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Human Evolution and its Modern Relevance

Session A: July 13 – July 23, 2020
1:30 p.m. - 4 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Paul Wolf-Mitchell

This module introduces students to the study of human evolution, incorporating paleontology, archaeology, genetics, and related fields of study. First, students will both learn about the human species’ history and adaptations, from the rise of bipedal apes to the origins of modern humans. Next, we will consider the application and relevance of understanding human evolution in the contemporary world, particularly in biomedicine, including discussions of childbirth, dental problems, diet, and disease. Students will listen to lectures, collect and interpret data, analyze cases independently and in groups. Most importantly, students will learn how to use “evolutionary thinking” to understand the impact of our species’ adaptations and misadaptations on our everyday lives.

The remote teaching of this course will entail both synchronous Zoom lectures and discussion as well as asynchronous assignments, including readings and short videos/documentaries.

Goals for class:

  • To introduce students to terms and concepts relevant to biology, archaeology, anthropology, and anatomy, and to basic skills necessary for understanding and interpreting human natural history and evolution
  • To connect the study of the human evolution to the broader study of human biology and human culture, as well as to a variety of disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, and medicine
  • To foster critical and creative thought as students think contextually in applying general principles to specific analytical problems with real data analysis, including using their own bodies and experiences, the contents of their refrigerators, their pets, and other real-world examples
  • To encourage students and give them the conceptual tools to consider the role of evolution in the modern world, particularly in biomedicine
  • To provide students experience with data collection, analysis, and interpretation, both individually and in groups, using digital models of human, hominin, and non-human primate anatomy
  • To facilitate critical discussion and debate around different interpretations of scientific data
  • To expose students to areas of research, possible careers, and volunteer opportunities in anthropology, archaeology, biology, and medicine

Possible Assignments:

  • Short readings may include reviews from Scientific AmericanScience, and Nature, excerpts from R. Nesse’s Evolutionary Medicine, John Reader’s Missing Links, and will complement in-class exercises using the Penn Museum’s collection of fossil hominin casts and human and non-human primate skeletal remains
  • Students will work on multiple assignments concerning the human and non-human primate anatomy and te fossil record, using digital resources including / / and other databases
  • With prompts, students will be assigned to reflect in a journal on relevance of evolution to understanding everyday life and health, and will share these reflections with class

Human Evolution and Its Contemporary Relevance Module Draft Syllabus

  • How Evolution Works
    • Lecture: selection, mutation, genetic drift, gene flow, genotypic, phenotypic, role of culture in human evolution, introduction to methods for studying the past
    • Discussion: On scientific theory and methods, and difference between experimental, observational, and historical sciences, with case studies for group discussion
  • Monkeys in the Mirror: Primate and human anatomy and adaptation
    • Lecture: basic skeletal anatomy, adaptation, homology and analogy of biological forms, functional anatomy (applying basic physical principles to anatomical structure and its evolution), defining traits
    • Lab: students will make directed observations of differences between human and non-human primate skeletons from, then will compare these and propose adaptive reasons for differences in morphology
    • Discussion: group discussion of different adaptive explanations for observed differences in morphology
  • Who’s Who In the Fossil Zoo: A survey of the human fossil record
    • Lecture: major anatomical themes of human and hominin evolution (bipedalism, encephalization - ie. brain size increase, dental reduction), basic outlines of hominin fossil record (genera Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and a few species from genus Homo), on reconstructing scenarios for hominin evolution, on “scars” of human evolution (non-optimal evolutionary outcomes as side effects of other adaptations)
    • Lab: directed comparison and analysis of hominin fossils from / /
    • Discussion: the role of the evolution of bipedalism (which occurred first) on the enlargement of the brain (which occurred later), and the many “scars” of human evolution due to bipedalism
  • Evolution, Baby: What is an evolutionary trade-off? The obstetric dilemma
    • Lecture: evolutionary trade-offs, application of human evolution to biomedicine, C-section prevalence and evolution of human brain size, constraints on female hip size and birth
    • Lab: measurement of variation in pelvic morphology and cranial size
    • Discussion: group debate on evolutionary and ethical impacts of elective C-sections
  • What’s Been for Dinner? Teeth as adaptations and the evolution of the human diet part 1
    • Lecture: environment of evolutionary adaptedness versus modern environments, basic dental anatomy and development, on demographic transitions in human history (from hunting and gathering to farming, to industrialism) occlusion and braces, on caries, on evolution of third molar dental problems
    • Lab: identification of dental adaptations of in non-human primates and humans, empirical calculation of third molar agenesis and impact rates using x-ray database
    • Discussion: group discussion on causes of malocclusion and third molar issues, whether these are trade-off, mismatch, or adaptation
  • Experimental archaeology: Making stone tools and evolution of the human diet part 2
    • Lecture: on lithic technologies (stone tools) and their change through time, biases of archaeological preservation, uses of stone tools, experimental studies of stone tools in humans and primates, study of past human diets and comparison with average modern American diet
    • Lab: refrigerator raid and comparisons of animal carcass processing in modern and prehistoric contexts
    • Discussion: interpreting past diets from animal bones and cut marks, discussion of evolutionarily “optimal” human diet
  • Paleolithic Picasso: Cave Art, Symbolic Thought, and the Evolution of the Human Mind
    • Lecture: using the fossil and archaeological record to reconstruct behavior and cognition, debates about symbolic thought and behavior and the evolution of cognition in Neanderthals and modern humans
    • Film and discussion: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and discussion on inferences of hominin behavior and cognition from cave art; inferring symbolic meaning from items in our homes
  • Demographic Transitions and the Evolution and Spread of Infectious Disease
    • Lecture: changing human social organization and lifeways, domestications of plants and animals, trade and travel, and spread of disease in prehistory and early historical periods
    • Discussion: Infectious disease, human behavior, and evolution today (including COVID-19)
  • Doctor Darwin: Evolutionary Medicine
    • Lecture: ongoing human evolution, human dietary evolution in recent history, evolution of human disease, application of mechanisms of evolution to understanding disease, role of human intervention in changing evolutionary outcomes
    • Discussion: Application of evolution to understandings of human health and bio-cultural processes, the future of human evolution, on careers and opportunities in biology, medicine, anthropology