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A Science of Human Nature?

Philosophical Disputes at the Interface of Natural and Social Science

Studying at Cambridge

Upcoming seminars: Heidi Colleran on 'Reproductive decision-making' and 'Natural fertility'

last modified Apr 28, 2016 06:09 PM

Heidi Colleran

Institute of Advanced Study in Toulouse


2pm Tuesday 3rd May

Seminar Room 1, Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Decisions, decisions: models of reproductive decision-making in evolutionary anthropology

Evolution relies on reproduction. And yet, as I’ll argue in this talk, evolutionary anthropology doesn’t have a comprehensive theory of reproductive decision-making. Such a theory should be general enough to explain how reproduction ‘functions’ in both high and low fertility contexts, and specific enough to delineate causal hypotheses that can deal with changing reproductive patterns. Evolutionary anthropology has been successful in accounting for aspects of reproductive decision-making in small-scale and so-called ‘natural fertility’ contexts, but it is struggling to make sense of the demographic transition to low fertility that characterizes most of the contemporary world. Reconciling alternative modeling approaches, in particular, bringing in insights from cultural evolution theory, may help in developing an overarching framework. But different subfields tend to consider their own view the more general one so there has been little integration. Conceptual overlaps make competing alternative hypotheses difficult to delineate, and there are many empirical and interpretive issues to be grappled with in the process. Using demographic transitions to low fertility as a focal point, I will highlight some of these problems, and try to sketch a way forward. 


2pm Wednesday 4th May

Board Room, Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Contraceptive use and the meaning of ‘natural fertility’

The idea of ‘natural fertility’ permeates evolutionary anthropology and demography. In this talk I’ll provide an overview and a critique of this approach to human reproduction, from an anthropological and evolutionary perspective. I’ll argue that, quite apart from the ethical issues of consigning some populations to be ‘natural’ and others ‘modern’, natural fertility creates unnecessary theoretical and conceptual problems for evolutionary researchersFocusing on contraceptive behavior cross-culturally and in my own work in rural Poland, I will argue that if we take a behavior-based rather than a method-based approach to contraceptive use, there can be no such thing as natural fertility.