Sunday, July 4, 2021

Let's get Genetic Drift in K-12 evolution education standards

An undergraduate reflecting back on what they learned in introductory human origins and evolution. 

Perpetual chance change is the only way evolution makes sense to me. Without it, natural selection, none of it, makes sense to me. It seems to be true for my students as well. Check out these three examples. 

1. “When I learned about evolution in high school, I may have known the biological mechanism (mutations) and natural selection, but I did not know about genetic drift and gene flow. Out of those two, I thought genetic drift was more surprising to learn about. I always thought evolution was driven by natural selection, “survival of the fittest.” While that may produce the most rapid change in organisms, evolution is always happening through genetic drift. Mutations are always occurring and if a mutation is passed down parent to offspring that does not impede the offspring from reproducing then that mutation will appear in the subsequent generations. The mutation does not have to have any inherit benefits, the organism just has to survive until successful reproduction. I liked the catchphrase of genetic drift “survival of that which does not suck too badly.””

2. “One new thing I learned this week was genetic drift. I believe genetic drift was briefly mentioned in my biology class, but I was very confused on what it was and how it played a role in evolution. I was interested to learn about genetic drift, because it opened up my eyes to realize that evolution didn't just occur because of "survival of the fittest" and geographic isolation. Evolution also occurred in part because of random chance. This concept makes total sense, and yet before learning about it, it had never crossed my mind. While Darwin was correct in his principles on the theory of evolution, it is important to remember that there is more to evolution (and more people who contributed to our knowledge of evolution) than just Darwin. APG 201 and learning about genetic drift helped me to realize that this week.”

3. "I was also fascinated to learn about genetic drift because I have always wondered if there is any accidental evolution of traits.  It was really interesting to learn that traits can in fact disappear through evolution accidentally even if they weren't necessarily undesirable traits. Evolution is not always carrying forward only hand-picked traits. There are random, unintentional chances in alleles that still happen and contribute to evolution. This is pretty cool because I often find myself (when learning about evolution) wondering how the traits of a species were important to them and what role they had in the evolution of the species. For example, did an animal only evolve brown fur because they can hide better? According to genetic drift, the allele for white fur may have just been bred out unintentionally. I now know that sometimes a trait doesn't have an intentional role in helping the species at all, genetic drift may just have caused this trait randomly.”


In the USA, K-12 evolution education standards are missing GENETIC DRIFT as well as the word NEUTRAL.

(see here:

I don't know how to understand life's perpetual change without those fundamentals.

If students know about meiosis (which *is* in the standards), then they know about genetic drift. It's just a matter of linking meiosis to evolution. 

Genetic drift is a very simple concept and makes natural selection make a whole lot more sense!

I shout about this on Twitter and I get "just be happy anyone teaches evolution in K-12 at all" and "teachers don't know about drift" in response. But evolution without genetic drift is not evolution, and if teachers knew about drift, then they'd be more comfortable teaching evolution. I guarantee it! 

Without drift, it's too easy to just replace God with natural selection. And that habit of narrating evolution by giving agency to natural selection is super-duper weird for non-believers let alone for believers! (This a no hatred of religion, faith, or creationism zone.)

Genetic drift paves the way for thinking about and then narrating evolution as the constant change that life/nature/biology is. Everyone gets that time is just constant change and they will get that  nature/biology/life is too. They embody it themselves, being different from their parents. 

Plus, continuing to teach evolution as only being natural selection (which is what the standards are doing), is also dangerous. That selection-obsessed mindset is tied to racism, sexism, essentialism... all the stuff that we have to remove from our species' shared origin story. Darwin only had selection (not drift, etc) to work with and look what his imagination did with evolution: racism, sexism, essentialism

If we want to get the science right which will also improve its cultural consequences, then we have to teach genetic drift to our kids when they are learning evolution. 

Perpetual. Chance. Change. That's all it is. 

But it's a big part of how we're going to remove the racism, sexism, etc from our species' shared origin story and finally write one that is worthy of all humankind. A story that we all deserve. 

I do not know how to even begin to suggest, or lobby for, these changes to people with actual power over K-12 education standards. If you do, please consider pointing me in the right direction and I'd be so grateful: holly_dunsworth at

Thursday, July 1, 2021

A Distorting Treatment, RE: "The Descent of Man", 150 years on

 Hi all,

I submitted an eletter in response to Whiten et al.'s eletter in response to Agustín Fuentes' editorial in Science. Given the crickets in my inbox, Science probably won't publish it, so I'm publishing it here. 

Submitted to Science June 22, 2021

Update: It was published on July 6 without any notice to me: 

Whiten et al. described Fuentes’ editorial as a “distorting treatment” of Darwin’s writing in Descent of Man

As counterpoint to Fuentes’ points about Darwin’s racism and sexism, Whiten et al. wrote that, 

On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329).

From that sentence, a reader might reason that Darwin wrote about how educating women could make them equal to men in mental powers. And, a reader might imagine that Darwin advocated for such a thing. 

