6.17: Introduction to Evolution - Biology

Explain the theory of evolution

All species of living organisms, from bacteria to baboons to blueberries, evolved at some point from a different species. Although it may seem that living things today stay much the same, that is not the case—evolution is an ongoing process.

The theory of evolution is the unifying theory of biology, meaning it is the framework within which biologists ask questions about the living world. Its power is that it provides direction for predictions about living things that are borne out in experiment after experiment. The Ukrainian-born American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote that “nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.”[1] He meant that the tenet that all life has evolved and diversified from a common ancestor is the foundation from which we approach all questions in biology.

What You’ll Learn to Do

  • Define natural selection
  • Describe the basis of the present-day theory of evolution
  • Describe how the theory of evolution by natural selection is supported by evidence
  • Refute common misconceptions about evolution

Learning Activities

The learning activities for this section include the following:

  • Natural Selection
  • Theory of Evolution
  • Evidence of Evolution
  • Misconceptions of Evolution
  • Self Check: Evolution

Evolution is formally defined as a heritable change in organisms (specifically, a population) over generations. What does that mean? It means that a species or a population (not an individual) will change over time as traits are passed on from generation to generation.

The Theory of Evolution was initially a formal hypothesis put forth by Charles Darwin. It is now considered a scientific theory, and therefore attempts to explain what we observe in nature with significant evidence, or support. Two main ideas that make up this theory:

  1. Evolution has occurred to produce the modern life on Earth that we see. Living things here today descended from a common ancestry.
  2. Evolution occurs through the process, or mechanism, of natural selection. Natural selection is a process that occurs when living things with favorable (inherited) characteristics survive to reproduce, thereby passing on those beneficial characteristics.

Introduction: Evolution, Biology, and Society

This chapter provides an overview of The Oxford Handbook of Evolution, Biology, and Society. Chapters in the first part of this book address the history of the use of method and theory from biology in the social sciences the second part includes chapters on evolutionary approaches to social psychology the third part includes chapters describing research on the interaction of genes (and other biochemicals such as hormones) and environmental contexts on a variety of outcomes of sociological interest and the fourth part includes chapters that apply evolutionary theory to areas of traditional concern to sociologists—including the family, fertility, sex and gender, religion, crime, and race and ethnic relations. The last part of the book presents two chapters on cultural evolution.

What is evolution, biology, and society? First, it is a catch-all phrase encompassing any scholarly work that utilizes evolutionary theory and/or biological or behavioral genetic methods in the study of the human social group. Second, it is the name of a section of the American Sociological Association, formed in 2005, that is home to scholars who do this kind of work within sociology. The primary purpose of this volume is to showcase this body of work for sociologists who may be interested in the field but who may know little about it. The book contains an overview of the different types of research currently being done by sociologists and other social scientists in the area, as well as the methodologies employed by them. The book examines a wide variety of issues of interest to most sociologists, including the origins of social solidarity religious beliefs sex differences gender inequality the determinants of human happiness the nature of social stratification and inequality and its effects identity, status, and other group processes race, ethnicity and race discrimination fertility and family processes crime and deviance and cultural and social change. As an introduction to the field, it would also be of use to teaching upper level or graduate students in sociology or a related social science.

The scholars whose work is presented in this volume come from a variety of disciplines in addition to sociology and include psychologists, political scientists, and criminologists. In many ways, sociologists are late to the table in the business of using theory and methods from biology, the reasons for which are discussed in some of the chapters in this volume. Yet as the essays in this volume demonstrate, the potential of theory and methods from biology for illuminating social phenomena is apparent, and sociologists stand to gain from learning more about them and using them in their own work. The theory is of course the theory of evolution by natural selection, the primary paradigm of (p. 4) the biological sciences, whereas the methods include the statistical analyses with which sociologists are familiar, as well as other methods with which they may not be familiar, such as behavioral genetic methods, methods for including genetic factors in statistical analyses, gene-wide association studies, candidate gene studies, and methods for testing levels of hormones and other biochemicals in blood and saliva and including these factors in analyses.

The book is organized as follows. The first part discusses the history of the use of method and theory from biology in the social sciences and its often unfortunate results. In Chapter 2, Richard Machalek describes the different ways that sociologists and evolutionary biologists answer the following questions: Why do societies exist? And How do individuals become social? He particularly notes that sociologists rarely consider the fitness consequences of any behavior, whereas evolutionary biologists always do so. Sociologists focus on the proximate explanations for social behavior (the mechanism by which something happens) rather than the ultimate explanations (why a predisposition for a social behavior likely evolved). He further notes that sociologists do not consider that individuals are predisposed to any behaviors other than a few in-born reflexes but, rather, assume individuals are capable of learning an infinite range of behaviors. Evolutionary biologists consider rather that humans, like all species, have a set of species-specific evolved predispositions that bias learning in certain ways. Machalek also discusses whether evolutionary biology is on the verge of consilience with sociology. He discusses signs of the incorporation of methods and theories from evolutionary biology into sociology, and he notes how both disciplines can benefit from this cross-fertilization.

