Saturday, September 26, 2020

He is (or well, he was) just a cat! On legalized for mere animals

 We just killed our cat today.  Well, I guess what happened was that we paid a vet to do it, or even more sanitized, to 'euthanize' Mew.  Mew might not have agreed, but to us humans at least, that term sounds better and exculpates us from having to feel like or be viewed as murderers, or failing to consider the victim to be a kind of person with a sense of self, and all that.  

No, and after all, while killing a human person is murder, euthanizing a mere cat is completely legal and, indeed, is considered a humanitarian or even kindly deed (a strange word, since the 'human' part of that word involves murder or slaughter, which is what our species mainly does far more than kindness).

But hold on just a moment!  Wasn't there a good reason for this euthanizing?  After all, we are not just vicious beasts (I'm not sure sure about mere cats).  We love(d) our cats!  Mew, probably deserved to be 'euthanized'.  In this case, his crime was that he didn't pee only in the litter box, and to the contrary, threatened aspects of our house with Detrimental Urinary Damage (DUD), which sounds more technical, indeed, even legalistic, than just saying 'staining some walls'! As an indoor cat, he, was...a DUD.

Of course, in the case of humans, before one can invoke capital punishment, we have to hold what is called a 'trial', and there has to be a law knowingly broken in a major way as an objective, disinterested jury must unanimously judge.  In the case of mere cats, it is our own subjective judgment, say, how much we like our rugs and so on that were being peed on, that defines capital crimes.  After all, we are not just wanton killers!  

Oddly, it seems weird that if cats were awarded the same kinds of rights to fair trial, before being executed, they would have a jury of their 'peers' (no pun intended)!

To be fair, we put up with Mew's peeing literally for years, cleaning up after him and tolerating the damage.  There was no way we were able to successfully train him, or even medicate him, to control it.  He also lived a non-trivial 11 years, and there was no way he could be adopted by someone else, or survive outdoors.  

And he did not suffer at his end, I'm told (I could not bear to be there and had to go take a walk).

Ah, well, it's not so bad.  After all, we still have two other cats, and we give them the same cuddling and love as we, Mew.  Well, we give them that so far, at least--but they aren't, not yet anyway, criminally neurotic.

I have to end this, as I'm getting too morose, and probably everyone actually reading this post has committed comparable biocide at some point in the past (and I'm not referring to meat-eating, which is an entirely additional version of biocide).

Nor does it serve to say, in private or in this public forum, "I'm sorry, Mew!", because he can't read or hear me and the deed is not reversible: it was done on purpose, for our convenience.  If we were truly sorry, we'd not have paid the vet to do it.

I must, in all honor, if there's any to be found, add that we did try, at least a bit, to see if we could find a good home for such a, Mew.  And after all, we did generously give him a large bowl of tuna as a last meal!

And I must also sorrowfully add that there is huge hypocrisy in this very lament for poor Mew.  I am not a vegetarian.  Indeed, it is relevant perhaps that, as evolutionary beasts, we essentially got here and must survive by consuming other living things.  Who says plants want to be boiled alive or even eaten raw, even by vegetarians?  My burger was once a cow, my bacon a pig, and a carrot or celery stick a 'me'!  

In a way, this omnivory in itself is the brutal evolutionary 'law' that, thanks largely to Darwin, we know to account for the diversity of life itself, and our very existence here on the Earth.  And that is why we, like cats, are but temporary tenants....

Monday, September 7, 2020

This year (Fall 2020)'s textbook-free and ON-LINE syllabus for Human Origins and Evolution (Intro biological anthropology)

Hi all,

It’s tradition for me to post my syllabus for my big intro course every fall. This year, I’m sorry to not be posting all the readings and assignments—they now exist as pages on my course site, which means transferring them to The Mermaid’s Tale would be too tedious. But, perhaps, what I am sharing will still be helpful, if for no other reason than to see how someone else is doing this course. This year, because it’s online and because we have this new fancy platform for our courses (Brightspace), I included tons of music videos as musical interludes between content and assignments, like bumper music on NPR, which creates space for students (and me) to think, move, stretch, dance, daydream.  I’ll post some of those videos below.