Darwin did neither in the cited passage which says,

In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters. The whole body of women, however, could not be thus raised, unless during many generations the women who excelled in the above robust virtues were married, and produced offspring in larger numbers than other women. As before remarked with respect to bodily strength, although men do not now fight for the sake of obtaining wives, and this form of selection has passed away, yet they generally have to undergo, during manhood, a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families; and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes. (1, p. 329)

There is no hope for women and, by the end, Darwin is back on about how men are superior and suggests that they may evolve to be even more so. 

It took extraordinary imagination to read that passage from Descent of Man and present it casually in Darwin’s defense as Whiten et al. did.  

Now that’s a distorting treatment.


Holly Dunsworth

Professor of Anthropology

University of Rhode Island

(1) Darwin, C. R. 1871. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray. Volume 2. 1st edition, page 329:

Friday, April 16, 2021

How to participate in the 2021 AAA meetings!

Hi all,

I'm president/chair (conflicting info as to which) of the Biological Anthropology Section (BAS) of the American Anthropological Association (AAA; for the next two years. Rick Smith (@rickwasmith) and I have put together some information to hopefully help any one who would like to participate in the AAA meetings (every Fall, usually November) but isn't quite sure how to do so. Submitting to the AAAs can feel a lot different from submitting an abstract to the least, it did for me a few years ago when I tried to submit an abstract, failed, gave up, didn't attend, and then only became involved in AAA when my good friend Sharon was on the executive committee and pulled me in. I don't want it to be difficult or mysterious for people to participate in AAA, like it was for me. It's a lovely meeting and a lovely community to be involved in throughout the year. The cost obstacle is one that we can't really help out a whole lot with at this time (though Rick just shared that if you are a recent MA or PhD graduate, the AAA offers a free one-year membership and free section membership to the BAS, so you can try it out But this year the meeting is hybrid, so you can present remotely, which means that the cost of travel is not a thing! We're working with the AAA leadership to change how membership and meetings are done, going into the future, to cut down on the costs to individuals. In the meantime, if you can swing it join us! If you have something to say/present, propose it to us! 

Thanks and best wishes to you all,


How to participate in the 2021 AAA meetings!

A how-to, for biological anthropologists and friends of the Biological Anthropology Section (BAS) of the AAA.

What you need to know about BAS programming:

  • We accept proposals for invited sessions, including: Oral Presentation Sessions, Roundtables/Townhalls, Conversations/Debates, Interviews, and Podcasts.

  • We also accept individual volunteered papers and posters, which we will collect and organize into ad-hoc sessions.

  • We also accept submissions for the 3-minute thesis competition and encourage you to submit your work!

How we approach programming decisions:

  • We are thrilled to evaluate all kinds of excellent proposals with priority given to those that are well aligned to the annual meeting theme, engage multiple subfields of anthropology, and that are broadly inclusive across race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, and career stage, among others.

  • Remember that the AAAs are an opportunity to engage with anthropologists beyond our own subfields, and we will prioritize sessions that leverage the breadth and diversity of anthropological perspectives.

For organizing an invited session, here are the basics:

Step 1. With the conference theme in mind, think of a great session topic and write a session abstract (500 words). This year’s theme is “Truth and Responsibility.” There are opportunities for both on-line and in-person events.

Step 2. Think about what kind of format would work best: panel, roundtable, conversation, debate, etc? Here’s a handy flow chart from the AAAs about how to choose a format:

Step 3. Think of a great set of inter-subdisciplinary anthropologists who are working in this area, and a more senior scholar whose expertise would be valuable as a session discussant to reflect on the perspectives that are presented and synthesize them.

Step 4. Reach out to potential participants in your proposed event, share the session abstract, and see if they will commit to joining your session. For Oral Presentation Sessions, gather a list of tentative talk titles for all confirmed participants and ask them to prepare their individual abstracts prior to the submission deadline.

Step 5: All proposals are evaluated by specific sections of the AAAs that you choose in advance. In addition to BAS, think of other AAA sections that can evaluate and potentially co-sponsor your proposed session. Section list available here:

Step 6. A few weeks before the deadline, upload the session abstract to the submission portal. ( Enter the sections  (e.g. BAS) that you want to evaluate your proposal, and to, hopefully, sponsor or co-sponsor it. Enter all the names, contact information, and talk titles for the session participants, where applicable. 

Step 7. Participants have until May 21 to upload their abstracts, after that you all have until May 26 to complete the whole process on-line.

Step 8.  Wait for the review process. Hope it’s accepted by one or more sections of the AAA. If it is, renew your membership, register for the meetings, and have a great AAAs!

Note that membership and pre-registration are NOT required to submit an abstract or session, though you may be asked to set up a profile with the AAA.