In Chapter 3, Douglas A. Marshall notes how the initial founders of the discipline of sociology, including Durkheim, were accepting of a role for a human nature based on a universal biology in the new discipline of sociology. However, the use of impoverished versions of “evolutionary” theory to fuel ideological causes—Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, and Hitler’s (and others’) subsequent adoption of these ideas—meant that the use of biology in sociology fell radically out of favor by the middle of the 20th century. Marshall notes that the distaste for any use of biology or biological theory within sociology continues to this day. Yet he argues that sociology will never be able to fully explain human social behavior and the social forces, institutions, and structures that shape it without understanding the evolved human organism with its biologically imposed capacities, limitations, and imperatives. He, as does Machalek, notes there are signs of a possible consilience between sociology and evolutionary biology.

With regard to the history of the use of biology in the social sciences, Stephen K. Sanderson’s essay on Edward Westermarck is the story of the road not taken by sociology. Unlike his better known contemporaries Emile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer, Westermarck utilized the idea of an evolved human actor in his examination of sociological topics, including marriage and the family and human morality. Yet for political and other reasons, including popular support for the ideas of Herbert Spencer, the work of this great Finnish sociologist is today largely unknown outside of Finland. As a result, (p. 5) except for the Westermarck hypothesis—the hypothesis that individuals who spend their early years together as children do not tend to find each other sexually attractive as adults—Westermarck’s contributions have largely been forgotten. Sanderson suggests that as new interest has emerged in evolutionary ideas and their application within the social sciences, Westermarck should be restored as one of the founding fathers of sociology.

Part II of this handbook examines work using evolutionary approaches to social psychology, the area of sociology that focuses on the individual and the small group. In Chapter 5, Jonathan H. Turner outlines his theory of how Homo sapiens evolved to become the most social of the great apes, a long-standing question in evolutionary biology. He notes that most apes are relatively solitary with the exception of mother–child pairs, and they are absent even a pair bond between males and females. He relies on cladistic analysis of primates to show that the last common ancestor of humans and apes was most likely a relatively solitary primate. So how did humans become social enough to create complex societies and cultures? Turner argues that in humans, unlike other apes, expansion of the emotion centers in the brain made possible greater in-group solidarity, increased group sizes, and greater intelligence, in turn making the development of large, complex, human societies possible.

In Chapter 6, Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner follow up from the previous chapter to give an evolutionary theory for the origin of religiosity and religious beliefs, which are universal across human societies. They suggest that early hominoids’ expanded emotional capacity, increased intelligence, and capacity for language were the cognitive basis on which religiosity could build. Religion is of course an important buttress of social solidarity in populations worldwide. They note that this argument cannot explain why or how religion became institutionalized in the first human societies, and a full story of human religion and religiosity requires an examination of the development of religion within specific sociocultural systems. In Chapter 7, Michael Hammond details how evolved characteristics of the human brain are not only the basis of religion but also can account for the human liking for transient novelty and the human attraction to status distinctions. He suggests that the transient novelty that modern capitalist societies can generate may have a much deeper and lasting appeal than postmodern critics suggest.

As Turner and Maryanski note, the evolution of human cognitive abilities was a major factor differentiating humans from all other primate species. Although human brains are all more alike than they are different, in Chapter 8 David D. Franks reviews sex differences in the brain that are likely a result of the different biological roles of males and females in the process at the heart of biological evolution: reproduction. Franks notes that there are consistent average sex differences in the brain that likely have implications for the social behavior of men and women. Debate rages about how much of these sex differences in the brain are due to socialization and how much to biology—although Franks notes that both socialization and biology play a role.

Since Durkheim’s landmark book, Suicide, sociologists have been interested in what helps account for differences in levels of human happiness and misery across and within (p. 6) human societies. In Chapter 9, Satoshi Kanazawa and Norman P. Li present the savanna theory of happiness. They theorize that if individuals have evolved psychological mechanisms that predispose them to certain preferences and behaviors, such as preferences for ethnically homogeneous settings, lower population densities, and social interactions with friends, circumstances in the contemporary world that help them meet those preferences and/or promote those behaviors are likely to make individuals happier. They further predict that more intelligent individuals, who are presumably better able to comprehend and deal with the evolutionary novel circumstances of modern societies, will be better able to deal with situations that do not correspond to those evolved preferences for ethnic homogeneity, low population density, and social interactions with friends and therefore will be made less unhappy by such situations compared to less intelligent people. They test their predictions using US data from the Add Health survey (in which the average age of respondents is 22 years) on the effects of the ethnic composition of environment, population density, and socializing with friends on individual life satisfaction. As predicted, the negative effects on happiness of ethnic heterogeneity, high population density, and less socializing with friends are weaker among more intelligent individuals than among less intelligent individuals.