Cheers to everyone as they begin Fall 2020!

Love and Evolution,



Fall 2020 – Fully on-line and asynchronous due to pandemic; 120 students 

APG 201 (3 credits)

Human Origins and Evolution

Professor Holly Dunsworth

[cell phone number]


Professor Dunsworth’s office: URI Quad & Zoom

Really, it’s Chafee 132A. I just can’t host anyone in there this semester.

Student hours: 

(a) MWF 11-11:50, in-person on the Quad, if it is not raining, up until Thanksgiving break

(b) M 12-1 pm, W 1-2 pm, & F 10-11 am on Zoom: [personal room link]

I welcome and encourage students who cannot make these open student hours, or who wish to chat privately, to make an appointment by emailing me [my email address]  

Acknowledgments: For contributing to this course and syllabus through their lovely influence, I am grateful to Cynthia Taylor, Jeffrey Kurland, Alan Walker, Pat Shipman, Jim Wood, Susan Antón, Briana Pobiner, Paul Beardsley, Anne Buchanan, Ken Weiss, and Anna Santucci. And I’m grateful to all the authors of the texts referenced here, as well as to everyone who shares useful content and approaches on social media.


The biocultural evolution of humans. An investigation into humankind’s place in nature, including a review of the living primates, human genetics and development, evolutionary theory, and the human fossil record. Fulfills both the General Education outcomes A1 (STEM knowledge) and C3 (Diversity and Inclusion) 

This is a course about how you evolved. This is your origin story (at least, one of them). To write it, we will learn from biological and evolutionary anthropologists who study human and nonhuman primate biology, behavior, diversity, adaptation and evolution in order to better understand the human species and explain how we arrived at our current condition: Incessantly chattering, naked, culturally dependent, big-brained, bipedal creatures who are diverse in appearance and culture and inhabit nearly all types of habitats on Earth. Along our journey we will ask ourselves how we know what we know. We will also address, head-on why so much of this material is culturally controversial. The science of human evolution and its dissemination into the popular imagination has a long history of racism and sexism. In this course we will address that history and the stigma it attached to human origins by identifying bad evolutionary thinking, misconceptions, and the many horrible misapplications of that thinking. A long tradition of making Homo sapiens the hero of human origins and evolution, rather than each of us, all of us, is one major cause of this problem, which is why you, not the species, is the hero of the origin story we tell in this course. Here, we take back our species’ shared origins story and make it one that’s fit for all humankind. When that happens, then the species will be the hero.

 Required materials

1.      The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being by Alice Roberts – highly recommend the physical book (over digital or audio;  there are multiple cover designs, but don’t worry because it’s all the same book)

2.      Moleskine Classic Collection, hardcover notebook, Ruled (or Unruled, your choice) 5 x 8 1/4 inch (this size is required) and must have at least 96 pages (240 pages is easiest to purchase), any color

3.      In addition to Roberts’ book, there are required readings and videos posted in each week’s module on Brightspace.

4.      Non-required resource (textbook):


APG 201 Learning Outcomes

Anthropology (B.A.) program learning outcome (LO): Describe the historical development of anthropology and be able to characterize how each subfield contributes to the unified discipline.

        APG 201 LO #1: Identify human origins and evolution as an anthropological endeavor (the integration of STEM, social sciences, and humanities; and always within a cultural-historical context). (also LO for A1)

Anthropology (B.A.) program LO: Explain biological and biocultural evolution, describe the evidence for human origins and evolution, and evaluate both scientific debates and cultural controversies over genetic determinism, biological race, and evolution.

