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University of Oregon


ICDS Curriculum Development
Courses in the ICDS Integrated Evolutionary Studies curriculum

Members: Frances White, Josh Snodgrass, Larry Sugiyama, Michelle Sugiyama, John Orbell, Warren Holmes

Summary: ICDS is developing an interdisciplinary curriculum in Integrated Evolutionary Studies as the natural extension of the ICDS Evolution Focus Group’s broad expertise in human evolution, cognition, and behavior.

Evolution is a rare theoretical paradigm: it has broad implications that pay no attention to disciplinary boundaries. Traditionally developed and studied in Biology departments for the understanding and study of plants and most animals, as soon as the evolutionary perspective is applied to humans and human behavior, the discipline of Biology is left behind. The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most thoroughly tested and widely accepted theories in the sciences. Despite this, the relevance of evolution to the study of human behavior and culture is at best poorly understood and at worst unrecognized by the broader intellectual community and the general public. All organisms are the result of a long history of interaction between genes, the structures they build, and the environments in which they evolved. A species can be seen as a design produced through evolutionary processes to solve a unique set of environmental obstacles to survival and reproduction. This design includes everything from perception to pathogen defense to communication. Evolved design affects how an animal perceives its surroundings (e.g., by sensing magnetic fields, electric currents, light waves, sound waves), how it protects itself from other organisms (e.g., immune system, fight-or-flight response), and how it communicates with conspecifics (e.g., dancing, pheromones, language). Humans are no exception to this rule. Thus, a full understanding of our species requires an understanding of the ways in which our evolved anatomical, physiological, and cognitive design interacts with diverse habitats to produce both the striking similarities and dazzling variation observed within and across human cultures. This in turn requires a curriculum that integrates biological science, social science, and humanistic study.

ICDS is developing a focus in undergraduate and graduate education that applies evolutionary thinking to humans and unites Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Humanities. This builds on a shared interest among Evolution Focus Group members in developing a holistic understanding of the human species that integrates the study of “biology” and “culture”—i.e., that examines the ways in which ecology (physical and social environment) and adaptation (anatomy, physiology, cognition) interact to produce behavior (e.g., cooperation, warfare, art, religion). This perspective encompasses studies of modern humans, the historical and archeological past, and extends back through human evolution to our shared heritage with other species. This proposed focus would be an integrated, interdisciplinary approach that unites research and teaching at all levels.

Our focus in Integrated Evolutionary Studies builds on a unique strength at the University of Oregon. We have broad expertise in the application of evolutionary thinking to human studies in many places across campus and beyond. The growth of such interdisciplinary evolutionary studies began in the Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences (ICDS) with the Evolution Focus Group. It has now grown to include over 40 faculty from disciplines as varied as Anthropology, English, Political Sciences, Linguistics, Economics, Psychology, Physics, Human Physiology, and Biology as well as members from the community including PeaceHealth, Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC), Oregon State University, Oregon Medical Labs and the Oregon Research Institute (ORI). We have examined applications as varied as the Evolution of War (see the UO conference reviewed in New Scientist) and Evolutionary Medicine. The latter includes both domestic research projects (with PeaceHealth, OSLC, Oregon Medical Labs, ORI, UCSB Center for Evolutionary Psychology) and foreign research projects (with The Shuar Federation, Ministerio de Salud de Morona Santiago, Instituto Ecuadoriano Seguridad Social). Other research examines human mating systems and relationship choices, evolution of religion, political and security impacts of climate change, the physics of vision, the psychology of decision making, and the role of oral tradition in forager societies. The University of Oregon was recognized as a developing center for research in this new and expanding area with our hosting of the 2010 meetings of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.

An Integrated Evolutionary Studies Focus has the potential to create a niche program that could give the UO a competitive advantage in attracting an outstanding student body. We envision the Integrated Evolutionary Studies Focus as the second phase of a larger enterprise: to establish a Human Evolution, Ecology, and Cognition Program at the University of Oregon comparable to the cross-disciplinary, evolution-based programs already underway at SUNY Binghamton [] and the University of British Columbia []. The Human Evolution, Ecology, and Cognition Program would be home to interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects, as well as a teaching program in Evolutionary Studies. Program curriculum would be based on a combination of new and already existing courses in Anthropology, Psychology, Biology, Political Science, and English. To this end, we have been active in developing an undergraduate curriculum with the eventual goal of creating a minor in Evolutionary Studies that is not based in a single department, but is truly interdisciplinary in nature. This curriculum is designed to muster and market our strengths in evolutionary studies in order to more effectively recruit high-caliber applicants interested in working in this rapidly-emerging, highly competitive field of study. As part of this curriculum, we are working to developed interdisciplinary, collaborative teaching of courses such as an introductory “Evolution for Everyone,” as well as classes that bring evolutionary thinking to disciplines where it is not traditionally taught, as described in the Course Series proposal below.