The mechanisms by which small groups operate and the forces that keep them together and split them apart are studied by group processes researchers within sociology. In Chapter 10, Joseph M. Whitmeyer discusses how research in the areas of social exchange, identity, and status processes could benefit from incorporating insights about individuals from evolutionary theory. He notes that evolutionary psychological reasoning suggests that we likely have evolved predispositions that facilitate exchange processes in the small group and that help ensure that public goods are provided for the group because these things would have been beneficial for individuals and their genetic relatives in the evolutionary environment. In particular, Whitmeyer suggests we have evolved traits that promote reciprocal and general exchange in the small group, including emotional responses to being rewarded or punished, sensitivity to unfairness, and attention to reputation. He provides a list of predictions for research on exchange processes implied by this reasoning. He notes identity processes motivate behaviors that indicate to others that the person is a reliable exchange partner and are thus ways of facilitating exchange within the group. Given the advantages of exchange within the group for individuals over evolutionary time, he suggests we also have evolved predispositions regarding individual identity processes. Based on this reasoning he provides another list of predictions for research on identity processes. Last, he notes that we likely have predispositions regarding status processes and the awarding of status within the group. It is likely that we evolved the predisposition to grant status to individuals who solved nonrival public goods problems for our group because this helped ensure that those problems would be solved to our and our relatives’ benefit. This reasoning implies another list of predictions for research on status processes, including the prediction that the conferral of status is always accompanied by performance expectations.

The third part of the handbook examines research on the interaction of genes (and other biochemicals such as hormones) and environmental contexts on a variety of (p. 7) outcomes of sociological interest, including political behavior, status attainment, and individual responses to social stress. This area of research is often referred to as “biosociology.”

In introducing studies examining genetic influences on social behavior, in Chapter 11, Colter Mitchell gives an overview of the methods and measures used to find the genetic correlates of social behaviors in genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and some of the findings of these GWAS with regard to health behaviors and social, economic, and political behaviors. Genetic correlates have been found that predict smoking behavior, alcohol use and dependence, risk-taking, impulsivity, aggression, educational attainment, intelligence, and political preferences. He also describes the limitations of this research and its promise for the future. In Chapter 12, Rose McDermott and Peter K. Hatemi explode the myth that biosocial explanations are somehow deterministic, and they use case studies of a variety of very different individuals to show how the same genetic endowment can result in very different consequences for different people depending on their social context and other environmental factors.

In Chapter 13, Kevin M. Beaver et al. review the research examining the genetic and genomic foundations of aggression, violence, and antisocial behavior. Again, the evidence indicates that genetic propensities interact with the environment of the individual to promote or inhibit antisocial behavior. They note the finding that antisocial behavior has a genetic component is not a cause for pessimism because findings on the interaction between genes and environment may be used to help design better interventions due to the fact that they demonstrate which environments promote prosocial behavior among individuals with genes for the opposite.

Chapter 14, by Adam Lockyer and Peter K. Hatemi, provides an overview of research on genetic influences on political behavior, including research using evolutionary theory, behavioral genetics research, GWAS, and candidate gene research. These authors note that this research can be grouped into answering why, what, and how questions about political behavior: Why do people have the political leanings they do? How much of the cause of political behavior is genetic? and What genes predispose individuals to what kinds of political behavior?

In Chapter 15, François Nielsen notes how there is evidence that genetic endowments influence status attainment outcomes such as educational and occupational attainment. For those who fear that any inheritance of traits such as cognitive ability will promote a rigidly stratified society, as the elite bequeaths its abilities to its offspring so those offspring in turn become the new elite, he notes that this does not necessarily follow. Genetic endowments differ from generation to generation, and on any trait there is typically regression to the mean from one generation to the next. This process prevents an elite from being formed and maintained across generations. He argues that incorporating individual genetic endowments into standard models of status attainment allows for better understanding and measurement of mobility and opportunity in a given society.

In Chapter 16, Olga Kornienko and Douglas A. Granger advocate investigating the relationship between social network characteristics and stress on individuals and its implications for physical and mental health. They note that most previous research has (p. 8) examined only ego-centered personal network data on individual stress responses and not how the entire network and its dynamics affect the individual. There are reasons to believe that the ego-centered approach may not always lead to a full understanding of the effects of social position on social stress, and an understanding of the characteristics of the entire social network in which an individual is embedded can better illuminate the causes of social stress.

In Chapter 17, Jeff Davis and Kristen Damron describe human and animal research on evolved stress responses in individuals and how environmental stresses can have long-term influences on the individual and affect that person’s behavior for years after the experiences are over. They present a model of stress hormone actions and how they fluctuate depending on the agent’s ability to maintain adaptive predictive control in his or her relationship with the environment.

In Chapter 18, Daniel E. Adkins, Kelli M. Rasmussen, and Anna R. Docherty further discuss the epigenetic mechanisms by which adversity “gets under the skin.” These mechanisms modify gene activity with long-term consequences for the individual’s health and behavior. They note how these mechanisms can help account for the long-term adverse effects of events such as prenatal deprivation, childhood trauma, and addiction. They argue that sociological theories and models of outcomes such as poor mental health and health disparities between groups should incorporate these findings and include biosocial factors to create complete explanations for these outcomes.

Small group researchers have long been interested in how status is allocated in the small group. In the last chapter in Part III on biosociology, Chapter 19, Allan Mazur describes the physiology of competition for status in the small group. He shows how individual hormone profiles change in response to competition and to winning and losing such competitions, and he discusses the consequences of these hormonal changes on consequent social interaction and status allocation processes.