        APG 201 LO #2: Recognize scientific debates about how present, physical evidence is interpreted to support or refute hypotheses for particular events in, or aspects of, human evolution. (also LO for A1)

Anthropology (B.A.) program LO: Compare past and present cultures, including ecological adaptations, social organization, and belief systems, using a holistic, cross-cultural, relativistic, and scientific approach.

        APG 201 LO #3: Recognize and explain how scientists look to nonhuman species, contemporary human biology, and the fossil and archaeological records to reconstruct the origins and evolution of present-day biological variation, and the development of upright locomotion, language and speech, material cultures, and forms of social organization. (also LO for A1)

Anthropology (B.A.) program LO: Explain quantitative and qualitative methods in the analysis of anthropological data and critically evaluate the logic of anthropological research.

        APG 201 LO #4: Summarize the sociocultural controversies associated with human evolution, rooted in historical tradition, bias, and prejudice, or rooted in misinformation based on outdated or incorrect claims from scientists. (also LO for A1 & C3)

Anthropology (B.A.) program LO: Apply anthropological research to contemporary environmental, social, or health issues worldwide.

        APG 201 LO #5: Differentiate between the variation caused by human evolution and the inequity caused by biased and incorrect beliefs about human evolution. Based on that distinction, students will evaluate and critique evolution-based claims for the biological reality of “race” and “gender.” From there, students will explain and argue for the sociocultural construction of “race” and “gender." (also LO for A1 &C3)

        APG 201 LO #6: (specific to C3) Apply knowledge of effective problem solving or conflict resolution skills related to diversity and inclusion in order to respond to real-life situations. Choose and use appropriate communication styles to engage in difficult dialogues related to diversity and inclusion.

Grade Scale: A = 93.5 – 110%; A- = 89.5 – 93.4%; B+ = 87.5 – 89.4%; B = 83.5 – 87.4%; B- = 79.5 – 83.4%; C+ = 77.5 – 79.4%; C = 73.5 – 77.4%; C- = 69.5 – 73.4%; D+ = 67.5 – 69.4%; D = 59.5 – 67.4%; F = below 59.5%


Group work online (14 x)                                                    15%

Attend discussion in Dunsworth’s student hours (2 x)    10%

Quizzes (3)                                                                            30%

Book of Origins                                                                    45%

Total                                                                                       100 (110 with extra credit)

Group work online (14 x 1% each= 14 + 1% bonus for excellence = 15%)

Students will be divided into groups of no more than 10 people. Each group will work in a Google Doc, where individual group members will contribute to weekly prompts and then return and engage with others’ responses by providing feedback. Professor Dunsworth will provide feedback there, as well. All points are earned for answering the prompt and completing the peer responses that follow. Because this is a practice space, errors (unless enormous and way out of bounds) will not negate points earned for completing the response.  (Don’t forget to add your responses to the Google doc prompts to your Book of Origins, because each one doubles as an assignment there, see below. Yes, you may, and are encouraged to, revise your answers before entering them into your Books of Origins, especially in light of any peer feedback.)

Visit Professor Dunsworth’s STUDENT HOURS (2 x 5% each = 10%)

Because we are not holding class during our class time, we will instead use that time MWF 11-11:50 am for live, in-person student hours on the Quad if it is not raining (and up until Thanksgiving break, after which this moves to Zoom), and for the entire semester we will also hold remote student hours on Zoom M 12-1 pm, W 1-2 pm, and F 10-11 am: [personal room link]. Both Quad and Zoom student hours are drop-in, no appointment necessary and they are social (meaning other students may be present). Each student must attend at least two of these discussions with Professor Dunsworth in order to receive full credit for this portion of the course grade. Visit as many times as you wish, but the minimum is two. Only the student hours from Monday, September 14 onward are available for credit; the first two student hours of the semester (September 9 and 11) are open to all, especially to those who have questions about getting the course up and running. As long as it is not raining, count on me being on the Quad for the in-person student hours MWF 11-11:50 am. Starting at 11 am, I will stand at the northwest corner of the Quad and then at some point will probably begin walking. So if you arrive after 11 am, you will either see me still standing there or see nobody which means I'm/we’re doing laps around the Quad. If you arrive after 11 and do not see me, wait there at the northwest corner of the quad for me/us to return from the lap around, or if you can see where I/we are, then feel free to beeline across the quad to rendezvous on the fly. I will wear my black (and full of embarrassing flair) teaching robe so that I will be easier for you to spot out there. A towel, for sitting on the grass, is a useful thing to have. Students who cannot make any Quad or Zoom standing, open student hours, or who wish to chat privately one-on-one, are most welcome to email me to make an appointment to talk via phone, facetime, or zoom. 

