Darwin and Culture Evolutionary Approaches in Anthropology

Anthropology 303a Place: Clark 101
University of Virginia Monday: 3:30-6:00
Spring 2009 Fraser D.Neiman


This year marks the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. Yet a century and a half later, the implications of evolutionary theory for how we understand human history and culture remain contested within the social sciences and humanities, including anthropology. This course explores aspects of the history, impact, and current status of evolutionary theory in anthropology. We begin with a brief historical overview of both Darwinian and non-Darwinian evolutionary thinking in anthropology in the late-19th early-20th centuries. We will trace the impact of the Modern Synthesis on the scientific study of non-human behavior, and its reverberations in anthropology in the uproar over sociobiology in the 1970's. Next we consider more recent evolutionary approaches to human behavior and culture, including behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, gene-culture co-evolution, and niche construction. Among the substantive topics we will consider are the evolution of culture itself, subsistence intensification, agricultural origins, human disease, cooperation, social inequality, gender, mating and parenting systems, and religious ritual. The course is organized around discussion, with occasional lectures.

Course Schedule and Reading
The schedule and readling list for the course are available here. The schedule and reading list may change in minor ways, as the class develops. I will announce changes in class. Check for the most recent update.

Journal articles and book chapters will be found on Toolkit.

We will be reading the following books, which you may purchase at the U.Va. Bookstore:
  • Laland, Kevis N. and Gillian Brown (2002). Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago University Press, Chicago.
Note that the reading list contains both required and recommended readings. I'll put the latter on Toolkit too, so you will have easy access to them. Check them out if a particular topic seems especially cool.

Being Human

Nature's new and ongoing series on current evolutionary perspectives on humans. Check back here for frequently for new essays!

How the Course Works

The success of this course depends on how well we all do in class discussion. Doing well requires that each week we not only do the reading, but also that we spend some time thinking about important issues that link the separate articles or chapters, identifying the positions of various authors on them, evaluating those positions (do you agree, disagree, and why?), and preparing to share clearly your positions with the class.

Weekly Paper

Each week you will write a short paper based on the week's reading. Your goals in the paper are to:

  • identify and describe what to you seem to you to be one or two important issues or themes that run through most or all of the week's reading.
  • outline why you think it (or they) are important.
  • describe how the issue(s) emerge in each of the pieces we read. If different authors have different positions on the issue, what are they?
  • offer your evaluation of those position(s). Do you agree or disagree? Why? What is missing from the author's accounts? Missing bits can the theoretical or empirical or both. How can we fill in the gaps? How can we do better? The idea here is not only to be constructively critical, but to suggest avenues to more fruitful alternatives.
Weekly papers should be 500-1000 words long (1-2 pages single-spaced). They should include page citations and a list of references. Weekly papers should be emailed to me by 12:00 noon on the Sunday before class.

Weekly Presentations and Responses

At noon on Sunday, I will email the class a list of randomly chosen presenters and a randomly chosen respondent for each one. For the first class, we will have five presenter-respondent pairs, but we may adjust that number, depending on how the class goes. I will email the respondents and the rest of the class the five chosen papers. In class on Monday, the presenters will offer summaries of their papers. Comments should be around 10-15 minutes in length. If you have had additional thoughts since you finished your paper, feel free to include them. Do NOT simply read your paper. If you think graphs or illustrations will help us understand what you are saying, bring them in PowerPoint or a pdf or in paper handouts At the conclusion of each presentation, the respondent will have an opportunity comment on the presentation, ask for clarification, outline points of disagreement, alternative points of view, and the reasons for them, or discuss additional material that is relevant to the presenter's issue(s). Responses should run about 5-10 minutes. Presenters are expected to comment on the responses- do you agree, disagree, why? Do the respondent's comments help you to new insights or additional thoughts on the topic?

Class-Wide Discussion

After presentations and responses, we will open the floor to questions and comments from the rest of the class. If you were not chosen as a presenter or respondent, this is your chance to share with the class your insights and to respond to issues to raised in the discussion so far.

Final Poster Session

The final assignment for the course is a poster patterned on those that scholars use to present their work at scientific meetings (e.g. the Society for American Archaeology). Posters should describe and evaluate the application of evolutionary theory to human dataset. Topics should be cleared with me in advance. Final proposal abstracts are due by April 1. Abstracts should no more than 125 words. The final class will be poster session. Half the class will exhibit their posters for an hour-long period, while the other half serves as peer audience, checking out the posters and asking questions of the presenters. Students will switch roles for a second hour-long session. The following links offer some tips on how to make a poster.


Grades in the class will be based on a linear combination of your performance on the weekly papers (.35), the presentations (.20), responses (.15), class discussion (.10), and the poster (.20). I will be tracking your performance in class on a weekly basis.

Late Work and Attendance Policy

Given the organization of the course, turning in your weekly paper late exacts a cost on the entire class. The following policy is designed to make sure we do not suffer those costs. Turning in a paper after the noon deadline on Sunday will result in a 0 for the paper component of your grade for that week. However, I realize there are emergencies. To handle them, everyone gets one (1) bye week. You get to pick which week it is. When you want to use your bye, just let me know via email before the Sunday noon deadline for the paper


I am happy to meet with you on a one-on one basis to discuss the poster or anything else related to the course. Just shoot me an email. My office is at the archaeology lab at Monticello, but if that's too much of a hike, we can set up something in the Scholar's Lab at Alderman.