Part IV of the handbook provides an overview of research that applies evolutionary theory to other traditional concerns of sociologists, including study of the family, fertility, sex and gender, religion, crime, and race and ethnic relations. Evolutionary theory is based on the concept of an evolved actor—that the individuals who make up sociological groups and societies are a product of evolution by natural selection and have evolved physical and psychological predispositions that interact with the totality of the individuals’ environment, including its culture, in shaping behavior. Evolved predispositions include predispositions toward behaviors highly relevant to sociology, including sexual behavior and partner preferences, behaviors that favor kin (especially close kin), and status-seeking behavior.

In Chapter 20, Timothy Crippen describes the essentials of the evolutionary approach and many of the misunderstandings sociologists have of evolutionary theory, including unwarranted fears of biological determinism and reductionism. Crippen notes that evolutionary theory is a theory of how individual organisms, not groups, evolve and thus has implications for individual behavior only. The dynamics of the group, and the interaction of the individual’s characteristics with the characteristics of (p. 9) the group, remain as the sociological domain of study. Crippen also highlights what he describes as the troubling resurrection of group selectionist ideas among evolutionists. Group selection is the idea in evolutionary biology that the unit of selection in the evolutionary process is not the gene or the individual but, rather, the entire group. That is, individuals have characteristics that were selected for over the course of evolution not because they helped each individual and his or her genes survive and reproduce but, rather, because they helped the group of which each individual is a member (e.g., the species) survive and reproduce. A common misunderstanding of evolutionary theory held by sociologists is that it necessarily implies group selectionism, and so individual traits are present because in the evolutionary past they helped the “species” or the “group” survive. Although the majority of biologists reject group selectionism as a major force in biological evolution, recently it has witnessed something of a revival. Crippen notes it was erroneous ideas of group selection—that some groups are successful because they have emerged from this process of group selection and are somehow fitter or better adapted than other groups—that was behind the abuses of biology in social Darwinism.

Evolutionary theory has as its heart differential reproduction and survival of individuals and their genes, and so it is not surprising that it is relevant to the study of the reproductive unit among humans—the family. In Chapter 21, Anna Rotkirch describes research in the field of evolutionary family sociology. She presents the evolutionary approach to the family, particularly how genetic relationship shapes the pattern of family ties. She notes that evolutionary approaches are complementary to traditional sociological approaches that do not refer to evolutionary theory at all. She then examines two broad areas of research within the area of evolutionary family sociology: (a) research on parenting, mating, and family systems and (b) research focusing on grandparenting, particularly intergenerational transfers and proximity to offspring. Like many of the research areas described in this volume, this is an area in its infancy and many important questions have yet to be addressed.

In Chapter 22, Martin Fieder and Susanne Huber provide an overview of studies in the area of evolution and reproduction. They examine the relationship between sex, status, income, wealth, and fertility in contemporary societies the relationship between genetic, educational, and religious homogamy and fertility the relationship between father’s age and genetic mutations in offspring and the role of early life factors and epigenetics in fertility. They note that evolutionary theory can explain many of these associations. They also raise the intriguing idea that many behaviors, such as educational and religious homogamy and the pursuit of status by men, likely continue to be adaptive in terms of increasing individual genetic fitness even in contemporary, modern environments.

Again, the different biological roles of males and females in reproduction, a process at the heart of evolution, have implications for sex differences in behaviors particularly with regard to reproduction and parenting. In Chapter 23, Lee Ellis reviews the considerable evidence of universal average cognitive and behavioral differences between the sexes. He examines evolutionary and sex role explanations for these differences, and he (p. 10) introduces a new theoretical explanation he calls evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory, which stipulates that androgens have evolved as the main biochemicals responsible for masculinizing/defeminizing the brain of an otherwise female mammal. Ellis notes that sex role explanations of sex differences have difficulty accounting for the fact that many cognitive and behavioral differences between men and women are wider in societies that are more gender equitable. He suggests this is also a conundrum for evolutionary theories, including his own, possibly because more egalitarian societies that give individuals more freedom to express themselves actually promote the expression of sex-typed behaviors. He also suggests the intriguing possibility that freedom in choosing marriage partners in more egalitarian societies may actually promote the expression of genes for particular sex-typed behaviors.

In Chapter 24, Anthony Walsh and Cody Jorgensen argue that evolutionary psychology or evolutionary theory applied to understanding psychology can organize the theories and findings of criminology and hence unify a fragmentary field. They note that evolutionary psychology can help explain why some people victimize others while simultaneously explaining why most of us do not. They also argue that it can therefore reconcile the tension between the two major criminological traditions whose assumptions about criminal behavior are radically at odds—social learning theory (which assumes that most people are law abiding until taught otherwise) and social control theory (which assumes the reverse). Evolutionary theory suggests that all individuals have the potential to commit crime to a greater or lesser extent, and therefore crime is likely when circumstances favorable to criminal activity, such as a breakdown in social cohesion and order, occur.

