Research Interests (Eric Alden Smith)

As an anthropologist with interests in ecology, evolution, and economics, my research is highly interdisciplinary, and does not fit comfortably within any of the traditional subdisciplines of anthropology, nor even on one side or the other of the natural science/social science divide. My research has its theoretical bases in both biology (particularly evolutionary ecology) and social sciences such as microeconomics, game theory, and sociocultural anthropology. For over 30 years I have helped shape the field of human behavioral ecology, and testing the resulting models and hypotheses with ethnographic data collected in small-scale societies.

My research focuses primarily on the evolutionary-ecological analysis of production and reproduction. Significant contributions include:

1) initiating (along with B. Winterhalder, K. Hill, and K. Hawkes) the evolutionary-ecological study of foraging strategies in contemporary hunter-gatherers, including the first edited volume on the topic (Winterhalder & Smith 1981), a classic review article on the topic (Smith 1983), and the first book-length analysis of foraging strategies in a contemporary hunter-gatherer economy (Smith 1991);

2) an economic-ecological model of land use (Dyson-Hudson and Smith 1978) general enough to explain cross-cultural, historical, and intra-cultural (resource-specific) variation in land tenure in terms of resource parameters (density and predictability) and technoeconomic variables, which other researchers have now successfully applied to a variety of foraging, pastoral, agricultural, and early hominid populations;

3) a series of analyses of the social dimensions of subsistence behavior, including models and tests of optimal versus equilibrial group size (Smith 1981, 1985, 1991), risk-reduction reciprocity (Smith 1983, 1988; Smith and Boyd 1990; Bliege Bird et al. 2002), and most recently of costly signaling via provisioning of collective goods (Smith and Bird 2000; Bliege Bird et al. 2001; Gintis et al. 2001; Smith et al. 2003; Smith and Bliege Bird 2005),

4) application of evolutionary theory to the solution of long-standing questions in anthropological demography, including sex-ratio variation (Smith and Smith 1994; Smith 1993), reproductive skew in hunter-gatherer societies (Smith 2004), and polyandrous marriage (Smith 1998).

My primary fieldwork was conducted in arctic Canada, among Inuit (Canadian Eskimos), but I have also been involved in an NSF-funded project in Torres Strait (tropical Australia) in collaboration with Rebecca Bliege Bird and Douglas Bird (now at Stanford U.) that examines foraging decisions in relation to reproductive strategies, gender relations, and village politics among the Meriam, a Melanesian island population (see below), as well as brief fieldwork on the ecology of hunting and land management among Mardu of the Australian Western Desert (also in collaboration with the Birds).

Current Research

My research over the last few years has focused on the links between reproductive strategies, politics, and subsistence. One project involved a long-term study of a population of Torres Strait Islanders on Mer, in Queensland, Australia, conducted in collaboration with Rebecca Bliege Bird and Douglas Bird (both currently at Stanford University) and funded by NSF (Programs in Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology). This study focused on the interrelations between economic activities (especially marine subsistence harvests), individual status in various domains (political, economic, social), and mating and reproductive decisions. We tested a number of competing hypotheses concerning Meriam status competition, sexual division of labor, resource access, collective action, mate choice, and reproductive success. Results indicate that standard views of the sexual division of labor and of generosity in resource sharing are inadequate, which may have broad implications for understanding the evolution of both economic and mating strategies in our species, and certainly for interpreting the ethnographic and historical record on variation in these areas. We found that reproductive success (number of surviving offspring) covaried with male status rankings in hunting skills, and uncovered some of the avenues through which this covariation works (primarily assortative mating), thus linking this finding to theoretical arguments in evolutionary ecology and economics known as costly signaling theory, a framework that links concepts in economics going back to Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption with current research in evolutionary ecology on animal signaling and sexual selection. I am particularly interested in exploring the ways in which costly signaling may provide one solution to collective action problems, especially in cases where standard models of rational choice or individual adaptation cannot provide explanations for individually costly contributions to collective goods (see citations/links above as well as "List of recent publications").

Another research interest is the relationship between cultural variables and biological diversity.  One strand of this research focuses on the reasons why cultural diversity and biodiversity seem to covary in many parts of the world, and has resulted in one publication thus far (Smith 2001) as well as a collaboration with Luisa Maffi, Victor Toledo, and others sponsored by WWF-International.  A second strand concerns the controversy over indigenous conservation, the topic of a review article in the Annual Review of Anthropology (Smith and Wishnie 2000).

My newest research project focuses on using evolutionary game theory and agent-based modeling to analyze alternative pathways to the development of hierarchical political organization and institutionalized economic inequality. The aim is to develop a clearer understanding of the causal processes and dynamics involved in the transition from egalitarian to hierarchical social systems in human history. This work grew out of a sabbatical (partially funded by NSF) as a visiting scholar at the Santa Fe Institute, under the auspices of the Behavioral Science Program at SFI directed by Sam Bowles, and was initially conducted in collaboration with economist and game theorist Jung-Kyoo Choi (SFI and Seoul University). Initial work has focused on two scenarios: (1) the Patron-Client scenario is based on mutually profitable exchanges between patrons (who defend resource-rich territories) and clients (who exchange services for a share of a patron’s resources). (2) the Managerial Mutualism scenario involves a division of labor between producers who cooperate to produce a collective good and a manager who enforces this cooperation (monitoring and punishing defectors) in return for a management fee, thus solving an n-player prisoner’s dilemma. For both scenarios, we use a combination of analytical (evolutionary game theory) and computational (agent-based simulation) techniques. The agent-based simulations include demographic, economic, and environmental parameters, and involve standard replicator dynamics (which could apply equally to genetic or cultural variation) to convert strategy payoffs into population-level evolution. Currently, in addition to expanding the range of scenarios we model, I have begun to examine empirical patterns of sociopolitical variation and change (particularly among Native North American societies) in light of hypotheses suggested by this theoretical work.  In related work, I am part of a group examining the causes and consequences of intergenerational wealth transmission, sponsored by SFI and directed by Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and Sam Bowles; and I co-direct a NIMBioS working group of anthropologists, biologists, and modelers examining the emergence of hierarchy and leadership in mammalian societies.

(last updated May 2013)