Questions, concerns? Reach out to Rick W. A. Smith (BAS Program Chair; rsmith86 at gmu dot edu) and/or Holly Dunsworth (BAS Program co-Chair; holly_dunsworth at uri dot edu). We are happy to help you navigate the process!

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Under Cover Agent

Who is that maskèd one
O'er there behind a screen?
With eyes and nose but slightly shown
And mouth that lurks unseen

Who can he be (or she!) 
That so spaced out we are
To keep our distance free
Seems stealthing 'way from me?

Eyeing out o'er covered face
With distance building stride
Avoiding me as if I'd plague?
Or why, I wonder, else?


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Descent of Man, 150 years later (with link to video)

Yesterday The Leakey Foundation and Jeremy "Jerry" DeSilva put on a special Darwin Day event focused on Darwin's book Descent of Man, these 150 years after its initial publication. There are several short talks and some rich Q&A discussions in between them, featuring some of the authors of chapters in Jerry's edited volume A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin's Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong about Human Evolution If you are at all interested in human evolution or Darwin, it is probably worth your time. 

The Leakey folks recorded it and posted it here on youtube:

I've pasted the script to my 10 minute spiel, about halfway through the event, below. 

I self-plagiarized from my chapter in A Most Interesting Problem, from the talk I've recently been giving wherever they'll have me (about sex differences in the skeleton), and from my book manuscript (I AM EVOLUTION)....

Start here...

Until we wrote this book with Jerry, I just saw Descent of Man as the source for Darwin’s formulation of sexual selection, using powerful evidence from across the animal kingdom. What I hadn’t done, until I wrote my chapter, was pay much attention to Darwin’s ideas about humans. I had only peeked at a few of those pages, had seen the word “savages,” and then couldn’t bear to actually pay attention. 

What for? Being based on such outdated and limited evidence, those pages wouldn’t advance my understanding of human evolution, so I didn’t think they were worth my time. But to write this chapter, I had to give those pages my time, and while I read and re-read and raged, I realized what I already knew but hadn’t yet faced: Descent of Man’s greatest legacy is not the scientific power of sexual selection; it’s Darwin’s racist and sexist narratives of human evolution. 

Descent of Man is just the absolute pits for so many people, like me. His book was better for birds, beagles, and baboons than it was for billions of humans! 

So, for scientists, Descent of Man is a foundational theoretical masterpiece, albeit riddled with errors that Darwin can be forgiven for making in his time, without these 150 years of scientific progress that we enjoy today. But for humanity, Darwin’s book has been a curse.

 The scientific value of Descent of Man is impossible to untangle from the oppression that it inspired.


Darwin’s scientific contributions in Chapters 19 and 20 of Descent of Man look like Victorian Age-appropriate explanations for sex differences in visible traits in peoples across the globe—like, for how our naked, colorful skin developed out of our ape ancestry. Because around the world, men tend to be darker-skinned than women, Darwin proposed that variation in human skin color around the world evolved due to sexual selection via local beauty standards.

But that people with deep ancestry in the tropical regions of the planet have some of the most pigmented skin, is best explained by natural selection, not sexual selection. This adaptation likely materialized as our hominin ancestors lost a significant amount of their protective fur covering. In its place, a melanin-rich epidermis shields the body from the sun’s harmful UV rays, particularly at the Equator.

At high latitudes, natural selection is also the dominant explanation for human skin color. Our bodies require UV radiation to synthesize Vitamin D, so permitting some UV radiation into the skin is beneficial. Both skin color extremes have strong adaptive explanations. In between UV extremes, that clinal or spectral continuous variation, from highly pigmented to depigmented skin, is maintained by gene flow connecting the populations and by selection for intermediate UV levels in between. [That last phrase in the previous is nonsense and I correct it on the fly in the video.] The evidence for this explanation for the evolution of skin color variation around the world outweighs the evidence for Darwin’s hypothesis of sexual selection via different beauty standards.


One of the strongest testaments to Darwin’s influence is that the mere existence of sex differences is enough to assume that sexual selection brought them about. Take, for example, sex differences in human height, where in all populations, men are on average taller than women. 

Darwin drew inspiration from the size and strength of male, or silverback, gorillas, and scientists in his wake have helped to build the case, which is now canon, that sexual selection explains sex differences in body size. Big males won greater mating opportunities by physically dominating competitors and mates, and by females preferring to mate with these big winners, so the thinking goes. 

But sex differences in human height are at least as much about the evolutionary importance of estrogen. Estrogen is a major driver of long bone growth in all humans and it’s biphasic, so at even higher levels, estrogen ends long bone growth with the fusion of the growth plates. When estrogen peaks, teenage girls stop gaining stature. This estrogen peak at puberty is fundamental to ovarian development and the initiation of regular menstrual cycling. Boys, who are growing in step with girls until puberty, stop gaining stature just a few years after girls do, because there is nothing to stop them earlier; higher estrogen would be incompatible with male reproductive development and function. Eventually young men have enough estrogen in their more senescent skeletal system to also stop growing.