The ICDS is particularly well-suited to house a Human Evolution, Ecology, and Cognition Program. Such a program cannot and should not be contained within a single discipline, but needs to facilitate interactions among faculty across disciplines–as can happen within interdisciplinary institutes such as ICDS. The ICDS has a culture and structure that recognizes and encourages multi-individual, non-discipline-based research projects. The ICDS currently runs a series of focus groups that bring together a broad range of faculty interests. These interactions have given rise to cooperative research projects that have successfully obtained external funding. The university needs to expand its infrastructure to include teaching that is similarly interdisciplinary and collaborative. The proposed Integrated Evolutionary Studies Focus is an important first step in this direction.

A Human Evolution, Ecology, and Cognition Program is one that the University of Oregon is uniquely poised to develop. Unlike other institutions that attempt to build an interdisciplinary human-focused evolution program out of a traditional biological approach, our program has grown out of studies of humans in the Social Sciences and now extends beyond the university’s borders. Several UO faculty are also part of the international consortium of Evolutionary Studies programs (see, a multi-institution program to unite and promote evolutionary teaching that provides support and guidance for developing such programs. Among these programs, the University of Oregon stands out for both its strength in traditional evolutionary biology but also in the breadth of application of evolutionary thinking to human studies. An ICDS-based curriculum would require fundamental changes in the way that interdisciplinary teaching is conducted and viewed at the University of Oregon. The current disciplinary-focused approaches are a barrier to many interdisciplinary curricula. Collaborative teaching projects will need to be viewed as valuable contributions by all departments and tenure homes. Methods will need to be established to allow credit for faculty to co-teach classes and to allow courses to be cross-listed and recognized as important elements of a faculty member’s effort. These changes, while requiring considerable effort and needing strong administrative support, would be of minimal cost, but have far reaching consequences for the encouragement of truly interdisciplinary studies.

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Courses in the ICDS Integrated Evolutionary Studies curriculum:

Anth 173: Evolution of Human Sexuality

This course examines the behavior, physiology, and anatomy of human sexuality as traits that have evolved from our primate and mammal ancestors.  By first understanding the theory of evolution and then the advantages of sexual reproduction, we can then go on to look at our primate relatives and see how much of our own sexuality has a biological basis and how much (or little) is truly unique to humans. 

Although this is a science course, it does not assume that students have a rigorous scientific background: in fact, it assumes the opposite.  This course aims to present the scientific foundations of this course in a way that will give students an intuitive understanding of evolution and sociobiology that will help students look critically at human sexuality from an evolutionary perspective.  We will all need, however, a common language and some scientific terminology and definitions will be essential, but it is most important that students understand and see how to apply the concepts.

This course is divided into three sections:

  • Section 1 runs from the start of the course to first midterm and will examine the theory of evolution, especially how it is applied to behavior.  During this time, discussion sections will work on the scientific method and how to generate and test hypotheses.
  • Section 2 begins after the first midterm and runs to the second midterm exam.  This section will examine the diversity of sexuality in our primate cousins and look for the evolutionary threads that we can use to understand and interpret human sexuality.
  • Section 3 starts after the second midterm and goes to the end of the class.  During this time, we will look at sexual traits often considered unique to humans and see how much we can now understand based on the evolution of these traits in primates or on their evolutionary benefits in a variety of human populations.

Specific goals:  The course goal is to teach students to understand and critically evaluate arguments proposed for the evolution of human sexual behavior.  As part of this course students will be watching a series of videos including some by Dr. Desmond Morris that present one view on why humans behave sexually in the ways they do.  Students critically evaluate the presentation of evolutionary theory and its application to the information at hand.  Wherever possible, classes based on videos will include a lecture on the hypotheses presented in the video and an examination of whether these hypotheses were addressed.  By the end of this class, students often look at their own behavior and the behavior of those around them in a very different light.

Anth 175: Evolutionary Medicine

This course provides an introduction to evolutionary (or Darwinian) medicine, a relatively new field that recognizes that evolutionary processes and human evolutionary history shape health among contemporary human populations. The field of evolutionary medicine emphasizes ultimate explanations, such as how natural selection and other evolutionary forces shape our susceptibility to disease; this perspective complements that of biomedicine, which generally focuses on identifying the immediate mechanisms that give rise to diseases and malfunctions. The evolutionary medicine approach has provided insights into why diseases occur at all and additionally has produced valuable insights on treatment strategies. This course will examine a variety of diseases using an evolutionary perspective, including infectious diseases, mental disorders, and cancers. The course will emphasize chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, and will focus particular attention on the role of diet and psychosocial stress in the development and progression of these conditions. (More information here(pdf))

Eng 199: Origins of Literature

Why do humans tell stories?  We will address this question by exploring the hunter-gatherer context in which storytelling emerged.  To a greater degree than other species, humans depend for their survival on social learning—i.e., on information acquired from other humans.  Drawing on evolutionary theory and related disciplines, this course explores the origins of literature in terms of the information demands of ancestral human environments.  The first half of the course outlines the evolutionary context in which narrative emerged, the adaptations that make social learning and narrative possible, and the foundations of cultural transmission.  The second half examines cross-cultural themes in hunter-gatherer oral traditions—e.g., tricksters, monsters, warfare, sex and marriage—in relation to recurrent problems of forager life and the kinds of information required to solve them.  Course readings will include scientific articles and hunter-gatherer folklore.

Psych: Evolutionary Psychology – Under Development

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