Humans are living organisms, and as such our health is a biological phenomenon, structured by and subject to the constraints imposed by evolution. This is not just an abstract concept; an understanding of evolution can be used to help predict events that can mean life or death to millions of people every year. Despite this, many people are unaware that evolution plays a role in medicine. We will spend the semester exploring ways in which evolutionary phenomena influence health and medicine. Among the specific phenomena we will discuss will be: the emergence of multiple-drug resistant bacteria (”superbugs”); how natural selection governs the progression of cancer; diseases such as bubonic plague, AIDS, and influenza that have moved from animals to humans; human genetic variation and how it influences our health; and how our health is influenced by the bacteria that live in and on our bodies (the ”human microbiome”).
We will use Carl Zimmer’s The Tangled Bank as our common reference for evolutionary biology, but more of the readings for the semester will come from news articles, magazines, and the scientific literature. One of our objectives for the semester will be for you to build comfort with reading articles from the scientific literature. We will also read a novel, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, which was first published in 1949, and remains a fascinating meditation on the interactions between humans and the natural world.
The course will be primarily discussion-based, with students working in teams to present readings, moderate discussions, and develop a set of wiki-based notes for the semester. Each student will also prepare an article in the form of a wiki page that discusses a chosen topic in evolutionary medicine, and will peer-review the work of fellow students.
The course will include one or two Saturday field trips, to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History and/or to the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
• Each student will participate in six group presentations, acting twice in each of the following roles: Speaker, Moderator, and Scribe. Each of these roles is described in more detail below. Students will be assigned to rotating groups at the beginning of the semester; in most cases these will be a different group of students for each presentation. Each discussion topic will have background reading, and the entire class is expected to have read these prior to coming to class. The members of each group should work together (in person or via email) to prepare for the topic assigned. Although members of the group are assigned distinct roles, they are expected to work together to develop a coherent presentation and wiki page.
• The Speaker is the lead member of the group, and is responsible for giving a 10-15 minute verbal overview of the assigned topic. The presentation may be accompanied by a powerpoint presentation, or may be given as a ”chalk talk.”
• The Moderator is responsible for leading class discussion of topic. They should be sufficiently informed on the topic that they can help guide the class through an orderly discussion.
• The Scribe is responsible for preparing a set of organized notes on the topic, and for posting these to the course wiki. These should represent not only the material covered by the speaker, but also the topics that come up in course discussion, and should be updated and corrected as needed through the semester.
• Term project Through the course of the semester we will build a reference work on the course wiki. Early in the semester each student will pick a specific research topic to develop as a detailed wiki page; in most cases these will be specific pathogens or diseases. The page should provide an overview of the topic, information on the evolutionary processes involved, a discussion of history and medical importance of the subject, and figures and literature cited as appropriate. Students will present their projects during the last two weeks of the semester.
• Reviews of peer’s projects Each student will review two term projects prepared by other students. They may comment on, and edit, the project as appropriate (the original author does, of course, have the right to reject any changes made by reviewers). This stage of the review process is not anonymous, and should be focused on making the wiki pages under review as good as is possible. The student will also submit a one- to two-page confidential review to the instructor, which will briefly explain the corrections made, and comment on the overall quality of writing, organization, appropriate citation, etc.
Zimmer, Carl, 2010. The Tangled Bank. Roberts and Company, Publishers. Greenwood Village, Colorado. (Required) ISBN-13: 978-0981519470
Stewart, George R. 2006. Earth Abides. Random House. (Required; originally published 1949, other editions are acceptable) ISBN-13: 978-0345487131
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