Ant 50: Syllabus

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Evolution of Human Nature (4 units)

Spring Quarter 2009; CRN #93489
(Lecture & discussion, 12:10-1:30 T/Th; 194 Young Hall)




Course Description
Goal and Objectives
Reading Materials
Attendance and Participation
Course Format and Expectations
Supplementary Journals
Office Hours
Web-Based Resources


Bruce Winterhalder, Instructor, 218 Young Hall
Anthropology & Graduate Group in Ecology
[; 754-4770]

Ryan Boyko & Adrian Bell, Teaching Assistants
Offices: RB 2F Young Hall; AB 3148 Wickson Hall 

Course Description 

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Are there commonalities running through our diversity as a species, evolved characteristics that we can identify as human nature? If so, what are they? And, what are the implications, if any, for our behavior?

ANT 50 asks what we can learn about these questions and ourselves by adopting a Darwinian form of analysis.

The organization of the course is partly historical. We will begin in the mid-19th century with Darwin and his contemporaries, trace our topic through social darwinism at the beginning of the 20th century, and then examine the recent florescence of the evolutionary study of human behavior.

The course organization also is partly topical. Among the subjects we will take up are: non-human primate precursors, incest, polygamy, sexual selection, parental investment, life history traits (e.g., menopause), honesty and deception, Machiavellian intelligence, language origins, religion, sexual behavior, gender and mate choice, parent-offspring conflict, competition and altruism, jealousy, eugenics and social darwinism.

These subjects have been as controversial as they are fascinating. Biological accounts of humanity are said by some to be reductionist and to seriously understate the role of nurture, socialization and learning in the formation of human societies. We will have to grapple with this critique.

A final quality of the course is relevance. What we believe about our nature helps to shape it by establishing our sense of possibilities and limitations. Such ideas are public and intensely personal.

Ten weeks is insufficient to cover such a broad topic as the evolution of human nature; this syllabus necessarily is very selective. But, this course will provide you basic concepts with which anthropologists and other scholars attempt to understand human behavior and its diversity. It will serve as an excellent foundation for the more specific, detailed and advanced study to be discovered in anthropology and related fields, here at UC - Davis or elsewhere.

Goal and Objectives

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By the end of the course you will understand how anthropologists are attempting to understand the evolution of human behavior. You will be able to:

- locate the origins of this subject in its historical context in the mid-nineteenth century; 

- explain the key concepts of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, as they apply to the evolution of living organisms;

- describe recent developments in neo-Darwinism that have expanded greatly our ability to explain the evolution of behavior;

- appraise attempts to apply this theory to the explanation of a variety of specific human behaviors, such as those listed above; 

- appreciate reasons for being cautious in evaluating of the relative roles of nature and nurture in any holistic appreciation of humans; and, 

- use this information to think critically and constructively about western beliefs about human nature.

Readings Materials 

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Three books comprise the reading required of everyone in this course along with six journal articles of your choosing. The books are listed immediately below and can be purchased in the textbook department of the University Store.

Cartwright, John. 2000. Evolution and Human Behaviour: Darwinian Perspectives on Human Nature. Cambridge, MIT Press.

de Waal, Franz. 2005. Our Inner Ape: Power, Sex, Violence, Kindness, and the Evolution of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Group.

Wolf, A. P., and W. H. Durham (eds.). 2005. Inbreeding, Incest and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


Attendance and Participation 

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This class depends on your participation. Questions and occasionally discussion will be an important part of lectures and section. You will be assessed on your informed questions and comments and thus on careful, timely preparation and regular attendance.

Readings should be completed by the class period which follows the date of the assignment. The class requires an average amount of reading, usually 35-45 pages per session. It requires greater than usual care in reading. And, it requires greater than usual participation.

