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Unit information: Evolution and Human Behaviour in 2017/18

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Unit name Evolution and Human Behaviour
Unit code ARCH20058
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Jordan
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Anthropology and Archaeology
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This course will introduce you to the study of human behaviour from an evolutionary perspective. Starting with a solid foundation of evolutionary principles (e.g. natural and sexual selection, the development of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian theories) students will acquire an understanding of the key concepts of evolution that apply across living organisms. The course will then take a topic-based approach so that students can describe, explain, and appraise how evolutionary approaches contribute to our understanding of human behaviour, demography, health, and culture in both traditional and post-industrial societies. Topics may include aspects of human behaviour, culture, and life history that have parallels in other species, such as cooperation, parenting, mate choice, cognition and tool-use, as well as those that are uniquely human (such as menopause, language, religion, and the demographic transition).


  • To develop an understanding of evolutionary theory, as it can be applied to the study of human behaviour.
  • To explore the extent to which variation in human behaviour can and cannot be understood in terms of maximizing reproductive success in different ecological and social circumstances.
  • To enable you to identify the common and the unique aspects of human behaviour and life history, specifically drawing comparisons with our nearest primate relatives.
  • To give students experience in critically evaluating research claims about human behaviour.

Intended learning outcomes

At the end of this unit, a successful student will be able to:

1) Describe central tenets of evolutionary theory (including natural and sexual selection, and the forces of evolution) using examples from both humans and other species.

2) Describe the development of the evolutionary behavioural sciences and the major evolutionary approaches used by contemporary anthropologists.

3) Explain, with examples, the methodological approaches used in evolutionary anthropology to test hypotheses about human culture and behaviour.

4) Identify common and unique aspects of human life history and behaviour, and describe these with respect to case studies from a range of human populations (traditional and post-industrial settings).

5) Demonstrate how kin selection and parental investment theories can help to explain mating and parenting decisions.

6) Discuss explanations for evolutionary puzzles, such as homosexuality, religion, and low fertility.

7) Review and critique contemporary research topics in evolutionary anthropology.

Teaching details

One two-hour lecture each week. Five one-hour seminars over the course of the teaching block

Assessment Details

Summative assessment:

1) A 2-hour exam including short answer questions (50%). Assesses ILOs 1-6

2) A 2500 word essay (50%). Assesses ILO 1-7

Formative assessment:

3) Participation in five seminar discussions. Students will be required to lead one seminar discussion (in pairs) Assesses ILOs 3,7

Reading and References

Barrett, L, Dunbar, R. and Lycett, J. (2002 or more recent editions). Human Evolutionary Psychology, Palgrave- McMillan.

Laland, K. and Brown, G.R. (2011) Sense and nonsense: evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour. OUP.

Low, B.S. (2000 or more recent edition). Why sex matters: a Darwinian look at human behaviour. Princeton U. Press.

Mesoudi, A. (2011) Cultural evolution: how Darwinian theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences. U. of Chicago Press.

Davies, N.B., Krebs, J.R. and West, S.A. (2012, 4th edition). An introduction to behavioural ecology. Wiley-Blackewell