Human Evolution

Course Basics

Anthropology 211/212

This course satisfies the SC (Natural Sciences and Mathematics) General Academic Requirement at Muhlenberg College.

Instructor Information

Dr. Benjamin Carter
Up-to-date contact information (including office hours) is available here

General Policies

You are required to read Dr. Carter’s Policies. You are responsible for understanding and following these policies. If you have a question, please ask in class as your fellow students will benefit.

Course Description

This introductory course focuses on the paleoanthropological reconstruction of human evolution over the past 10 million years. Human evolution has produced our body, for better or worse. We will investigate what makes us human and similar to, but very different than, other mammals, especially our genetic cousins, the apes. This course is organized into four approximately equal parts. The first part covers the basic biology behind evolution with specific examples focusing on humans. The second section covers the skeletal biology of Homo sapiens, especially in comparison to our ape relatives. Human and ape skeletal biology is the basis for much of our understanding of the fossil record. The third and fourth sections detail the hominid fossil record and concern the fascinating story of how we came to be human, that is an upright, brainy, bipedal creatures capable of making tools and completely new brand of sociality and language.

Course Objectives

Students will be able to:
– Understand relationships among various ways of knowing, and recognize the strengths and limitations of different approaches for comprehending phenomena.
– Locate the discipline of physical anthropology within anthropology broadly.
– Relate the essential differences between those who support creationism and those who support a scientific perspective of human origins
– Identify the factors that act upon population diversity.
– Use essential concepts of evolution to understand the human past.
– Discuss different dating methods, how they work and under what conditions they are useful.
– Describe the structure and function of DNA.
– Describe how variation is introduced into populations and how that variation is either maintained or reduced.
– Describe natural selection and discuss scenarios in which it may have operated in the human past.
– Critique the appropriateness of different primates as analogies for early human ancestors.
– Analyze the human fossil record and assess issues of preservation and sample size.
– Describe and identify major changes in human biology and culture.


For this course, all readings will be provided as pdf documents through Canvas. We will read multiple chapters from the following open access book. You may want to download the entire book (since it is all quite good) or you may buy a hard copy from Amazon

Shook, Beth, Katie Nelson, Kelsie Aguilera, and Lara Braff, eds. 2019. Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association. .

Class format

For each class you will be assigned reading that you are expected to complete prior to our class session.  Class will be a combination of lecture and discussion. I have a strong preference for the latter (because that is how students learn the best), but lecture is appropriate at times.


Distribution of assessments

  • Exams‐ 25%
  • Lab activities‐ 15%
  • annotation‐ 25%
  • Reflections‐ 10%
  • Scholarly paper analysis- 10%
  • Participation‐ 15%

Exams: Exams will be an approximately equal combination of objective (i.e. multiple choice, etc.) and open‐ended questions that require short, but thoughtful, responses. These are intended to assess basic knowledge- in this sense, these are relatively “easy.” If you have read and annotated the assigned material, come to class, taken notes and studied (if you have done the other stuff, studying should be limited) then you will do well on these exams.

Lab activities: You will complete two labs that encourage detailed understanding of human and chimpanzee skeletal anatomy. While many visual and physical aids will be employed throughout the class, the classes about the skeleton are best taught through hands‐on manipulation of bones. You will submit written responses for these activities. Additionally, we will have two lab days during which we will run analyses of our own DNA (*note that we will discuss this and you are NOT required to use your own DNA if you prefer not to). annotation: For each of the readings you are required to use to annotate the reading. The idea behind this is that you must engage with the readings, but the ways in which you do so may have a great deal to do with your previous experience (e.g., someone with an extensive biology background will have different annotations from those that do not). I encourage you to bring in perspectives from other classes.   

Integrative Reflections: You will be expected to write three reflections that intentionally integrate material from this course with others.

Scholarly Paper Analysis: You will be expected to write a short paper comparing two scholarly papers on human evolution. Additional information can be found here.

Participation: You are required to participate in each and every class. This will be assessed to the best of my ability. There are a few basic principles to remember to ensure a good grade.

First, COME TO CLASS.  This class is NOT about memorizing a set of facts, but engaging with complex ideas and being able to deploy appropriate facts and methods to support (or not) those ideas.

Second, READ all of the required material. That does not mean look at each and every word on the assigned pages. It means actually try to understand everything that is written. This is not a quick process. Expect to spend a significant amount of time reading!

Third, THINK. I will present you with a large amount of material. Please think about it. If you regurgitate what I say, you will likely pass. If you think about course material and ask probing questions, you will learn (and likely get a much, much higher grade!).

Fourth, SHARE. The more you contribute to the class conversation, the more everyone will learn. It’s just that simple. This means that I encourage you to take risks. Ask that “stupid” question- it could be really important and it is probably NOT “stupid.”

 Class LMS (Learning Management System)

For this course, we will be using our Learning Management System (LMS) known as Canvas. Our schedule and many course materials live on Canvas. You will turn in most assignments via Canvas. Canvas provides excellent online documentation for nearly anything. Here is a link to the Student Guide. However, even Canvas representatives have encouraged us to just Google “canvas lms” and whatever you want to do (e.g., find calendar).


Your official calendar is in Canvas. I highly encourage you to download the app (just Google “Canvas lms” along with your platform, e.g., “IOS” or “Android”) and/or synchronize your Canvas calendar with your calendar on your phone/computer using the iCal feed (Click here for instructions; note that what you do on your phone depends upon your device, but it is pretty straight forward).