Honors Evolution & Human Behavior

A 5-credit course for non-majors.

Course description

The theory of evolution by natural selection is the conceptual foundation that unites all fields of biology. In this course we will cover the basic principles of evolution, explore ways in which evolutionary theory can be used to understand human biology and behavior, and consider how evolutionary thinking might guide the development of social policy. We will consider questions such as these:

  • Why are women and men different?
  • Why do step-parents and step-children often have more conflicted relationships than biological parents and biological children?
  • How, why, and what do humans seek to learn from each other?
  • When do people cooperate, when are they selfish, and why?


Our goal is to help you learn selection thinking; that is, to reason like evolutionary biologists. We will encourage you to pose questions, formulate hypotheses, design experiments, and critically evaluate the quality of evidence. After taking this course, you will be able to:

  • Apply evolutionary theory to human interactions and make predictions about how the shared and divergent interests of the parties involved will affect their behavior.
  • Design observational studies and experiments to test these predictions.
  • Interpret and critically evaluate graphs and tables showing data on behavioral patterns in humans and animals.
  • Provide evolutionary interpretations of various human social institutions, such as laws, wills, and social policies.

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.

Selection Thinking
  • Origin of modern humans, adult lactase persistence, and natural selection
  • Studying adaptation
Darwinian Medicine
  • Who benefits? Pathogens and behavior in humans and other animals
  • Adaptation to what environment? The trouble with time travel
Introduction to Evolutionary Psychology
  • The challenge of studying human behavioral adaptations
  • Sexual Selection, uncertain paternity, side effects
Genetics, determinism, and behavioral strategies
  • Basic human genetics, genes in populations
  • Determinism versus flexible behavioral strategies
  • Religion
Marriage & Kinship
  • Why people marry
  • Monogamy vs. polygamy
Kinship and altruism
  • Inbreeding
  • Selfishness and kin selected altruism
Games and Economic Behavior
  • Group selection
  • Punishment and cooperation
Life in a Social Species
  • Social learning
  • Deception and Self-Deception
  • The demographic transition
  • Sexual orientation
  • Morality
Darwinism and Social Policy
  • Who makes the rules and whose interests do they serve?
  • Crime and punishment