Friday, November 10, 2017

33 Syllabi for Intro to BioAnth/ Intro to Human Origins and Evolution

Two years ago, many of you generously sent me your syllabi for your introductory biological anthropology courses when I put out a call here at The Mermaid's Tale. Thank you! Four teaching assistants who are also anthropology majors worked with me on a little study of these syllabi. My collaborators are Alexa Bracken, Katherine Burke, Nadine Kafeety, and Molly Jane Tartaglia and I am grateful for their work on this.

Here are our results...

  • n = 33 syllabi, from 2015 or before, gathered mostly from your helpful submissions and also collected from AAA and departmental websites, though not extensively. Institutions in 3 different nations and at least 17 U.S. states are represented
  • 29/33 require a textbook (as opposed to other readings/resources) 
  • 14/33 have separate labs/recitations
  • 18/33 teach natural selection before learning the genetic basis for variation [this 2017 study supports doing the opposite] 
  • 2/33 mention genetic drift and/or neutral evolution
  • 2/33 mention epigenetics
  • 3/33 mention evo-devo and/or development
  • 3/33 mention controversy/controversies
  • 0/33 mention creationism and/or creation
  • 4/33 mention 'racism' 
  • 1/33 mention 'sexism'

I've typed and deleted a lot of words here and can't seem to avoid sentences that read like I'm telling a bunch of my brilliant friends and colleagues that we're doing it wrong. I don't believe we are.

I understand that syllabi aren't perfect or even great representations of what we do in our courses.

But maybe we could be better at highlighting some of the more complicated and significant terrain we cover in class, in the syllabus. Syllabi are posted publicly; they're seen by countless faculty reviewers and administrators. I think that we biol/evol/physical anthropologists could do better at getting the word out that our courses are not simply the human equivalent of "Intro to walrus origins and evolution."

Anthropology is what makes human evolution different from walrus evolution. And now that we're freed, mostly, from having to teach that evolution is true, why don't we really go for it and teach that it's also okay that evolution is true? Why not face the cultural controversies, recognize the sordid (and worse) history of our discipline and evolutionary science, and that history's massive influence on our culture and society to this day? We are! I know. But let's put it on the syllabus to make it official.

Human evolution is fundamentally different from the rest of evolutionary biology and I believe it's dangerous to pretend it isn't, or to unintentionally give the impression that it isn't. I hope you agree.


John Hawks said...

Holly -- this is a very timely post. This semester I went through the process of updating my syllabi to conform to institutional accreditation standards. These are being increasingly demanded of all faculty, as an administrative requirement. This is an important step, since we use syllabi to evaluate transfer courses to see if they are equivalent in content to our own.

Nonetheless, in my human evolution course, even in a nine-page syllabus with topics for each course session, my syllabus does not include the terms "natural selection" or "genetic drift". There is hardly ever a day when I don't mention both these. My students are tired of hearing about the importance of random genetic drift in evolution.

I suppose it's possible that someone reading my syllabus might think I don't cover genetic drift. I just think that a syllabus with "drift day" would be less effective. I reinforce mechanisms throughout the course and teach them through examples. And there are lots of examples of similar situations.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Absolutely. I struggle mightily to get my syllabus to represent what I do in my course, but this exercise, in the context of my greater and greater understanding of anthropology's existential crisis on college campuses, and in the context of my strong feelings about evolution's public relations problem, pushed me to struggle harder to do that. I'm going to try.

Holly Dunsworth said...

You know those classic (but kinda terrible) evolutionary representations/figures, with a stratigraphic column, with fish at the bottom, then a reptile, then a mammal, then a human in the top later? There should be fishes in every layer after the first fish, there should be reptiles in every layer after the first reptile. That, upside down, is how we could think of "on this day" in a syllabus... and there may be a cool way to show on the syllabus how "on this day" exists forevermore in the course til the end.

Thanks for your comment, John, because now I have an art project!

Steven Kurtz said...

Perhaps this is not PC, but humans are complex social mammals, and their/our evolution is not substantially different from the rest of that group, IMHO opinion of course. Using a social science, Anthropology, as the "evidence" for your claim is tautological. Feedback occurs in the evolution of all life forms, and because humans are complex, with sophisticated language and reflexive self-consciousness is not sufficient reason to claim that biological evolution is ever out of the picture. Lastly, such human inventions as souls, spirits, deities, etc. only point to our Achilles Heel of mysticism which has abetted us in quadrupling in one century and trashing our habitat, thinking we are "special."

Holly Dunsworth said...

In my attempt to make this post as brief as possible yet useful, I wasn't clear enough for my colleagues and beyond who aren't thinking exactly like me. You are not the first to misunderstand what I was getting at. Human evolution is different from walrus (etc) evolution, not because of how biology works but because of how it's understanding permeates society and culture. That's the anthropology of it that I'm referring to. Human evolution is taught in anthropology courses, not because there's an arbitrary cut off between humans and the rest of the organisms on earth in terms of how evolution works, but because human evolution has cultural meaning and it varies over time and space and sometimes it's awful (social Darwinism) and other times it's not (what I'd like it to always be).

Holly Dunsworth said...


Holly Dunsworth said...

Given the comments here and on FB I'm pretty sure there are many others who didn't comment who also read it and didn't understand what I meant by anthropology. I'm sorry but, for whatever reason, I wrote only for my colleagues who sent me their syllabi and others who teach this course. So I assumed they'd understand me.

Let me put it this way:
Walruses aren't racist or sexist and aren't supporting racism and sexism with evolutionary thinking. Walruses aren't worried that science is taking the place of their religion. Walruses aren't going around calling other walruses savages and primitive models of early walrus evolution because they behave differently than they do. A brilliant walrus named Darwin didn't write a whole book on evolution and leave basically everything but walrus evolution and its implications up to the imagination of the readers who went and started something called social Darwinism.