There are no male or female genes for height and there are no male or female bones; there is only common biology of skeletal growth shared among humans, where similar processes significantly controlled by estrogen play out differently in different bodies during development. As of now, sex differences in the duration of long bone growth are a byproduct of the way that the human reproductive system evolved to function, thanks in large part to estrogen. Still, sexual selection for tall men dominates the evolutionary story. It sure is a compelling one. 

Perhaps more than any other science, evolutionary science is a collection of stories, or fictions, about facts. For example, FACT men are on average taller than women FICTION because of their big winning male forebears. Fictions are supposed to be difficult to establish as fact in science, and they’re far too easy to establish as fact in the zeitgeist. If we are better aware of the precarity of our fictions… if we improve the scientific explanations of visible sex differences, like height, then that science will be less likely to inspire unscientific beliefs about invisible, imagined sex differences. Fewer minds will leap illogically from ‘men are taller’ to ‘men obviously evolved for competition and dominance’ as if women did not.


Underneath Descent of Man’s ambitious scientific contribution to human evolution lies much more than surface beauty. This is Darwin begetting every caveman-inspired nugget of dating advice and every appeal to innate gender roles at home, in the workplace, in science and tech, and on Wallstreet. This is where Darwin first turned his concept of sexual selection loose on humans, launching the evolutionary narrative that dominates pop culture starring QUOTE “the strongest and boldest men… in contests for wives”.

In Descent of Man, Darwin parlayed visible anatomical differences between sexes—like those in skin color and height—into the evolutionary logic behind why Man and Wife perform differently, in matters of love, sex, parenting, cognitive feats, comedy, and seemingly everything else, according to the contemporary world views he continues to shape.

But, pop culture has been slow to adopt new knowledge that has complicated and overturned old facts. Much of the novel insights on human evolution, including especially the evolution of human skin color variation, these have come from women, despite persistent beliefs like Darwin’s that,  QUOTE “Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius.” Darwin even concludes, as if by scientific logic, that, QUOTE “man has ultimately become superior to woman.” For Darwin, women were wives but men were so much more than husbands, this seeded his science of sex differences. From his view of life, Darwin penned nature’s seal of approval. 

Darwin naturalized gender differences, made them biological, made them adaptive, made them morally valuable. All of us suffer from bias, but powerful men seem to share one particular form of bias when it comes to our species’ shared origin story—fuhrers and ex-presidents… their oppressive human evolutionary narratives sound a lot like Darwin’s, which directly inspired the exclusion of women from higher education and from science. Today, there is an increasing understanding that beliefs in gender essentialism, in natural rigid gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, like boys are active and dominant and girls are sexual and maternal, these beliefs are correlated to poor educational outcomes in boys and girls and to sexual assaults by boys and men.

Getting humanity’s origin story right matters a great deal to humanity.


The stories we tell about the facts of evolution are in dire need of diversity. The way to get there is not merely to be more correct or less biased than Darwin, it is not merely to be the best version of ourselves, it is to be proactively bigger than any one person can possibly be and… to be proactively bigger than even science can be.  We do not need science to demonstrate that women and people of color are not inferior… to demonstrate that we are not less evolved, less brilliant and inventive, less deserving of opportunity, power, influence, admiration, and freedom* than white men.

While many scientists and scholars have met Darwin’s bias and prejudice with science, science is not the only, or even a necessary way to demonstrate humanity.  That is partially because science does not yet represent humanity. Science will continue to write a better story of human origins and evolution, but if science were all it takes, then we would have that better story by now. Science is not the sole or even primary author of humanity’s shared origin story, humanity is.

Let’s write a great story together. Let’s write one that’s worthy of the entire species, a story that everyone can embrace. 

*I'm not positive but I think that my use of "freedom" inspired a discussion in the live chat about Darwin and his family being abolitionists. Yes, they were. But my use of freedom here refers to something other than the abolition of slavery. I'm referring to the freedom that more wealthy white men enjoy than anyone else. Who wants to live in a world where freedom is merely the absence of slavery!? Freedom is attained by the things I listed before it and so much more... 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

This View of Wife/ Where is this year's Intro Human Evolution syllabus? Take my course online this summer!

Hi all!

First a book announcement...

Jerry DeSilva's vision and hard work is now published, and it is great. It's called "A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin's Descent of Man got right and wrong about human evolution.

Check out the list of authors! Check out this positive review by Erika Milam in Science. 

Writing my chapter (9), "This View of Wife: A Reflection on Chapters 19 and 20 of Descent of Man" was the hardest writing I've ever done. I wrote probably five times what's there, much of which was sweaty, clenched CUSSING in all caps. I had to purge and wade through and sweat out all the rage to get to what's published. The theme of my chapter is listen to women. I hope you'll check out the book. All the chapters give a current and expert take on Darwin's and so reading this book really will bring you up to speed on human evolution and why it matters. Anne and Ken, I'm about to pop yours in the mail and it will soon be on your doorstep.


