Human evolution syllabus

I’ve been contributing too little to Neuroanthropology of late. To be honest, I’m exhausted. I’m doing a new class on human evolution and diversity for the anthropology department here at Macquarie University, and it’s kicking my posterior. I have all the usual time devouring requirements of a new class, with the added fun of 130 students, my own high expectations, and my desire to put biocultural and biological anthropology on a bit more solid footing here. I was never trained to do this — although I really enjoyed human evolution, archaeology, and biological anthropology as an undergraduate — but I really felt like it needed to be done, even if I’m not the ideal person to do it.

As recently as 2005 and 2006, a very noisy law professor here at Macquarie, Dr. Andrew Fraser, was advocating a return to the ‘White Australia’ immigration policy (see Wikipedia on him here). As Wikipedia explains (I don’t want to do the legwork on this one to give it a deeper reading): ‘In July, 2005, he received national attention in Australia by opposing non-European immigration, saying that Australia should withdraw from refugee conventions to avoid becoming “a colony of the Third World” and that African immigration increased crime rates.’ His explanation was a hodge-podge of ‘scientific racism’, discredited eugenic theory, and over-heated rhetoric. The timing was ironic; when I was trying to negotiate the terms of my contract, Macquarie was sealing off its campus because of the furor.

I felt that anthropologists needed to respond to Fraser’s ideas (as well as a lot of other things) with a serious biological anthropology unit on evolution and diversity in humanity. But our department has, of late, been offering almost entirely sociocultural anthropology, as many European and Australian departments do. And that’s how I got to offer a unit, ‘Human Evolution and Diversity,’ for Macquarie first-year students. It’s been going well, but it’s draining me.

Since Macquarie is going to force us all to put our unit outlines up online, I thought I should beat them to the punch and share it with our readers. It’s not ideal, by any stretch: unfortunately, my hands are tied in terms of how much I can ask students to read, and all the textbooks I looked into were ridiculously expensive in Australia. For some reasons, books here seem to be about twice the price that they are in the US, where textbooks are already expensive. I’d love to find a cost-effective solution to giving the students a more serious reader and will try to do that for next year.

In the meantime, I’ll share the unit outline in the spirit of collegiality. I sure benefited from the ones I was able to find online. The cover is first, then the body of the outline (so you don’t have to have the cover if you don’t want it — the graphics file is pretty large). The whole thing is formatted for A4 paper, so you may have to play with it if you want to take a look. You’ve been warned: the whole outline is over thirty pages as we are required to include lecture summaries for every lecture, extensive discussions of all our policies, and supplementary readings (probably the most valuable part of the whole mess).

Click to download:


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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

7 thoughts on “Human evolution syllabus

  1. […]For anyone who teaches evolution, Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology has posted his excellent and informative syllabus for his new course on Human Evolution and Diversity.[…]

  2. Thanks for this! I came via the Carnival of Evolution.

    I know about a new course kicking one’s butt: This evening I taught the first three-hour session of a semester course on the history of the controversies surrounding evolution after nearly 20 years away from the classroom. I’d forgotten how much work (and how much fun!) it is to teach.

  3. Good luck, RBH! And welcome back to the classroom. I had a semester off for a sabbatical, and it was still a bit of a shock coming back to it. The teaching can be enormously satisfying, but the roller-coaster of prepping slides til 2 am and then giving the two-lecture only to crash afterwards has gotten harder now that I’m past the big 4-0.

    I’ve contemplated posting some of the slides, as well, when they’re directly relevant, but I’m also a bit worried as I sometimes get a bit sloppy with the sources of diagrams I’ve pulled from around the web when it’s late at night before the presentation (and when I found the graphic a few days before I figure out how I’m going to use it). I’ll see if I can find some compromise. In the meantime, I’m going to try to still post as frequently as I can, but it might be more of a weekend thing.

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