Course Format & Expectations 

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The twenty class sessions include the following activities:

Lecture mixed with occasional discussion (20 classes)
Section Meetings (10)

There are three kinds of written assignments. . They are:


a) Nine short-answer questions, each requiring a concise, one-paragraph answer);

b) Six, one-page precis summaries, based on articles from the "Supplementary Journals" list, no more than three of which may be drawn from any one journal; and,

c) A written final exam, in the form of a 2-3 page research proposal, based on one or more of the supplementary journal readings you have completed. The scheduled time for the final in this class is Wednesday, June10th, 3:30-5:30 PM); you may turn in your proposal as early as 6 June, if you wish.

Supplementary Journals

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Several journals (e.g., Evolutionary AnthropologyEvolution and Human Behavior,Human NatureEvolutionary Psychology) regularly publish empirical articles on the evolutionary study of human behavior. Over the quarter I expect you to look through the contents of recent issues of these publications, select six articles and summarize each of them in the form of a one-page precis. You should plan to make at least two visits to my or one of the TAs office hours, 2-3 precis in hand on each occasion, to talk about the papers you have read. Be prepared to hand in a copy of each of the precis you discuss.


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The UC-Davis honor code is to be observed in this class; you are solely responsible for your work. If you have any uncertainties or questions about plagiarism or other academic violations, please ask.

We grade this class on the assumption that you are motivated to study and learn the materials. Four elements will comprise your grade. They are all either open book or 'take-home' in some or another format:

(1) regular, informed participation in discussion during sections (10 pts);

(2) care in reading and summarizing, in written and oral form, the six supplementary articles (5 pts each x 6 articles = 30 pts);

(3) ability to give informed and accurate answers to the quiz questions, in clear, concise and organized prose (5 pts each x 9 questions = 45 pts); and,

(4) ability to formulate a feasible research proposal on some problem of human nature (15 pts).

Office Hours 

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I will have office hours T/Th 1:30-3:00PM, 218 Young. Times besides these can be arranged individual, most easily via e-mail. Ryan and Adrian also will hold office hours as follows: RB 9-11 AM Tuesday; AB 4-5 PM Monday/Wednesday. Office hours are a neglected resource; please make use of them! 

Course Schedule

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Class # & Date
Reading Assignment
Class Activity
1. T 31 Mar
Wolf/Durham, Intro, Ch. 1 L: Class Introduction
2. Th 2 Apr
Wolf/Durham, Chs. 2, 3 L: Malthus
3. T 7 Apr Wolf/Durham, Chs. 4, 5 L: Darwin
4. Th 9 Apr Wolf/Durham, Chs. 7, 8 L: Spencer
5. T 14 Apr Wolf/Durham, Chs. 9, 10 L: Social Darwinism 
6. Th 16 Apr Cartwright, Chs. 1, 2 L: Basics of neo-Darwinism 1
7. T 21 Apr Cartwright, Ch. 3 L: Basics of neo-Darwinism 2;Quiz #1
8. Th 23 Apr de Waal, Ch. 1 L: Nature/nurture
9. T 28 Apr de Waal, Ch. 2 L: Deception
Complete First "Precis" Office Visit
10. Th 30 Apr de Waal, Ch. 3 L: Egalitarianism
11. T 5 May de Waal, Ch. 4 L: Patriarchy
12. Th 7 May de Waal, Ch. 5 L: Violence & Warfare; Quiz #2
13. T 12 May de Waal, Ch. 6 L: Children & Altruism
14. Th 14 May Cartwright, Ch. 4 L: The Spiritual Ape
15. T 19 May Cartwright, Ch. 5 L: Boys or Girls?
Complete Second "Precis" Office Visit
16. Th 21 May Cartwright, Chs. 6, 7 L: Sexual Selection
17. T 26 May Cartwright, Chs. 8-9 L: Costly Signaling; Quiz #3
18. Th 28 May Cartwright, Ch. 10 L: Mate Choice
19. T 2 June Cartwright, Chs. 11-12 L: Alloparenting & Partible Paternity
20. Th 4 June No assignment L: Summary & Conclusions

Web-Based Resources

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I encourage you to explore web-based resources related to the materials being covered in this class. An excellent starting point is the Human Behavior and Evolution Society website: