists are interested in human behavior and what role evolution, genetics, and biology play in determining why we act the way we do. In this unit, students will learn about some of the current discussions regarding aspects of human behavior and what current events may indicate about our ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

Professor Talking Points
  • Questions about why humans behave as we do are contemplated in a variety of disciplines.
  • For biological anthropologists, the evolutionary roots of modern humans are of particular interest in explaining why we act and interact as we do.
  • Humans have evolved to be social and cooperative, and to communicate using language and nonverbal cues.
  • From an evolutionary view, biological anthropological queries about human nature include: whether or not humans are naturally violent, how we compare to other primates in our behaviors, and to what extent our environment, upbringing, and evolutionary background shape how we behave.
Academic Articles
  1. Kissel, Marc, and Nam C. Kim. 2018. “The Emergence of Human Warfare: Current Perspectives.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 168 (67): 141–163.

  2. Schmidt, Karen L., and Jeffrey F. Cohn. 2001. “Human Facial Expressions as Adaptations: Evolutionary Questions in Facial Expression Research.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 116 (33): 3–24.

Student Discussion Questions
  1. What are the pros and cons of observing nonhuman primates in attempts to understand human behavior?
  2. What do Kissel and Kim (2018) conclude about the nature of humans and organized violence? How do cooperation and communication, two human strong suits, play into the authors’ arguments about the origins of violence?
  3. Why are social distancing and isolation so difficult for humans? What types of behaviors can we expect to see in people who are lonely and isolated?
  4. What have you learned about the study of nonverbal communication? Why is it of interest to biological anthropologists?
  • Split the class into two groups and have them debate the question of “Why Are Humans Violent?”
  • Have the students watch psychologist Steven Pinker’s TED Talk “The Surprising Decline in Violence.” His is a controversial argument. Have the students find anthropological critiques of it and write a paper on the evidence and arguments for/against Pinker’s viewpoint.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: SAPIENS’ “Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange

  2. Podcast: SAPIENS’ “Does Generosity Come Naturally?

  3. TED Talk: Robert Sapolsky’s “The Biology of Our Best and Worst Selves

Unit By

Eshe Lewis (2020)

Unit 1

Archaeological Methods

A person wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt, dark jeans, and orange gloves uses a brush to clean debris off a rock in front of them.