When we consider ourselves, not as static beings fixed in time but as dynamic, ever-changing creatures, our viewpoint of human history becomes different and captivating. The crucial element of "time depth" has revolutionized the very questions we ask about ourselves. "Who are we?" has turned into What have we become? What are we becoming?"
What makes this viewpoint possible is the evolutionary perspective offered by biological anthropology through the study of the evolution, genetics, anatomy, and modern variation within the human species.
A Discipline of Far-Ranging Questions
Are the great apes a unique break point from the past-and toward the human-because they can understand other beings' mental states? Did we destroy the Neandertals? Did modern Homo sapiens evolve entirely on the African continent, replacing other hominid forms as they fanned out into Asia and Europe? Or did they evolve simultaneously and in the same direction on all three continents? Did hunting and its requirements for cooperation and intelligence make us human? What is the role of our evolution in determining social hierarchy? gender roles? obesity? morning sickness in pregnancy? How is evolution active in human development today?
As Dr. King addresses these and other questions in this scientific story, you will come to see evolution as not simply a textbook theory but a vital force.
Understand the Forces that Continue to Shape Us
In this course, award-winning teacher and scholar Barbara J. King-a William and Mary University Professor of Teaching Excellence from 1999-2002-delves into the story of how, why, where, and when we became human.
These lectures will help you understand the forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, our species.
"An evolutionary perspective on human behavior," notes Dr. King, "results in more than just knowledge about dates and sites-when and where specific evolutionary milestones likely occurred.
"It is also a window on the past and future of our species. An entirely new way of thinking comes into focus when we consider the human species within an evolutionary perspective."
Enjoy the Fruits of a Century of Scholarship
While covering these subjects in this 24-lecture series, Dr. King synthesizes the best that more than a century of scientific scholarship has to offer across a variety of disciplines.
Biological anthropologists study primate anatomy and behavior both to understand evolution and to learn more about our common ancestor.
Biological anthropologists are joined by molecular anthropologists to better understand hominids by studying fossils, ancient skeletal remains, and lifestyle information such as cave art and stone tools.
Case Studies that Clarify Evolution and Its Power
Dr. King begins by explaining key mechanisms through which evolution functions, citing famous and definitive case studies that demonstrate these forces.
In one such landmark study, for example, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant returned to the Galapagos Islands more than 100 years after Darwin's first voyage to conduct research on island finches.
In 1977, a drought-induced scarcity of soft, edible seeds brought forth in the very next generation a population of finches with larger, stronger beaks capable of crushing larger, tougher seeds.
Extraordinarily, in 1985, heavy rains produced a surplus of softer seeds, and natural selection produced a succeeding generation of the smaller-beaked variety.
Evolution had occurred in two different directions within a decade. This "natural selection" is the theoretical tool of evolution, which helps us make sense of these facts.
Learn Why Evolution Remains Important to Us Today
Perhaps the greatest measure of this theory's power is its relevance to our lives today.
Did you know that the gene which causes sickle cell anemia must be inherited from both parents to cause the disease but the disease does not occur when only a single gene is inherited? Or that the single gene, in fact, affords protection from malaria? Or that race, a category so securely ingrained in our consciousness, is practically meaningless in biological terms? Or how to evaluate the claim that a gene can be responsible for a certain personality trait?
Take a Glimpse Into Our Selected Primate Heritage
With an understanding of the basic mechanisms of evolutionary change in hand, the course looks at how our ancient primate ancestors adapted.
Consider the anatomical features we share with monkeys, great apes, and other primates. Our large brains, grasping hands, and forward-facing eyes allowing us to perceive depth are critical to the way we function in the world.
Yet the fossil record tells us that some 70 million years ago these distinctive primate features did not exist.
What caused the first primates to emerge from existing mammalian populations?
One proposed solution was that the appearance of insects living in the lower canopies of trees offered a plentiful food resource to those species adapted to procure it. Could depth perception and grasping ability have provided an advantage here, and hence been naturally selected?
This is the function of biological anthropology: confronting the facts, then suggesting and testing possibilities.
A Course as Much About the Present as the Past
With so much of evolutionary history taken up with the past, the insights gained in these lectures may tempt you to add questions of your own:
Is human evolution still a force in today's world? Hasn't our modern, mobile culture rendered evolution irrelevant?
In fact, human evolution is a stronger force than ever, interacting with human culture in complex ways.