Universiteit Leiden

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Human Evolution

About this minor

Extra Information on the half minor program

It is possible to follow the complete minor for an accreditation of 30 EC. Students of medicine can follow the first half of the minor for 15 EC.

Minor Structure

The minor starts with the biological principles of evolution, life histories, and phylogenetics. Attention will be paid to the comparative anatomy and physiology of the human digestive tract, immune system and brain. The program then continues with paleontological methods, and the reconstruction of the age, distribution and anatomy of human species. Archeological evidence on diet, use of fire, disease, and group composition will be studied. Hereafter, the minor focuses on the consequences of our evolutionary history for our health, and will provide evolutionary explanations for ageing, metabolic disease, cancer, autoimmune disease and mental disorders. The program ends with an exploration of the diversity in behaviour of modern humans, and the evolution of a range of human traits such as foraging strategies, mate preferences, culture, language, and music.
A prominent learning objective is scientific writing and critical evaluation of scientific literature. Therefore, students will work in small interdisciplinary groups on an integrative essay in the first half of the minor, and will review a topic on own choice at the end of the minor. During the minor, students will become familiar with a variety of approaches and theories in the field by a combination of lectures, primary literature, many practicals and some museum visits. There are ample opportunities for debate, oral presentations, poster presentations and discussions.
For medical students, it is possible to follow the first half of the minor for 15EC during the regular half minor program.

Course Description

In this course, comparative approaches are used to understand the origins of human anatomy and  physiology. We will examine how the study of other animal species, and in particular that of non-human primates, can contribute to our understanding of the evolution of human bodies and minds.
The course starts with a general introduction into evolutionary biology and genetics, including topics such as gene regulation, genetic variation and mutation, population genetics, inclusive fitness, speciation, and phylogeny, followed by the biological principles of life histories and ageing. These concepts are crucial to understand and follow the remainder of the minor.
The remainder of the course is devoted to the comparative anatomy and evolution of the human body. We start off with the skeleton. Amongst others, the human skull is studied in detail and compared with the skulls of other primates during practicals. This is followed by the comparative anatomy and physiology of other traits, such as the human digestive tract, immune system, and brain. Soft tissues of humans will be studied in a dissection practical using human cadaveric remains at the University of Amsterdam.
During this course, you will spend around 28 hrs to prepare the biological part of your half-minor essay topic.

In this course the fossil record of the human lineage will be explored from the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees to the emergence of Homo sapiens. We will meet the main hominins of the past 8 million years and look at traits such as bipedal locomotion, life histories, body size,brain size, and their diseases. We will study our collection of casts including for example “Lucy”, Neandertals and early modern humans and investigate which tools they used, what they ate, whether they used fire, and why all but Homo sapiens got extinct.

Ageing and disease are both negative traits that could have detrimental effects on an individual. Why would natural selection not act against these traits? Here we answer the questions ‘Why do we age?’ and ‘Why are we susceptible to disease?’, discussing the several evolutionary theories of ageing that have been postulated over the years using the original papers. We look at the epidemiology of ageing in recent history, using evolutionary medicine to differentiate between proximate and ultimate causes of disease. Finally, we address the mismatch between our evolutionary past and modern environment as a cause of the current disease, including diseases of affluence, but also autoimmune diseases and mental disorders. In the last week, you will work on a short presentation and your final essay of the half minor in which you will critically evaluate the scientific evidence behind a popular scientific article on one of the four topics: diet and digestive system; ageing and life histories; immune system and the hygiene hypothesis; or brain and evolutionary psychiatry.  

This course addresses a series of traits that characterize all modern humans, such as the presence of culture, language and music and what is known about their origins and evolution. We start with a comparison of the variation in behaviour and cognitive skills of different primate species. We explore how variation in behaviour and mental abilities may be shaped by phylogenetic descent and convergence under influence of selection. This will include observations and practical assignments on the behaviour of primates (zoo) and a visit to the Biomedical Primate Research Center at Rijswijk.

We then continue to consider existing, as well as past, diversity in several traits across human cultures. We examine differences in mating systems and language  between hunters gatherers and agricultural societies. The perspectives on the variety of traits are provided by comparative biology, archeology, anthropology and others. 

Why opt for this minor?

This minor is particularly suited for students who want to broaden the view from their own discipline to study human evolution from a biological, archeological, medical and cultural perspective.

Course Overview

Course EC
Origins of human anatomy and physiology 5
History of the human lineage 5
Health and ageing 5
Universals and variation in human behaviour 9
Review on topic of own choice 6

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