Quizzes 1, 2, and 3 (3 x 10% each = 30%)

These are take-home quizzes where students are free to consult resources and each other (as long as it’s symbiotic and not parasitic). But, if any written answers are similar, that is plagiarism and all hell breaks loose. This is the only aspect of the course where complete accuracy is required. Quizzes will consist of multiple-choice, short answer, and essay. They are each only on one third of the course but concepts do persist and build up as the course progresses. Quizzes will be opened up on Brightspace a few days ahead of the deadline for submission. All students will be notified when each quiz becomes available.

Book of Origins– Due at the end of the semester (45%)

1.      This semester-long project takes place in your moleskine.

2.      Clearly write your name, email address, phone number, and mailing address inside the front cover (this will greatly help me return your graded book after the semester is over).

3.      Mark or decorate the cover with your name or a sticker or the title or something so you can tell me how to find yours in a sea of other books, if necessary.

4.      Leave 4 pages blank before entering your first assignment 1.1.  This is the book’s front matter and it will be where you eventually put your Table of Contents, listing the starting page number for each assignment. Your Table of Contents will track only complete assignments, which, due to circumstances of life, may be entered out of order, no problem. That’s what the Table of Contents will sort out.

5.      Number your pages as you go, front and back.

6.      From the outset, please work only on the front page of each page; leave the backs of the pages blank (but still number them). This makes the book neater and clearer (especially when ink bleeds through), but it also leaves blank space for you to return to old work, at any time in the semester, and add comments or updates. Whenever you are assigned to fill “at least one page” that means at least one side and if you go over that, then continue on the next page’s front side.

7.      Your Book of Origins is not your course notebook. You will need a separate notebook for jotting down notes and for organizing whatever you might print out. Though you may, then, enter/include as much of that information into your Book of Origins as you wish.

8.      Your Book of Origins is your creation and the content includes your assignments and any additional information from the course or related to the course that you find to be meaningful during this semester. You will write this Book of Origins over the course of the semester and get it back after grading when our course is over.  You are writing this for yourself, not for Professor Dunsworth.

9.      Number your assignments with the numbers that are attached to them in Brightspace (e.g. 1.1, 1.2, …) so that you can eventually make a table of contents. Assignments are choreographed readings and activities, timed to maximize your engagement with the rest of the course material and your mastery of it. Some will ask you to respond to a reading with words or drawings. Others will involve watching films or performing interactive activities on-line. Still others guide you to perform specific exercises in preparation for learning more in the course.

10. If the assignment asks you to write something, you must write in your own words. If you want to include quotes in your Book of Origins, please do, but your assignment must be more your words than quotes of others’.

11. You need to fill at least one side of one page, minimum, for each assignment to get full credit for its completion. Write in sentences strung together in prose. Bullet-pointed notes do not count as a completed writing assignment. You may include those kinds of notes in addition to your assignments (and you are encouraged if you value them, understandably), but that is not the method you may use to complete an assignment. This is writing! Write! If you choose to draw to complete an assignment, you still need to write even just a complete sentence to explain what it is that you drew and why.

12. If your handwriting is illegible, or if you just prefer to type, you can type up your assignments, print them, cut them out, and paste them into your book. You can used mixed methods too, typing some and handwriting others, or parts of others. You can also draw on other paper, cut it out, and paste it onto the moleskine page.