Frank Salter, in Chapter 25, reviews literature from ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and sociology on the biosocial study of ethnicity. He defines an “ethny” as a population with a collective proper name, a common myth of descent, a shared history, a distinctive shared culture, a connection to a known territory, and some degree of solidarity. He defines ethnicity as behavior contingent on membership of such a population. He notes that biology is a likely factor in any social phenomenon affected by descent, and he presents evolutionary explanations of ethnicity that rely on both individual and group selection arguments. He further notes that there are likely fitness benefits of pro-ethnic behavior because members of the same ethnic group likely share more genes than do members of different ethnic groups. Last, he argues that the full incorporation of insights from the biosocial literature would be advantageous for the study of race and ethnicity.

In Chapter 26, Kristin Liv Rauch and Rosemary L. Hopcroft present a sociosexual theory of racial discrimination, building on the subordinate male target hypothesis of Sidanius and co-authors. Sidanius and colleagues note that sexually selected predispositions for the targeting of out-group males (more so than out-group females) are likely to have evolved and continue to operate. This is because out-group males are competitors for mates, whereas out-group females are possible mates. However, Rauch and Hopcroft go beyond this work by noting that dominant group members often form coalitions to target out-group males and enlist support from cultural scripts and/or unconscious (p. 11) biases. The result of such targeting continues to have fitness consequences for dominant group males at the expense of subordinate group males in that it enhances mating opportunities for dominant group males and diminishes them for subordinate group males.

The last part of the book presents two chapters on cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is unlike biological evolution in that cultural evolution does not depend on the competition between living organisms for survival and reproduction because cultures and cultural products are not living organisms. Nevertheless, cultural evolution may be considered analogous to biological evolution in some respects (see Chapter 28, this volume). Furthermore, in sociology, comparative–historical cultural evolutionists such as Gerhard Lenski and Stephen K. Sanderson have long argued that it is necessary to have a conception of a universal evolved actor in the comparative study of societies, given that there are patterned universals across human societies and social factors that differ in predicable ways given different ecological and technological constraints.

In Chapter 27 on comparative–historical religious change, Stephen K. Sanderson presents a new theory for the rise of the religions of the “Axial age” from approximately 600 bce to 1 ce (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism). Sanderson reviews cognitive and evolutionary psychological theories of religiosity, which he groups into by-product theories (religiosity exists because it uses parts of the brain evolved for other purposes) and adaptationist theories (religiosity exists because it was adaptive in its own right). He takes an adaptationist view of religion—that is, he argues that religiosity is an evolved, universal human trait that likely evolved because of the adaptive advantages it gave to individuals. This meshes with his theory of the rise of the religions of the axial age because he argues that these new religions helped individuals deal with the insecurities and problems they were facing due to increases in urbanization and warfare at the time. He notes that the gods of these new religions, unlike the pagan gods, were transcendent or above the world and could help provide comfort to those who were suffering. This can account for the increasing abandonment of pagan religions and rise of the new Axial religions.

In Chapter 28, Marion Blute and Fiona M. Jordan provide an overview of scholarly work that uses phylogenetic methods from evolutionary biology to examine sociocultural evolution through history. They discuss evolutionary tree-building and phylogenetic comparative methods and how they can be used to answer a variety of questions about the evolution of languages, as well as the evolution of social, political, cultural, and economic organizations and artifacts. These methods can be used to answer questions such as the following: Where and when did a language originate? How fast is a language changing? What was the ancestral state of a particular sociocultural feature? How do sociocultural traits change together? and Is there a trend in the direction in which traits change?

The research discussed in this volume does not include all the ongoing research in the area of evolution, biology, and society nor all the topics covered by this research. It is hoped that the discussed research is enough to give a newcomer to the area an idea of (p. 12) what kinds of work is being done and to demonstrate the promise of this line of research for sociology. As many of these chapters argue, considering evolved, biological factors and including them in sociological theories and empirical research has the potential to both unify the discipline and help us create better explanations and achieve better understanding of social phenomena, a point I return to in Chapter 29.

Rosemary L. Hopcroft is Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She has published widely in the areas of evolutionary sociology and comparative and historical sociology in journals that include the American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Evolution and Human Behavior, and Human Nature. She is the author of Evolution and Gender: Why it matters for contemporary life, Routledge 2016).

Biology Major Requirements (minimum 10 Courses)

The following courses are required for students pursuing both the B.S. and B.A. biology credentials.

Gateway Courses (2 or 1 courses)

The gateways are not sequenced and can be taken in either order.

  • BIOLOGY 201L Molecular Biology (prerequisite: Chem 101D or equivalent)
  • BIOLOGY 202L Genetics & Evolution
  • BIOLOGY 203L Molecular Biology, Genetics & Evolution (prerequisite: Biology AP 5 and Chem 101D or equivalent)

Biology Area Requirements (3 courses)

Select 1 course from EACH of the following three areas. Courses listed in more than one area may only be used to meet one area requirement.

