Do you study evolution? Help my husband do it too!
September 28, 2007 8:06 AM   Subscribe

My husband has become increasing interested in the study of evolution. Help us choose what college level courses he should take!

My man is scientifically minded, and has done a considerable amount of independent study on the subject of evolution, but is looking for a more rigorous educational experience.
He is familiar with the myriad online alternatives, and already has about 30 different evolution sites bookmarked, which he studies at his leisure. He wants to start physically taking classes at the university level (UNC-Chapel Hill, if anyone is interested).
If you are in the field, and you were to advise someone who is going to select classes with the specific intent of studying evolution, what would you suggest, and why?
For background's sake, my husband has a master's degree already in natural resource economics, and has taken a good number of undergraduate science classes (albeit not for a very long time - like, 20 years ago).
What he has recognized as he has gotten into this process even further, is that evolutionary studies cover a wide range of programs, from anthropology, to biology, to paleontology, etc.
Ultimately, he is not looking for a career shift, he is doing this simply for his own personal edification.
Thanks in advance.
posted by msali to Education (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd suggest an intro Evolution class for majors [I sometimes help teach that class]. It will most likely be a 3-4 credit class and will provide him will a great foundation to pursue additional reading on his own time. He might even be interested in more advanced seminars if he really enjoys the class.
posted by special-k at 8:14 AM on September 28, 2007

Best answer: That very much depends on what he's interested in, since, as you say, evolution is such a broad topic.

An intro Evolution class is likely to talk about the theory of evolution, including questions like what defines a species, how do new species form, and how does evolution happen on groups larger than a species.

An intro genetics class is going to be more mathy, but it provides the basis on which evolution is founded. Population genetics, genetic drift, and selection preasure on the population level are likely going to be covered.

A course in paleontology or biodiversity is going to focus on species and larger groups (both living and extinct) and how they all fit together. It will likely have a large comparative morphology component, talking about how one structure became another.

Any of these (depending on UNC's specific courses) are likely to be accessible to a new but educated student. Personally, the class I took on vertebrate paleontology was one of the most rewarding I took while in school.
posted by Maastrictian at 9:11 AM on September 28, 2007

Prehistoric anthropology
posted by HotPatatta at 9:22 AM on September 28, 2007

An intro genetics class is going to be more mathy, but it provides the basis on which evolution is founded. Population genetics, genetic drift, and selection preasure on the population level are likely going to be covered.

All these topics are part of a standard evolution course.
posted by special-k at 9:25 AM on September 28, 2007

I agree with HotPatatta, but more specifically, study Physical Anthropology
posted by allthingsfixable at 9:41 AM on September 28, 2007

Courses in Evolution can be free-standing or the most interesting ones may be embedded in something else (the best class I ever had was part of a Developmental Biology series through the med school). It depends on the school

Adult education is very profitable for most schools, so he should get a timely answer to a concise question like:

"I am interested in learning more about evolution. I took courses in Biology (mostly X and Y) twenty years ago and have recently enjoy the writings of Prof. A and Dr. Y. Can you suggest some course that I might enjoy?"

Use email for the fastest response.

UNC Chapel Hill is a great school for Biology study--Enjoy!
posted by OlderThanTOS at 10:02 AM on September 28, 2007

An economist might really enjoy an Evolutionary Biology course. The one I took as an undergraduate was mostly population modeling. For example, we looked at how genetic drift and selection pressures influenced the structure and persistence of a theoretical population.
posted by ilyanassa at 1:32 PM on September 28, 2007

Best answer: Really, the course that made evolution make sense for me as a biology undergrad was Quantitative Genetics, which is the key to the modern synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution.

And really, I suspect that most laymen, even those who are evolution boosters really suffer from some basic misconceptions, because they only know the basic one or two gene Punnett's square, with perhaps sex-linked selection. So you have people try to explain evolution in terms that sound like something from the X-men "there was a mutation and that started a new species."

Described simply, quantitative genetics makes the following claims:
1: most physical and behavioral traits are continuous approximating a statistical curve.
2: a portion of variance in many physical and behavioral traits is genetic in origin.
3: the odds of reproductive success are covariant with the dimensions of a given trait.
4: the mean of a given trait in a population will drift over multiple generations towards maximum reproductive success.(*)

(on preview, I think this is what ilyanassa is also talking about.)

The end result is that evolutionary biology stops being dependent on the unpredictable "mutants," and becomes a discipline that, like economics, becomes open to statistical modeling. And the principle that isolated populations experiencing differing selective pressures will eventually develop incompatible physical characteristics becomes obvious.

The other big idea to look for that separates real Evolutionary Biology from the "just so stories" that dominate the popular press is cladistics. Not only can we construct statistical models about how populations change over time, but we can construct quantitative models of entire families of organisms.

(*) Of course since ecosystems are dynamic, maximum reproductive success is a moving target on generational time scales. And this shouldn't be confused with species-level selection.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:47 PM on September 28, 2007

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