Biocultural anthropology is the scientific exploration of the relationships between human biology and culture. Physical anthropologists throughout the first half of the 20th century viewed this relationship from a racial perspective; that is, from the assumption that typological human biological differences lead to cultural differences. After World War II the emphasis began to shift toward an effort to explore the role culture plays in shaping human biology. Contemporary biocultural anthropologists view culture as having several key roles in human biological variation:
- Culture is a major human adaptation, permitting individuals and populations to adapt to widely varying local ecologies.
- Characteristic human biological or biobehavioral features, such as a large frontal cortex and intensive parenting compared to other primates, are viewed in part as an adaption to the complex social relations created by culture.
- Culture shapes the political economy, thereby influencing what resources are available to individuals to feed and shelter themselves, protect themselves from disease, and otherwise maintain their health.
- Culture shapes the way people think about the world, altering their biology by influencing their behavior (e.g., food choice) or more directly through psychosomatic effects (e.g., the biological effects of psychological stress).
While biocultural anthropologists are found in many academic anthropology departments, usually as a minority of the faculty, certain departments have placed considerable emphasis on the "biocultural synthesis." Historically, this has included Emory University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Washington , each of which built Ph.D. programs around biocultural anthropology; Binghamton University, which has a M.S. program in biomedical anthropology; Oregon State University, UMass Amherst, University of Kentucky and others. Paul Baker, an anthropologist at Penn State whose work focused upon human adaptation to environmental variations, is credited with having popularized the concept of "biocultural" anthropology as a distinct subcategory of anthropology in general. Many anthropologists consider biocultural anthropology as the future of anthropology because it serves as a guiding force towards greater integration of the subdisciplines.
Other anthropologists, both biological and cultural, have criticized the biocultural synthesis, generally as part of a broader critique of "four-field holism" in U.S. anthropology (see anthropology main article). Typically such criticisms rest on the belief that biocultural anthropology imposes holism upon the biological and cultural subfields without adding value, or even destructively. For instance, contributors in the edited volume Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology argued that the biocultural synthesis, and anthropological holism more generally, are artifacts from 19th century social evolutionary thought that inappropriately impose scientific positivism upon cultural anthropology.
Some departments of anthropology have fully split, usually dividing scientific from humanistic anthropologists, such as Stanford's highly publicized 1998 division into departments of "Cultural and Social Anthropology" and "Anthropological Sciences." Underscoring the continuing controversy, this split is now being reversed over the objections of some faculty. Other departments, such as at Harvard, have distinct biological and sociocultural anthropology "wings" not designed to foster cross subdisciplinary interchange.
- Goodman, Alan H.; Thomas L. Leatherman (eds.) (1998). Building A New Biocultural Synthesis. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-06606-3.
- Geary, David C.; Flinn, Mark V. (2001). "The evolution of human parental behavior and the human family". Parenting: Science and Practice 1: 5–61.
- Hruschka, Daniel J.; Lende, Daniel H.; Worthman, Carol M. (2005). "Biocultural dialogues: Biology and culture in Psychological Anthropology". Ethos 33: 1–19. doi:10.1525/eth.2005.33.1.001.
- Bindon, James R. (2007). "Biocultural linkages — cultural consensus, cultural consonance, and human biological research". Collegium Antropologicum 31 (1): 3–10. PMID 17600914.
- Khongsdier, R. (2007). "Biocultural approach: The essence of anthropological study in the 21st century". Anthropologist (Special Volume) 3: 39–50.
- Segal, Daniel A.; Sylvia J. Yanagisako (eds.), James Clifford, Ian Hodder, Rena Lederman, Michael Silverstein (2005). Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. Duke University Press. introduction:  reviews:    
- Anthropology departments instructed to form combined unit