Skip to main content

The Comparative Approach in Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology

Comparison is fundamental to evolutionary anthropology. When scientists study chimpanzee cognition, for example, they compare chimp performance on cognitive tasks to the performance of human children on the same tasks. And when new fossils are found, such as those of the tiny humans of Flores, scientists compare these remains to other fossils and contemporary humans. Comparison provides a way to draw general inferences about the evolution of traits and therefore has long been the cornerstone of efforts to understand biological and cultural diversity. Individual studies of fossilized remains, living species, or human populations are the essential units of analysis in a comparative study; bringing these elements into a broader comparative framework allows the puzzle pieces to fall into place, creating a means of testing adaptive hypotheses and generating new ones.
With this book, Charles L. Nunn intends to ensure that evolutionary anthropologists and organismal biologists have the tools to realize the potential of comparative research. Nunn provides a wide-ranging investigation of the comparative foundations of evolutionary anthropology in past and present research, including studies of animal behavior, biodiversity, linguistic evolution, allometry, and cross-cultural variation. He also points the way to the future, exploring the new phylogeny-based comparative approaches and offering a how-to manual for scientists who wish to incorporate these new methods into their research.

392 pages | 20 halftones, 111 line drawings, 14 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Anthropology: Physical Anthropology

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

Cognitive Science: Neuroscience


“Overall an excellent book, well written, and extremely stimulating. Highly recommended for graduate students and more advanced researchers looking for an inroad to understanding the methods, or for new ways to address questions in their field.”

Journal of Human Evolution


E. Delson, CUNY Herbert H. Lehman College | Choice

“A clear, concise, readable how-to of the diversity of quantitative methods available now for comparative analyses, along with an account of the variety of fields in evolutionary biology to which comparative analysis is applicable, and of the fascinating findings that can result from proper application of the methods. The examples are mostly from evolutionary anthropology, but anyone doing quantitative comparative analyses will benefit from the book. Socio-cultural anthropologists, biologists of all stripes, historians, epidemiologists, political scientists, and statisticians should all read it and act on it. A vital contribution.”

Alexander H. Harcourt, University of California, Davis

“A very impressive volume. I found myself again and again wanting to revisit many old questions and explore just as many new ones—truly delicious food for thought.”

William L. Jungers, Stony Brook University

Table of Contents


   1. The Importance of Comparison
   2. Basic Phylogenetic Concepts and “Tree Thinking”
   3. Reconstructing Ancestral States for Discrete Traits
   4. Reconstructing Ancestral States for Quantitative Traits
   5. Modeling Evolutionary Change
   6. Correlated Evolution and Testing Adaptive Hypotheses
   7. Comparative Methods to Detect Correlated Evolutionary Change
   8. Using Trees to Study Biological and Cultural Diversification
   9. Size, Allometry, and Phylogeny
   10. Human Cultural Traits and Linguistic Evolution
   11. Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation of Biological and Cultural Diversity
   12. Investigating Evolutionary Singularities
   13. Developing a Comparative Database and Targeting Future Data Collection
   14. Conclusions and Future Directions



Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press