The Behavioural Ecology of Animals and Humans

Dr Ian Harvey

See this course profiled on the PKP blog!

Animals exhibit an enormous variety of physical characteristics, social systems, and patterns of behaviour. Some live their entire lives in solitude, coming together with other members of their species only to mate. Others, like ourselves, are deeply sociable, living in groups characterised by both conflict and cooperation. Evolution provides the key to understanding this diversity. Those individuals that are best able to exploit their environments produce the most offspring, and their traits are passed on to future generations. Over time, this process of natural selection produces organisms that appear to be optimally designed for life in their particular environments. However, traits do not evolve in isolation, and characteristics that may be advantageous in one context could be a dangerous burden in others. Beautiful ornaments such as a peacock’s tail may attract sexual partners and boost reproductive success, but may also make their bearers more vulnerable to predation. Behavioural ecology seeks to understand why animals behave the way they do, taking into account these trade-offs, and the particular constraints imposed by the physical and social environment.

This course will examine how animal behaviour is shaped by evolution. We will consider a wide variety of the problems that animals have to face, including how find sufficient food, how to avoid predation and how to how to choose a mate. Using examples from across the animal kingdom, we will attempt to explain many of the key puzzles of life. For example, how do parents decide how much food to give to each offspring, and how much to save for themselves? Why might animals forego reproduction and instead help to raise the offspring of others? How do animals communicate, and what determines the form of the signals they use? Evolutionary theory allows us to make and test predictions about these and other questions. By comparing the behaviour of different species, and using controlled field and laboratory experiments, we are able to find solutions.

The second half of the course will concentrate on what evolutionary theory can tell us about the minds of humans and other animals and the biological roots of culture. If individuals encounter recurrent problems in their environment, evolution may endow them with ways of dealing with them. Animals living in complex social groups, for example, may benefit from the ability to recognise individuals, track their relationships and deceive one another. They may also gain important advantages by learning from each other, leading to the spread of social information through groups. This cultural transmission of information can lead to differences between groups of the same species and influence the behaviour of subsequent generations. Much of human behaviour can therefore be understood through the interplay of cultural and genetic systems of information transfer.

This course is aimed at: Anybody interested in why peacocks have brightly coloured tails, why male seahorses give birth, why meerkats look after babies that aren’t their own and why people are so peculiar. Behavioural ecology allows us to understand how evolution shapes the behaviour of animals, including our own species. If you’re interested in this course, you might also like to consider taking How to be an anthropologist: A critical exploration of the fieldwork method.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: The course has no pre-requisite requirements beyond an interest in understanding why humans and other animals behave the way they do. It is, however, recommended that students read some of the pre-course reading to familiarise themselves with the general topic before beginning the course.

Transferable Knowledge and Skills: You will learn how to assess evidence, evaluate scientific hypotheses, design your own research programme and develop analytical skills that will be valuable in many walks of life. An understanding of the evolutionary basis of behaviour will be of great use to anybody interested in economics, psychology, anthropology and the conservation of biodiversity.

Preliminary reading

  • An introduction to behavioural ecology Davies, N.B., Krebs, J.R. & West, S.A. (2012, Wiley-Blackwell Oxford)
  • The Selfish Gene. Dawkins, R. (1976, Oxford University Press).


Core Texts

  • Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach. Ed. Krebs, J. R. and Davies, N. B. (1997, Wiley-Blackwell).
  • Cognition, Evolution and Behaviour. Shettleworth, S. J. (1998, Oxford University Press).
  • Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers. (2002 Oxford University Press).
  • Principles of Animal Communication. Bradbury, J. W. and Vehrencamp, S. L. (1998, Sinauer).
  • The Evolution of Parental Care. Clutton-Brock TH (1991, Princeton University Press).
  • Information warfare and parent offspring conflict. Kilner, R. M. and Hinde, C. A. (2008, Advances in the Study of Behaviour, pp. 283-336).
  • Sense & Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour. Laland, K. N. & Brown, G. R. (2002, Oxford University Press).


Background Reading

  • The Origins of Virtue. Ridley M (1996, Viking)
  • The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. Ridley M (1993, Viking)
  • The Undercover Economist. Harford T (2005, Oxford University Press)
  • The Handicap Principle: a Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle. Zahavi, A. and Zahavi, A. (1999, Oxford University Press).
  • Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Richerson, P.J. & Boyd, R. (2005, University of Chicago Press).



1 Final Essay: 50%

1 Final Exam: 50%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)