Evolutionary Biology Concentration Area Electives (5 or 6 courses)

A maximum of 2 independent studies or tutorials may count toward the major. A maximum of 2 alternate electives may count toward the major (3 if using Bio 203L)

  • 1 independent study, tutorial or seminar on an evolution-related topic, taken with a concentration area faculty member or with approval of the concentration area advisor.
    • BIOLOGY 293 / 493 Research Independent Study OR
    • BIOLOGY 490T Tutorial OR
    • BIOLOGY 490S/590S Special Topics Seminar with area faculty or as approved by the area advisor
    • BIOLOGY 251L Molecular Evolution
    • BIOLOGY 255 Philosophy of Biology
    • BIOLOGY 267D Behavioral Ecology and the Evolution of Animal Behavior
    • BIOLOGY 268D Mechanisms of Animal Behavior
    • BIOLOGY 330L Comparative and Functional Anatomy of the Vertebrates
    • BIOLOGY 347L People and Plants
    • BIOLOGY 350 Complex Traits and Evolutionary Genetics
    • BIOLOGY 450S Genomics of Adaptation: A Modern Look at Evolution
    • BIOLOGY 453S Genes in an Ecological Context
    • BIOLOGY 460 (formerly 250) Population Genetics
    • BIOLOGY 555S Problems in the Philosophy of Biology
    • BIOLOGY 556 Systematic Biology
    • BIOLOGY 557L Microbial Ecology and Evolution
    • BIOLOGY 588S Macroevolution
    • BIOLOGY 651S Speciation

    Lab Experience Requirement

    Through your area menu and electives courses, you must take at least 2 full lab courses in addition to the gateway courses. Courses must be at the 200 level or above. A maximum of 1 independent study may count as a lab course.

    Capstone Course Requirement

    You must take at least 1 full 400-level or higher biology 'Capstone' course or other approved capstone course. Independent study can count towards this requirement if it is a second semester continuation.

    Secret code

    Darwin was able to establish natural selection, without any understanding of the genetic mechanisms of inheritance, or the source of novel variation in a population. His own theory on the transmission of traits, called pangenesis, was completely wrong.

    It was not until Gregor Mendel and the start of the 20 th century that the genetic mechanism of inheritance began to be revealed. We now know that most traits, such as skin colour, eye colour and blood group are determined by our DNA and genes. During the 20 th century, evolutionary biologists such as Ernst Mayr, J.B.S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, and Theodosius Dobzhansky combined Darwinian evolution with our emerging knowledge of genetics to produce the “modern synthesis” that we call evolutionary biology today.

    Most genes come in a variety of forms, one inherited from each parent. The varieties are known as alleles, and encode slightly different traits. The incidence of different traits, or alleles, in a population is driven by natural selection and genetic drift, which can randomly reduce genetic variation. Today, evolution is defined as the change in the frequency of alleles in populations over time.

    New traits are introduced into populations by gene flow from other populations or by mutation. Mutation is a change in the structure of a gene and can be caused by errors in copying DNA, carcinogenic chemicals, viruses, UV-light and radiation. Most mutations are neutral, having no effect on gene function others are harmful, such as the ones that cause inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis. Rarely mutations can lead to beneficial new traits, such as increased resistance to malaria.

    Today evolutionary biologists are largely divided into two camps. The pro-selectionists such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, Edward O Wilson, Matt Ridley, Mark Ridley and Jared Diamond believe in the primacy of natural selection as the principle guiding evolution. Others such as Niles Eldredge, Stephen J. Gould, Brian Goodwin, Stuart Kauffman and Steven Rose argue that we are still missing something big, and that natural selection does not explain the full complexity of evolution.

    The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution

    When it was first published in 2009, The Tangled Bank was the first textbook every written specifically for non-majors college students and became widely adopted in colleges across the United States and other countries. For the second edition, Zimmer has thoroughly updated the book, incorporating cutting-edge research from across biology and developing more effective ways to explain the key concepts of evolution. With vivid portrait of scientists and their research, he demonstrates how vital evolution is to all branches of modern biology—from the fight against deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria to the analysis of the human genome. Richly illustrated with over 300 illustrations and photographs, The Tangled Bank is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of life on Earth.

    For a study guide, lecture slides, and free exam copies, visit the publisher’s web site.

    Under certain conditions, two lineages will evolve into very similar-looking forms. The top animal is a saber-toothed cat, related to lions and tigers. The bottom one is a marsupial, more closely related to kangaroos and opossums. Art by Carl Buell.

    What People Are Saying

    The Quarterly Review of Biology
    This is the first textbook I have seen by a professional science writer. If this is a sort of experiment in textbook publishing, it is a spectacularly successful one…The result is an introduction to the field that is not only accurate and up to date, but—of course—well written. How important is the prose in a textbook? For students, lively versus leaden, or clear versus cryptic, can be the difference between understanding and not, between being turned on to a field and being turned off. For what it is worth, I solicited help for this review from a biologically inclined high school student, who read a few chapters and reported it to be both clear and engaging….In summary, this is an excellent textbook, one that ought to be—and will be, I predict—widely adopted.

    Evolutionary Applications
    “The Tangled Bank is an attractive and captivating book, masterfully told…All readers will be able to immerse themselves in the captivating field of evolutionary biology as written by a master storyteller.” Read the full review.