13. If you choose to draw more than write, you still need to convey the significance of the drawing by writing, even a sentence. You cannot simply draw some genitalia, for example, and then move on to the next assignment. Those genitalia need an explanation! What are those genitalia doing there on that page of your Book of Origins? Make everything you enter into your moleskine part of your Book of Origins by giving it context for the reader (who is future you, and anyone you may share it with).  Which brings me to this VERY IMPORTANT point:

14. Each assignment must be comprehensible to a total stranger who isn’t part of this course and who has no idea what has been assigned. This is a book, after all, not merely a compendium of homework. So, that means you must write and include context for your work on each page. For some of you this will mean transcribing the assignment/prompt into your books while for others may mean you simply write a bit of an introduction, even just a sentence, to orient the reader. Sometimes a great short title scrawled on the page is all you need to do the trick.

15.  Grading is based mostly on whether you completed the assignments thoughtfully and professionally, not whether you completed them entirely correctly. In other words, you earn full credit for each assignment by putting forth the effort to complete it—as long as it’s a solid effort, earnestly attempts to answer the questions that are asked, and fills at least one side of one page!  I grade this way because these assignments are often struggles that I’m asking you to face on your own ahead of addressing these topics in the course.  Errors in the assignments are therefore tolerated but egregious inaccuracies are not (e.g. irrelevant or nonsensical material). Your book’s overall grade will be based on completion of assignments, effort, clarity/legibility, organization, and integration into the moleskine as a cohesive book (in which you are encouraged to curate materials beyond what is assigned, like highlights or quotes from the videos you watched in the course, etc). The overall grade takes into consideration how thoughtful you are in creating your book. Though, if assignments are all clearly complete, then that is enough to earn 100% for the Book of Origins.

16.  Do not write or draw anything for an assignment if you have not read/viewed the assigned material. That is a waste of time and is dishonest to yourself to boot.  Books that are created without doing the work of learning are obvious and will earn zero points.

17.  Be sure to number your pages as you go so that you can create that table of contents in the front of your book.

18.  Your Book of Origins is due by Sunday December 20. Grades will be posted on Brightspace.  Submit your Book of Origins on or before the deadline whether it is complete or not because after the deadline I won’t be accepting books. You’d rather have partial credit than zero credit. This deadline is so firm because the point is to encourage you to do these assignments routinely throughout the semester. So keep up with it and you will be rewarded in your learning and you won’t be overwhelmed with catching up at the end of the semester. If you choose to mail it, make sure to choose the delivery option that has it arrive on or before December 20.  To submit your book, mail it or hand deliver it to my house. Professor Holly Dunsworth [my home address and cell phone]. (If you choose to hand deliver it, do not let your navigation app take you down any dirt roads; those are impassable and we drive on all paved roads to get to our house. Make your way down our driveway and leave your book on my screened porch, or just drop it in the mailbox at the end of the driveway. Do not deliver your book to my porch after dark because we live in the woods and you will scare the bleep out of us.) Feel free to discuss any questions you have any time with Professor Dunsworth! 

19.  Attention students who are taking this course from their homes in international locales, in which case it may not be feasible to mail in your book by the deadline: Work with me (email; cell number) to arrange an individual plan to submit your Book of Origins on time. We can do this. We have the technology! 


Extra credit (up to 10%) – Accepted any time up to and including December 14.

