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BIOL 1305
Evolutionary Biology
University of Vermont

Evolutionary Biology (Fall 2023);

Aiken 110; MWF 2:20 pm - 3:10 pm

This course will introduce students to the foundations of evolutionary biology. We will cover the evidence behind the theory of evolution and the applications of evolutionary thinking to essential issues in modern society. This introductory course is geared towards a broad audience of students keen on understanding how evolution shapes biological variation. The course will be divided into four major sections. Section 1 will cover the basics of evolutionary thinking including the history and evidence for the field of modern evolutionary biology, including first principles and terminology. Section 2 will cover the basics of microevolution, looking at evolution through the lenses of genes and mutations. Part 3 will cover the basics of macroevolution including phylogenetics, speciation, and, yes, fossils! Finally, Part 4 will cover human evolution, including critical questions about current debates in society. Throughout the course, we will read a combination of modern primary literature as well as classics such as selected chapters from Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” book.

Frequently Asked Questions:

When is the course being offered?

This is a fall term offered Fall 2023. The class meets for 50 minutes MWF, from 2:20 pm to 3:10 pm.

What is the intended audience for this course?

This course is open to undergraduates interested in the topic, particularly those not pursuing biology as their major.

How much prior biology knowledge do I need to do well in the class?

This class is an introductory course geared towards a general audience. As such, no specialized knowledge of biology is expected or needed to do well in the course.

What items do I need for this class?

You need a computer or phone able to connect to the internet. If you don't have a personal computer you may get a loaner from UVM for the term. This is important to use the ICliker app. IClikers are part of the grade for this course

How can I find the course in the class system?

This course is listed as BIOL1305; formerly known as BIOL006. This course awards 3 credits.

Do I need to know math to do well in the class?

This course is focused primarily on biology. Yet, to truly understand some topics, we will use a small amount of basic math, mostly arithmetic and simple algebra. No advanced math will be used in the class.

I am a graduate student. Can I take the class?

This class is geared towards undergraduates. Yet, graduate students may join on a lecture-to-lecture basis, e.g., to discuss a paper of great interest. This is contingent on instructor permission, i.e., grad students should come to talk to me first!

What are the prerequisite courses?

This course does not have any prior class requirements.



The course is divided into 4 sections:

Part 1: The History of Evolutionary Thought

In the first part of the course, we will cover the history of evolutionary thought. How did humans develop the philosophical underpinnings of "natural philosophy", the field that ultimately "evolved into" evolutionary biology? We will study the history of natural philosophy primarily in Europe (from Plato to Darwin) as an example of how evolutionary thought developed across history. Finally, we will close this section with an introduction to "modern evolution" as a scientific discipline. As part of this section, students will read selected chapters of Darwin's classic: "The origin of species."

Part 2: Microevolutionary Principles

In the second part of the course, we will cover the fundamental dynamics that drive evolution in nature. We will answer questions ranging from: "what is the raw material of evolution?" to "how do multiple genes interact to produce complex traits?" Some of the main topics covered in this section include genetic drift, adaptation, and gene flow, among others. As part of this section students will read and discuss case studies including: "Trait evolution in Darwin's finches", "Gould and Lewontin's critique of adaptionism", "Multisensory displays in the mating rituals of frogs", "Phylogenetics of COVID-19", and, "Conservation genetics of the critically endangered vaquita."

Part 3: Macroevolutionary Principles

In the third part of the course, we will cover the patterns of evolution across large temporal scales. We will learn about the "Tree of Life",  the fossil record, as well as key events in the history of life on earth. We will also learn about "Co-evolution", a topic that will require students to integrate their knowledge of both micro- and macro-evolution. In this section, students will read papers tackling critical questions on the ideas of "complexity and simplicity" of species, as well as a case study of co-evolution driven by pollination shifts.

Part 4: Evolution and Society

In the fourth, and last part of the course, we will learn about human evolution. In addition to learning about this subject's history, theory, and evidence, we will also try to answer the fundamental question "what does it mean to be human?" "How do we understand our own evolutionary history?" And, "how does evolutionary knowledge alter our understanding of human variation in modern society?" We will also examine difficult questions at the intersection of the biological idea of "ancestry" and sociological issues such as "race" and "inequality" (e.g., medical inequality). This topic will serve as a bridge for our final issue of evolutionary medicine, where we will discuss how evolution can help us tackle one of the biggest problems in modern medicine: the fight against rapidly evolving viruses.



In this course, your grade will be determined by the following activities that add up to 100 pts (letter grade equivalences are given in the syllabus):

Exams = 60%

  • 3 Midterms (20 pts each)

  • Students will get the chance to take a final exam (20 pts) to replace the lowest grade.

Homework = 9%

  • 3 sets x 3 pt. each

In-Class presentation = 9%

  • 1 in-class 20 min presentation of a selected paper (6 pts.)

Quizzes = 18%

  • 12 quizzes x 1.5 pt. each

I-Clicker, Attendance, and Participation = 4%

I-Clicker: During class, students will collect points from attendance using an I-Clicker. At the end of the semester, I will tabulate all the I-clicker questions you have responded to and assign a grade as a function of the fraction of all the I-clicker questions. For example, if you responded to 100% of I-Clicker questions you will get all points. Missed a class? All excused absences will be credited if the student can present a valid reason to the faculty, or if the absence was discussed with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.


Extra credit participation: During class, I will provide opportunities for students to answer questions for extra credit.


Homework: Students will complete 3 homework assignments throughout the semester. These homework assignments will contain a combination of conceptual and analytical questions relating to the course material and the readings. These sets can be challenging and will require you to write mini-essays on select topics, interpret scientific data, and, in some cases, perform basic mathematical operations. As such, DO NOT leave the homework for the last minute! All homework assignments are due a week prior to the exam and will cover all the material pertinent to that midterm.


Midterm Exams: Exams will occur three times throughout the semester. Each exam will be 50 minutes long and will cover a defined amount of material from each third of the class. I will make sure to clarify what material will be covered in each exam.


Extra credit in midterms: All exams will have an additional question for extra credit.


Final Exams: A final cumulative exam will take place during the examination period. This exam will replace the lowest grade of the regular midterm exams.

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