    “Those familiar with the books, newspaper and journal columns, and commentaries by Zimmer will be delighted that he has turned his considerable writing skills to creating an accessible and superbly illustrated introduction to biological evolution. The best books on evolution are those that synthesize the processes of evolution (natural selection, mutation, the origin of variation, the role of development) with the patterns of evolution (the fossil record, phylogenetic trees, changes within and between species) and introduce readers to the major players and how they study evolution. Zimmer describes all these processes and patterns of evolution admirably, using his flair with language and substantial knowledge of biology–the latter aided by four scientific advisers, who have advised him well. Zimmer has a gift for finding just the right example to fascinate the reader, encouraging him or her to want to read on and learn more. The book is astoundingly well illustrated it could serve as a coffee-table book as well as an up-to-date introduction to the changing ways in which evolution has been and is being studied. The inclusion of selected readings allows entry into the primary literature. A book to both browse and read in depth. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All libraries.” Read the full review.
    — B. K. Hall, emeritus, Dalhousie University

    “The back cover of The Tangled Bank is plastered with enthusiastic encomiums by several dominant figures in evolutionary biology and science education today. Among other features, they point out the quality and compelling nature of its writing and illustrations, and its ability to capture the ferment of this rapidly moving scientific field for a nonmajors audience. As instructors with many years of experience teaching evolution topics to undergraduates, we agree. Carl Zimmer’s approach is a rather radical departure from most textbooks. But we fully expect it to rivet reluctant students’ attention, and that is exciting indeed.” Read the full review.

    The American Biology Teacher
    “For students of evolution or scholars who want to know the specifics about particular evolutionary processes, this is an excellent read. The fact that it is understandable to beginners and fascinating to scientists makes this book truly unique and valuable.” Read the full review.

    “The book is billed as the first textbook on evolution for the general reader, and in that framework, it excels.” Read the full review.

    “This book is, hands down, the best textbook I’ve ever read.” Read the full review.

    “In the best of all worlds, every educated American could and should read this book, and as a result, would have a much richer understanding of evolution as a force directly affecting our lives.” Read the full review.

    CBE Life Sciences
    “The best textbook I’ve seen for a nonmajors introductory biology course about evolution.” Read the full review.


    The Tangled Bank is the best written and best illustrated introduction to evolution of the Darwin centennial decade, and also the most conversant with ongoing research. It is excellent for students, the general public, and even other biologists.”
    — Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University, author of Consilience

    “Carl Zimmer’s excursion through the evolutionary epic is without equal. His gift for the scientific narrative is on full display through The Tangled Bank, and he leads his readers onward with an energy and delight that never disappoints. This marvelous text is an extraordinary introduction to the depth and richness of evolutionary science.”
    — Kenneth Miller, Brown University, author of Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul and co-author of Miller & Levine’s Biology

    “Zimmer has produced a wonderfully thorough introduction to evolutionary biology. With his prose and color diagrams by leading artists produced specially for this volume, The Tangled Bank will be a powerful tool to introduce students to the explanatory power of evolution and the way that it integrates different fields of knowledge. I have no doubt that this important volume will find its way into diverse courses in the curriculum.”
    — Neil Shubin, University of Chicago, author of Your Inner Fish

    “One rarely says of a textbook, ‘I couldn’t put it down,’ but that was how I felt reading Carl Zimmer’s Tangled Bank. Zimmer has applied his award-winning communication skills to producing a readable yet up-to-date and thorough treatment of evolutionary biology. Were I teaching evolution, this is the book I would use.”
    — Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center For Science Education and winner of the 2009 Stephen Jay Gould Prize

    “Carl Zimmer’s The Tangled Bank is a joy to read. He draws readers into the excitement of the rapidly expanding science of evolutionary biology, as he explains why life on earth is so diverse and how the web of life evolved to be so entangled. He explains, through elegant prose and beautiful illustrations, the remarkable progress that has been made in recent years in understanding the evolutionary process.”
    — John Thompson, University of California, Santa Cruz, author of The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution

    “In clear, accessible prose, Carl Zimmer explains how 21st century science confirms the 19th century’s most radical idea. If you want to understand life’s remarkable past and uncertain future, read The Tangled Bank.”
    — Andrew Knoll, Harvard University, author of Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth

    “This engagingly written and well-organized book is a wonderful introduction to evolutionary biology. It beautifully synthesizes the conceptual basis of evolutionary theory with the empirical evidence that evolution has occurred. The book is remarkably up-to-date, seamlessly moving from discussion of fossils to genomes, and nicely illustrates that evolutionary biology is a vigorous field that increasingly takes an experimental approach.”
    — Jonathan Losos, Harvard University

    “Zimmer weaves cutting-edge findings and essential concepts around the personalities and adventures of the biologists themselves. The result is superb: an up-to-date, articulate, and gorgeously illustrated introduction to modern evolutionary biology. We sorely needed a text aimed at the nonmajor undergraduate, and Zimmer was exactly the right person to write it.”
    — Douglas J. Emlen, Professor of Biology, University of Montana

    Evolutionary Biology Essay Topics

    1. Gene-centered view.
    2. Theory of stellar evolution.
    3. The social impact of evolutionary biology.
    4. Evolution of multicellular organisms.
    5. Genetic architecture of adaptation.
    6. Sexual selection.
    7. Evolutionary robotics.
    8. Evolution of cooperation.
    9. Paleobiology.
    10. Bayesian inference of phylogeny and its impact on evolutionary biology.
    11. Evolutionary biology of aging.
    12. Neuroscience in evolutionary biology.
    13. Optimality theory.
    14. Morphometrics.
    15. Biological conservation.
    16. Evolutionary biology and ecology.
    17. Evolutionary biology and immunology.
    18. Conceptual issues in evolutionary biology.
    19. Evolutionary biology and population genetics.
    20. Evolutionary biology and phylogenetics.
    21. Mathematical models in evolutionary biology.
    22. The evolutionary perspective on sperm biology.
    23. Plant speciation.
    24. Marine speciation.
    25. Morphological evolution.