Living humans are not models of our ancient ancestors. However, there are ways that people move their bodies around the world that probably do better approximate some of our ancestors’ behaviors compared to ours. When it comes to moving around in a day, people like the Hadza of Tanzania, who forage for their food, range further on their feet than people who visit grocery stores. Hadza adults typically travel 6 miles/day, minimum, many go much farther. Since this course is about our evolution from foraging ancestors but also our evolution into upright walking and running apes, one way to earn extra credit is to go the distance, on your feet. If you walk, run, or combine the two for at least 3 miles a day, on average, over the course of 7 consecutive days (or if you do the equivalent, which is to travel a total of at least 21 miles or 52,000 steps over a week), then you earn 5% points extra credit added to your total course grade.  There are myriad ways to demonstrate your accomplishment of this feat to Prof. Dunsworth, by zooming and showing your phone or other device, by screenshotting your app, by showing Prof. Dunsworth a measured digital or paper map of your travels. (However you demonstrate your success, I will believe you.) If you complete that “half Hadza way” challenge, then you unlock the opportunity to attempt the “whole Hadza way” challenge for an additional 5%, which is doubling it—traveling at least 6 miles/day on foot for 7 consecutive days, or a total of 42 miles (or 104,000 steps) over a week.


For students who do not opt to do the physical extra credit challenge, there is a scholarly one. It’s called “Thanks, Evolution!” and the details are posted separately on Brightspace. Students who take on this challenge write an evolutionary origin story for something that they like about life on Earth (cheese, dogs, laughter, etc…). It’s a short research paper and earns 10% if done excellently, less if not, but most points are for completion. Students may only do the walk/run option or the research paper option, not both.


Table of Contents: A hero’s journey

Start here – Syllabus, welcome, how the course works, and all kinds of information and resources, including

·         Nite Expo – Oh Sees

·         Don’t spectate, participate – Tim Easton


Initial situation

Week 1 – In the beginning: Anthropology, Science

·         September – Earth Wind and Fire

·         Is it like today? – World Party

·         The Daily Heavy – Thee Oh Sees

·         Fresh Blood – Eels

·         Tidal Wave – Oh Sees

Week 2 – You are a primate: Primate characteristics and diversity

·         Monkey Man – Rolling Stones

·         Monkey Gone to Heaven – The Pixies

·         Ape-man – the Kinks


Week 3 – Are you an ape?: Evolution, tree-thinking

·         King Kong – The Kinks

·         Adventure of a lifetime – Coldplay

·         Feed the Tree – Belly


Week 4 - You have strange ancestors: Speciation, Fossils

·         Digging in the dirt – Peter Gabriel

·         Rock the Casbah – The Clash

·         I am a paleontologist – They Might Be Giants



Week 5 - The unbroken thread + sex + gestation made the fetal version of you: Origins of sex, eggs and sperm, DNA, genes

·         Get Lucky – Daft Punk and Pharrell

·         Start Me Up – Rolling Stones

·         Peace of Mind – Tim Easton

·         Do You Realize? – Flaming Lips



Week 6 - You evolved: Gestation, Mutation, Hox genes, Gene flow, Natural Selection, Genetic Drift

·         Changes – David Bowie

·         Changes – 2Pac

·         Don’t Change – INXS


Week 7 - Evolution is science and stories: The LCA, Skin Color Variation, Malaria Resistance, Building Evolutionary Scenarios



Week 8 - When you were very young: Birth, Milk, Walking

·         Happy Birthday to Me- Cracker

·         Until You Came along – Golden Smog

·         Rockin stroll – lemonheads

·         Walk like an Egyptian  - The Bangles



Week 9 - Your big hot hungry brain: Tools, technology, running, throwing, evolution of meat-eating

·         Poisoned Stones -

·         Born to Run – Bruce

·         Cool Off  - Missy Elliott

·         Eat Steak – Reverend Horton Heat



Week 10 - You reason, abstractly, therefore you are. Language helps: Talking, Socializing, Art, Imagination, Extreme Cooperation



Week 11 - What are you? What is a human?  Human origins, dispersal, and impact


Test again

Week 12 - They baked racism and sexism into our shared origins story: Let’s take it out


Week 13 - Rewriting our shared origins story so it's fit for all humankind: Continuing last week’s charge




Week 14/15 - You are a wise, reflective creature who is always evolving. And you are a storytelling ape: Looking back and ahead