Today begins another semester of on-line college, for me, my colleagues and my students. I've got four different courses, all online. If the students can handle a load like that, then I hope I can too. I'll have to. It's my job to handle it. It's just so daunting. Oh well! Onward.

Here's some insight into undergraduate brains right now. I ask students in my intro course to draw what they'd draw on their cave wall. Guess what drawings are common? "Tiktok," “BLM,” surgical masks, syringes, coronavirus, soap and sanitizer pumpers, handwashing, aliens, and mobile phones.

Normally I'd be posting my latest syllabus for that text-book free intro biological anthropology course APG 201 HUMAN ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION, but, like with the Fall 2020 course, it's not so easy anymore. Because it's all on-line, I no longer have a long list of the readings (3-5 chaps in Roberts or online articles per week; with this non-required resource always available) and the assignments (3-5 per week) and the videos I have them watch in one file that I can just paste here. They're all posted/pasted into separate course modules on my course site where students "take" the class and watch my lectures. It's so much prettier and more user-friendly the way it is now, and will be when we're back to in-person classes too, but it's not at all easy to export and share. So I'm not. I've pasted the text of my syllabus below.

I’ve been posting about how I teach Intro BioAnth/Human Origins and Evolution here on our blog for many years and, thanks to your feedback, I know that it’s useful. It’s so useful that people want more than what I post here. They want my handouts and my lecture slides. That’s not going to happen. Sorry! But just getting the stuff that I've spent years and years writing doesn’t come automatically with pedagogy. But one way you can experience/see my pedagogy *and* get all my materials (handouts, slides, etc) is to take my course. 

That, perhaps, strange idea occurred to me now that it's possible to suggest it, thanks to having to put my course online due to the pandemic. No way are all my recorded lectures humdingers. So what. It still gets the point, the strategy, etc across. And it does it so well.  I could share with you my overwhelmingly enthusiastic student feedback and their marvelous Books of Origins, but that would be outrageous. Sure, they love it because they’re graded mostly for completion rather than accuracy and so there are more As in my course than I’m sure there are in many other intro human evolution courses around the world. But, so what? This is our species' shared origin story; ramming it home with high-stakes exams does not make any sense to me, not at the intro level. All humans share this one story and so all humans deserve to learn about it by making meaning out of it.

I welcome colleagues (and all students, of course) to take my course, APG 201 Human Origins and Evolution, this summer. It's fully on-line and asynchronous and you can take it from anywhere! It would cost up to $1332 of professional development funds, if those things are, perhaps, available to you. I will also happily be available as a colleague, off to the side, as well. I'd love it. Here's the information about summer courses at The University of Rhode Island. APG 201 is not yet posted. 

Here's my syllabus without readings/viewings and assignments (except the weekly group post) because, like I said above, they're all on-line in my course site now and I don't have them in a file to easily paste into here. 

Spring 2021 – Fully on-line and asynchronous

Will be largely the same for Summer 1 and 2, 2021


APG 201 (3 credits)

Human Origins and Evolution


Professor Holly Dunsworth


Course description

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 –If you buy a physical copy, there are multiple cover designs, don’t worry about the different cover designs because it’s all the same book. It should be available through the URI bookstore.


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


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                                                                                15%

Quiz 1                                                                                                           10%

Quiz 2                                                                                                           10%

Quiz 3                                                                                                          15%

Book of Origins                                                                                      50%

Total                                                                                                             100 (or 110% with extra credit)


Group work online (15%)

We all share a course Google Doc, where each of you will contribute to one prompt for each module. Professor Dunsworth will provide feedback there, as well. All points are earned for answering the prompt. Because this is a practice space, errors (unless enormous and way out of bounds) will not cause you to lose the point for completing the response.  If you complete all 14 assignment on the google doc, then you get a bonus point for excellence and earn 15/15.


Quizzes 1, 2, and 3 (10 + 10 + 15 = 35%)

For all three quizzes, students are free to consult course resources and each other (as long as it’s reciprocal and not parasitic, okay? 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. All students will be notified when each quiz becomes available on Brightspace, at least one day ahead of the due date.


Book of Origins (50%) – QUESTIONS? Prof Dunsworth is here to help! Just contact her!

These instructions are long and detailed to maximize excellence. I have been doing this for years and years and believe me, I have seen it all. The only thing that you can do to lose points is to submit incomplete or incoherent work; the vast majority of these instructions are guidelines that you should follow if at all possible, but that will not cost you points. I hope to maximize excellence, and so without further ado…

·       This semester-long project takes place in your moleskine and it is for you, not for Professor Dunsworth.

·       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 and that you’d like to record in it. You will write this Book of Origins over the course of the semester and submit it, digitally, at the end for a grade.  But again, you are writing this for yourself, not for Professor Dunsworth.

