Honors DNA & Evolution

A 5-credit course for non-majors.

Course description

Evolution and genetics are the cornerstones of modern biology. DNA & Evolution will explore these fields in the context of contemporary issues that are important to individuals and societies. Although examples will be drawn from a variety of organisms, the primary emphasis will be on humans. Among the questions we will consider are these: Where did modern humans come from? Why are women and men different? Why do children resemble their parents? Do genes influence variation in personality, intelligence, and sexual orientation? What can genetic analyses reveal about evolutionary history and the relationships among species? Can genetic analyses allow us to predict the evolutionary future? Given what our society knows about evolution and genetics, should we take responsibility for guiding the evolutionary future of human populations?


Throughout the course, the goal will be to help students develop sufficient biological sophistication to understand new discoveries in genetics and evolution, talk to their doctors, and make rational personal and political choices about biological issues. Students will read secondary and primary literature, ask questions, design experiments, analyze and interpret data, and draw their own conclusions.

Tentative schedule

The schedule of topics is flexible—this quarter especially—based on your background and interests. I want to learn from you what issues in evolution and genetics are most compelling and important from your perspective. Peruse the readings, browse journals, newspapers, and the web, and let me know what you want to cover.

Week 1: Why Study Evolution and Genetics?
  • Could understanding evolution and genetics save your life?
  • How can we discover truths about the world?
Week 2: Evolution 101
  • Where did Earth’s organisms come from?
  • Reconstructing history, Part 1
Week 3: The mechanism of evolution
  • What makes populations evolve?
  • Studying adaptation
Week 4: Variation and Inheritance
  • What makes every individual unique?
  • Why do offspring resemble their parents?
Week 5: Genetics and Genomics
  • Genetic modification—how, why, and should we?
  • Reconstructing history, Part 2
Week 6: Evolutionary Genetics
  • Horizontal gene transfer and the tree of life
  • Genes in populations
Week 7: More Evolutionary Genetics
  • Predicting the evolutionary future of populations
  • Do genes influence our intelligence, personality, and behavior?
Week 8: Genotype and Phenotype
  • Should we take responsibility for guiding our own evolutionary future?
  • How closely related are humans and chimps and what makes them different?
Week 9: Human Evolutionary History
  • Did humans and neanderthals ever fall in love?
  • Why are women and men different?
Week 10: The Impact of History on Modern Humans
  • What’s wrong with time travel?
  • How will evolution and genetics affect the rest of your life?