Adaptation: Evolutionary Patterns in Biological Space-Time

Fall 2016 and Winter 2017 quarters

Taught by

The vast majority of complexity in the observable universe is due to one process—selection, or the tendency for some patterns to out-compete alternatives for either resources, mates, or both. And though the basics of evolutionary selection can be summarized in a single phrase ("survival of the fittest"), details and diversity of patterns are surprising in the extreme, raising profound questions at every juncture. For example, why has a simple, shared drive to increase reproductive success taken aardvarks and spruce trees in such different directions? And why would a peahen choose to burden her sons with a giant handicap to their movement by mating with a peacock carrying genes for a massive tail?

We will take a broad approach to selection, studying what is known but focusing on that which remains mysterious. The adaptive interplay between genetic, epigenetic (regulatory), and cultural traits will be of particular interest. We will also place special emphasis on understanding the tension between selection exerted by mates and that exerted by environmental factors.

Fall quarter will be spent constructing a basic toolkit for evolutionary analysis: What is an adaptation and how can it be recognized? How can we infer function? What is the relationship between a trait's short- and long-term adaptive value? We will scrutinize structures, behaviors, and patterns found in the wild, and refine our ability to understand them through the language of game theory. Winter quarter we will focus on pushing our model of selection to its limits and beyond by applying it to the most complex and surprising adaptive patterns in nature, with a special emphasis on adaptive patterns manifest in Homo sapiens .

We will read books and articles, have lecture, and engage in detailed discussions. Discussions will be central to our work. Students will be expected to generate and defend hypotheses and predictions in a supportive and rigorous environment. We will go out and look at nature directly when conditions are right. There will be assignments, but the program will be primarily about generating deep predictive insight, not about producing a large volume of work. It is best suited to self-motivated students with a deep commitment to comprehending that which is knowable, but unknown. This program will focus on how to think, not what to think.

Program Details

Fields of Study

anthropology biology botany cultural studies ecology environmental studies natural history zoology

Preparatory For

biology, medicine, psychology, and public policy. This program will focus on how to think, not what to think. As such, it will be useful to in any career in which critical thinking is important.


Fall Open Winter Closed

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Advertised Schedule

First winter class meeting: Monday, January 9th at 9am (Sem II B2109)

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning


$250 in fall and $350 in winter for overnight, required field trips.


2016-12-12Winter fee increased (from $250 to $350).