·       Your Book of Origins is not your course notebook. While you are encouraged to include meaningful things from the notes you take on lectures, etc and from handouts and other course materials, there are simply not enough pages for your Book of Origins to be your course notebook too. You will need a separate notebook for jotting down notes and for organizing whatever you might print out.

·       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.

1.     Clearly write your name and contact information inside the front cover.

2.     If possible, write or affix the title of your book on the binding, like books do.

3.     If you wish, write or affix a cover on the front.

4.     Leave the first four pages blank. This is where you will affix the Table of Contents (TOC). The TOC is a file in START HERE that you must either print and affix inside your book or (if you don’t have a printer) fill out and email to me. Knowing both what you did and what you didn’t complete is crucial to the assessment process at the end of the semester, which is why I need you to fill out the Table of Contents that I created and posted in the Start Here module on BS, and, even better, print and affix inside (but I don’t even have a printer at home so I don’t assume or require anyone else to.) You can do this at the very end of the course just before you turn in the book for a grade.

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

6.     Start every assignment on a new page. (Do not start any assignments on pages where there is already an assignment.)

7.     If your ink is bleeding through the paper, then simply do not write on both sides of the page. Either leave the backs of pages blank (you have plenty of space to do that) or use another writing/drawing implement that does not bleed through. Bleeding is fine! Just not when students use those pages.

8.     If you wish, work only on the front page of each page; leave the backs of the pages blank (but still number them). There is plenty of room for this. 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.

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. If at all possible, like, unless something dreadful is happening to you, do the assignments in the order I have provided, chronologically. You do not want to be skipping to the end of each module and writing the last assignment if you have not prepared by doing all the prior assignments for that module yet. That’s just not good scholarship. But if you must do any assignments out of order, then they may be out of order in the book. If they are, no problem: The Table of Contents will sort that out.

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’.  If there are tons of quotes that you want to record, go ahead, this is your book and that is highly encouraged, but they won’t count as an assignment.

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. No matter how you do it, you need to fill one page, minimum to complete the assignment.

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. Help your future self (who may feel like a total stranger) out by writing and including context for your work on each page. For some of you this will mean transcribing the assignment/prompt into your books while for others it 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.  If you have not read/viewed the assigned material, then do not write or draw anything for an assignment. 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, total, even if just one assignment is faked like that.

16. When you’re all done, fill out the TOC and affix it inside the front pages of the book or fill it out digitally and submit it separately.

17.  Your Book of Origins (complete with completed TOC) is due by Tuesday April 30, 11:59 pm.

18. Submission … how? In normal semesters, students submit their actual physical books to but because of the pandemic, you must take pictures of each page and create one google doc or slideshow to “share” (via google apps) your book with me. Do not send me a folder with a bunch of photo files that I have to click through separately. Share one file that contains all the images, in chronological order. On any day except the due date, I’m happy to help you do this if you just ask 😊.

Extra credit (up to 10%) – Accepted any time up to April 30, 11:59 pm.

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. 

Weekly/module schedule

1 In the beginning: Anthropology, Science

2 You are a primate: Primate characteristics and diversity

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

4 You have strange ancestors: Speciation, Fossils

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

6 You evolved (Mutation, Hox genes, Gene flow, Natural Selection, Genetic Drift)

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Rewriting our shared origins story so it's fit for all humankind

14 You are a wise, reflective creature who is always evolving. And you are a storytelling ape: Looking back and ahead (Triumph)

APG 201 Human Origins and Evolution

Group Google Doc 


At the end of each module on Brightspace, you’re directed to come here and answer a prompt. Posts are due by the end of the day Friday each week, but I will not grade until at least the following Monday, so you have the weekend to post if you didn’t make the suggested deadline on Friday.




Before you post here

  1. Do the work in the week’s module, first. Those videos and assignments are choreographed to lead you here so that you can be informed by the time you engage with your classmates. If your post does not address the prompt or betrays ignorance of the module’s content, then it gets no credit. If you post after I grade that module (which is signaled by my comments on the posts that are there), then your post gets no credit.
  2. Write and post your response to the prompt for the module before reading anyone else’s. That’s the best way to maximize your own thinking. You wouldn’t show up to soccer practice and just sit there because your teammate got there first and is already doing the drills. Write as briefly as you’d like in response to the questions. Brief can still be excellent.  
  3. Read through the previous posts from the previous module and my comments on them.

As you post here...

  1. Label your response to the prompt with your first and last name, please. Just type away under the prompt or under a classmate’s post. 
  2. You are welcome to respond to your classmate’s posts using the comment tool that shows up in the margin. Please feel free to do this but it is not required.
  3. Do not “resolve” (do not click the blue check on) any of my comments because that erases them. This will be hard to abide for people who are embarrassed by my feedback (it’s my experience that critiques get “resolved” by students more than praise does). But because my comments are for everyone’s learning, not just yours, you must leave them.   
  4. Make sure to enter your response to the prompt into your Book of Origins as that module’s last assignment. Fill the page with writing and/or drawing, just like all other assignments. Do this immediately because throughout the semester, I remove old modules’ material to stop the document from growing too long.



