Sex, Death, and Evolution

A 2-credit course for non-majors

Course description

Evolution is the conceptual foundation for all the life sciences. Using examples that are inherently engaging—because they involve sex and death—this course will provide an educated citizen’s overview of theoretical and empirical evolutionary biology. Designed for non-majors.

Learning goals

After taking Sex, Death, & Evolution, students will be able to:

  • Critically evaluate stories on evolution in the popular press;

  • Recognize and correct misconceptions about evolution;

  • Ask good questions about evolution, suggest reasonable answers, design simple studies, and perform basic graphical analyses of data;

  • Make informed personal and political decisions on issues related to evolution.

Topics for each session

The first two-thirds of the course covers basic concepts via compelling examples; the last third covers interesting questions that will each draw on multiple concepts from earlier in the quarter.

Week 1
  1. Why take this course? It could save your life and/or help you find love.

  2. Why does evidence matter? Dowsing, therapeutic touch, and evolution.

Week 2
  1. Why do anoles have big toes? Lizards in trees, deadly storms, and natural selection.

  2. Why risk death for a chance at love? Singing frogs, hungry bats, and sexual selection.

Week 3
  • Martin Luther King Day
  1. What makes some people resistant to infection with HIV? Genes and genetic variation.
Week 4
  1. Why do fatal genetic diseases persist? Population genetics and the importance of context.
  • Hourly exam 1
Week 5
  1. Why do mother spiders feed themselves to their young? Designing experiments and analyzing data on adaptation.

  2. Can parasites be friends and mutualists be thieves? Puzzles and paradoxes of coevolution.

Week 6
  1. Did Dr. Schmidt try to kill his former lover? Trees and tree thinking.

  2. Did we drive our closest relatives to extinction? Reconstructing history.

Week 7
  • Presidents Day
  1. Did your ancestors fall in love with Neanderthals? Species and speciation.
Week 8
  • Hourly exam 2
  1. Why do we get cancer? Tissues as evolving populations of cells.
Week 9
  1. Why sleep? Identifying the benefits of an obviously costly behavior.

  2. Why do we have sex? Identifying the benefits of another obviously costly behavior.

Week 10
  1. Why are men and women different? Sexual selection, internal fertilization, and uncertain paternity.

  2. Why do humans kill each other? Sociality, cooperation, and conflict.

Finals Week
  • Final = Hourly exam 3