    In conclusion, there are the theory of evolution essay topics! This is usually the most challenging, so I tried my best to choose the topics that are both strong and clear!

    Customer reviews

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    Tangled Bank distinguishes itself amongst a heady group of recent publications as a masterpiece of science writing, publishing, instruction, and as a reference book. It has immediately become one of the books in my library that I most treasure.

    2009 was a great year for students and supporters of science, especially those that study evolution given it's the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's 1st edition of The Origin Of Species: 150th Anniversary Edition . The year was celebrated partly by several practicing scientists publishing excellent books about evolution directed towards the general reader, nearly all of which were complementary rather than redundant. Having read seven books covering evolution this year, and several that were published just prior to 2009, it's my position that Tangled Bank stands above the rest of the herd, in spite the others also being very worthy of consideration.

    Not only is Tangled Bank a great book on evolution on your first read, but it is structured in a way that allows it be used as an extremely valuable reference source. At 9.75 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide, it's large enough to provide ample space on its pages which are filled with beautiful color illustrations, color photos, and other color graphics that greatly help reinforce the subject matter. The quality of the cover and the paper is also first rate so it should be able to sustain a long usable life.

    While Tangled Bank is being described as a textbook, it's important to distinguish how Tangled Bank is different from the stereotypical textbook. Tangled Bank does not include quizzes, exercises, or tests instead it can be identified as a textbook based on the structure of the subject material and framing, which is instructive rather than argumentative or a narrative like some of the other evolution books published recently. Each chapter of Tangled Bank ends with a "To Sum Up" page that presents a bullet point list to both help reinforce the objective of the chapter's instruction and help in future reference searches. While most textbooks of this quality can cost as much as $150, Amazon's current price of $40, or even the list price of $60 make this a true bargain given how many years I predict this book will be able to provide value, even as the rate of discoveries increases over time.

    In addition Mr. Zimmer provides an excellent reference section categorized by both chapter and subject matter. Nearly all of Mr. Zimmer's references are either peer-reviewed articles generally accepted by the scientific community, or books popular with the scientific community that report on multiple peer-reviewed articles in a certain topical area germane to the chapter Zimmer covers. One reason Mr. Zimmer is an outstanding journalist is his intellectual honesty, where he is careful to report and distinguish between where science is confident in its explanations and where there is either controversy or a lack of confidence.

    I would distinguish the closest competitor to what Mr. Zimmer does in Tangled Bank for the general reader to Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (aka TGSOE) as follows. TGSOE is like a semester of seminars with a brilliant retired biologist with a wide command of the subject matter but also susceptible to frequent soliloquies that are often tangential, personal to the point it veers from what science understands or peer-accepts (where in the latter case Dawkins' is careful to note) and often illuminating but also sacrifices scientific findings for Dawkins personal reflections. Many of Dr. Dawkins' personal ruminations do serve to reinforce either the subject matter, scientific methodology, or are illuminative on how some research scientists think. However some of his reflections actually supplant what practicing scientists doing research are discovering with Dawkins' own non-fact based speculations, e.g., probability of life on other planets and how it could differ from life on earth.

    Tangled Bank on the other hand is a more comprehensive self-guided tutorial of evolution. It's far more ambitious in terms of covering more topics within the relevant scientific disciplines and the format of instructional text coupled to far more graphics guarantees the reader will have a much better understanding of the theory of evolution than they would from books primarily focused on text alone (though Dawkins book does provide some nice color photos). I would argue that given Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True provides a far more compelling and concise argument for the evidence of evolution than TGSOE Tangled Bank makes TGSOE an unnecessary purchase.

    While the Tangled Bank's subtitle states, "An Introduction to Evolution", it's my opinion that very few readers would not greatly benefit from owning and perusing this book even if their job is germane to some aspect of the life sciences and they've formally trained in the life sciences through the undergrad level or gone to med school. While it's true that Mr. Zimmer only introduces the topics he covers by chapter rather than drilling down into the 200-level or beyond on any of the topics, the theory of evolution covers a broad cross-section of scientific disciplines and Mr. Zimmer covers nearly all of them. So while someone whose studied developmental biology or cell biology might not learn much on those topics as they're covered here, I think they'd still benefit from Mr. Zimmer's excellent chapters covering radiations and extinctions, the evolution of behavior, or other topics tangential to their field of expertise or subjects studied years ago given Zimmer's ample reporting of recent findings. I've been studying evolution now for thirty-plus years and I either learned quite a bit about topics I'd previously covered, or was re-introduced to subjects with a plethora of additional findings since I last studied the topic.

    This is truly a masterpiece of textbook publishing for the general reader.

    Watch the video: Intro to evolutionary (January 2022).