Module 1

Getting to know your classmates and your inner anthropologist

If you had to choose one observation from assignment 1.2 to study (try to explain) in real life, which would it be and why? Before you took this class, what did you know about anthropology and how did you know it? Do you expect any of that to change as a result of this class? If so, hypothesize/predict in an explanatory way (or explain in a predictive way) what those changes might be or why they may occur.

Module 2

The best ape

Which nonhuman ape is the best ape? Make a case for one ape being the best ape. Offer a plausible explanation (hypothesis) for why your professor asked you this question. Do you agree or disagree with your classmates about which is the best ape? Why or why not?


Module 3

Are humans apes?

Every group member must provide an answer on the side of no we are not apes, and also an answer on the side of yes we are apes. While doing so, each of you must reveal whether you side with yes, no, or neither, and explain why that is.

Here are some entertaining resources that may help you form both your yes and no answers:

       The side of no, we aren't:
Are we apes? No, we are humans

You Are Not an Ape! Jon Marks at TEDxEast (17 mins)

       The side of yes, we are apes:

       Wrongheaded anthropologist claims that humans aren’t apes


Module 4

Clearing up confusion about our ancestry

Don’t forget to start by writing your answer in your Book of Origins and then come here to the Google doc and post it. That is a lot richer of an experience because you're working it out first before seeing what others wrote. It is the best way to do every group google doc response.


Choose either A or B (both are not required, just one of them). Calmly and kindly respond to a hypothetical, but agitated friend or a family member who says, (A) “I didn’t evolve from a monkey!” or (B) “If we evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?”


Module 5

Day off!

Type your name and leave the briefest or longest comment about anything you'd like. Say hi, sell an old guitar, share your favorite meme, or just say hi. Merely leaving evidence of your presence will earn you all the credit today.


Module 6

You evolved...

What is something important, key, surprising, new, or meaningful that you learned this week in APG 201 and why did you choose it?


Module 7

Imagining the Future Loss of Wisdom Teeth: Evolutionary Scenario Building

Instructions for this week’s prompt: (1) Read this long preamble from Prof. Dunsworth, (2) read the short blurb from a news article, then (3) answer questions A, B, and C.


• Most of us were taught incorrectly or led, wrongly, to believe that ‘evolution’ = ‘natural selection’ which implies that all evolution occurs through natural selection. This leads us to see every evolutionary scenario, all the way from fairy tale ones to the most scientifically legitimate ones, as natural selection. This is, of course, not a correct understanding of evolution.

• Natural selection can result in new adaptations or in the elimination of bad traits. The former is “positive” selection, the latter is “negative” and is always occurring no matter what. Positive selection does happen but is not easy to test, since natural selection occurs via differential reproductive success, but “survival of the luckiest” alleles via genetic drift can look exactly the same by increasing and decreasing allele frequencies just by chance. The difference between the two is that, in a selection scenario, the trait that’s evolving is causing the differential reproduction (whether enhancing or inhibiting, even if ever so slightly affecting it slowly over time), but in a genetic drift scenario the trait is randomly “drifting” (like on the surface of the ocean) to lower or higher frequencies merely due to chance (unlinked to the trait in question) effects on differential reproduction and chance passing of one allele or the other to offspring. Like selection, drift can completely fix or completely eliminate traits. Genetic drift is always occurring, and so is negative selection to some degree (filtering out mutations that prevent survival and reproduction) and positive selection to some degree (increasing the prevalence of mutations, new or old, that enhance survival and reproduction).

Read this blurb, pasted below or via the link, about a very common perception of human evolution:

Wisdom teeth might be lost as people continue to evolve: Why the modern diet may make wisdom teeth unnecessary About 25 to 35 per cent of people will never get their wisdom teeth

By: Astrid Lange Toronto Star Library, Published on Tue Jun 25 2013

"Wisdom teeth are the third and final set of molars that most people get in their late teens or early 20s. But not everyone does — the American Dental Association estimates that about 25 to 35 per cent of people will never get their wisdom teeth. Another 30 per cent will only get 1 to 3 of them. Anthropologists believe wisdom teeth evolved due to our ancestors’ diet of coarse, rough food — leaves, roots, nuts and meat — which required more chewing power and resulted in excessive wear of the teeth. Since people are no longer ripping apart meat with their teeth and the modern diet is made of softer foods, wisdom teeth have become less useful. In fact, some experts believe we are on an evolutionary track to losing them altogether.”

Now, each person responds to A, B, and C… Post your responses all together, not separated under each letter. That is, go beneath C, or beneath the person who posted already, and post your ABC.

A. Briefly explain the evolutionary mechanism behind the evolutionary scenario for future wisdom tooth loss that the author of the news article above alludes to. In other words, think about what the writer is really hypothesizing for future human evolution and rephrase their explanation, but scientifically, in terms of all or just some of the four main mechanisms of evolution that we discussed in class which are mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, and selection. Important! Banned words for your scenario include: Need(s/ed/ing), want(s/ed/ing), try(s/ed/ing), best, most and fittest.

B. Write out an alternative scenario where selection is responsible for the loss of wisdom teeth in our future selves. If it’s not obvious, this will be a significantly different scenario from what the writer has imagined in the news article and from what you wrote in response to ‘a.’ Important! Banned words for your scenario include: Need(s/ed/ing), want(s/ed/ing), try(s/ed/ing), best, most, and fittest.

C. Having 0-3 (instead of all 4) wisdom teeth develop is a fairly common phenotype out there just like the previous article/link said, and it probably includes people in APG 201.There’s a story out there in science and in pop culture that, because we evolved to have smaller jaws in the last six million years of hominin evolution, natural selection is currently favoring people who don’t form wisdom teeth at all. That is, people think that there are people who don’t develop all four wisdom teeth because it’s adaptive not to, because our jaws are so small and it’s a health risk to fit all those teeth in a small jaw. They explain this pattern of human variation with natural selection (the way we legitimately do with skin pigmentation variation) and it helps justify third molar extraction. NOW…. (1) knowing that there’s all kinds of dental variation in humans, deviating from what’s typical, in terms of which teeth they do or do not develop and that’s also true for apes who have large, roomy jaws, and live in the wild, and (2) knowing the mind-blowing information in this brief article that you’ll at least skim now “The Prophylactic Extraction of Third Molars: A Public Health Hazard” ( ).... WHAT’S YOUR TAKE on that just-so story about humans who naturally don’t develop wisdom teeth? As far as evolutionary scenarios go, is it good, bad, neutral, or otherwise? And, does it justify us getting our wisdom teeth routinely, prophylactically removed?


Module 8

When You Were Very Young

What is something important, key, surprising, new, or meaningful that you learned in this module in APG 201 and why did you choose it? 


Module 9

Day off!

Type your name and leave the briefest or longest comment about anything you'd like. Say hi, sell an old guitar, share your favorite meme, or just say hi. Merely leaving evidence of your presence will earn you all the credit today.


Module 10

You reason abstractly, therefore you are human. Language helps.

In addition to, or beyond, what you already wrote to yourself for 10.1, 10.2, and 10.3, what is something important, key, surprising, new, or meaningful that you learned this module in APG 201 and why did you choose it?


Module 11

What are you? What is a human?

In addition to, or beyond, what you already wrote to yourself for this module's assignments in your Book of Origins, what is something important, key, surprising, new, or meaningful that you learned this module in APG 201 and why did you choose it?


Module 12

They baked racism… into our species’ shared origin story

Choose A or B and respond.

A. Ancestry is not race is not human biological variation. Distinguish all three of those phenomena in humans (ancestry, race, and human biological variation) from one another. (For "race" you must stick to humans. Whatever people call a "race" in other organisms is not race in humans.) And, feel free to add "population" to make a fourth concept/term, if you carried that from Prof. Fuentes' lecture. Why is it important, or why does it matter, that we make these distinctions? You must cite at least one resource (below) in your answer.


B. Science has a racist past (and present) and race is a sociocultural/political construction. Use either or both of those frameworks, or the course material in general, to support the fact that there is no “race” without racism. You must cite at least one resource (below) in your answer.

Resources (must cite at least one):

       Chapter 15: Ten Facts about human variation – Marks (Human Evolutionary Biology)

    (copy and paste that URL into your browser because just clicking on it may not work)

       There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It's a Made-Up Label: It's been used to define and separate people for millennia. But the concept of race is not grounded in genetics—Kolbert (NatGeo)

       Human Races are not like dog breeds - Norton et al. (EEO) SEE GLOSSARY OF TERMS AT THE VERY BOTTOM/END of the article


Module 13

Re-writing our species’ shared origin story to make it fit for all humankind


Choose one (or do both if you can't resist, but only one is required):

1.  Ripping human evolution out of the patriarchal playbook

Consult your memory, your friends, family, or the Internet (or all) to find an example associating evolution with sexism (like it's associated with racism). [Remember, regardless of what your sources say, sex differences alone are not sexist (just like skin color variation is not racist); it's the biased interpretation of biological variation (sometimes by inventing some differences out of thin air) and the narration of its evolutionary history, that we're talking about here.] Offer an explanation for this common association of human evolution and sexism and also offer a suggestion for removing this association from our species' shared origin story.

2. Woman the Hunter

Read these articles (right click to open in new tab or window), which discuss the same recent scientific study. What is the finding of the study and how did they do it? What scientific and popular assumptions does this new study challenge? Feel free to share other relevant thoughts.


Module 14


What about this stage in our course or in the course material is triumphant? What is your triumph this semester and this year? What, if anything, about your triumph is thanks, in part, to your evolutionary history? What triumphs lie in your future?