"What a piece of work is man!"

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Introduction to the Course

This course examines the history of humankind and its development both physically and behaviorally into the creature that we know today as Homo sapiens. Our path along this journey will follow four arcs. In the first, we begin to build a foundation through an exploration of evolutionary theory and the biological basis for evolutionary change. In the second, we take a brief look at some of our closest relatives, the animals grouped within the same taxonomic order, the Primates, to examine morphological and behavioral similarities and differences that can help to provide insights into our own origins. Our next arc introduces our investigation of the fossil record with an understanding of methodology and early primate evolution. During the last arc, we apply this knowledge as we focus on the last seven million years and on the changes in body, mind, and culture that led to modern humans.

As to what you really want to know, yes, this is a challenging course. For many students, if not for most, this course is taken toward fulfillment of the science requirement. Although arguably it is not as difficult as chemistry or physics, it does require substantial study as there are a great deal of data to be mastered before we can begin play with the theories and underlying concepts. Having said that, no matter what your past experience with science, every student is capable of doing well in this class. So, do not be concerned if you are biologically deprived or biophobic, or if at the mere mention of the word science or a bit of math you break out in a cold sweat. If you like to be challenged, great, this course will do that, but if you need assistance along the way, the TAs and I are here to help.

This course satisfies the Columbia College and the School of General Studies science requirement. You may take EEEB UN1011, The Behavioral Biology of the Living Primates, before taking Human Origins & Evolution but most students who are interested in taking both courses find that it makes more sense to take the latter first.


The text for this class changes from year to year as material is constantly being updated. Information as to the text name, edition and bookstore where it can be purchased will be provided at the first class session and also will be posted on Courseworks. In addition, there are weekly supplemental readings drawn from scientific journals as well as from popular sources such as Discover, Natural History and Scientific American. The purpose of these articles is to approach the subject from a different perspective, to give you a taste of the field, and/or to provide you with information on the latest finds or theories. The articles are available online through Columbia Library WebReserves. The easiest way to access them is through through Courseworks. Copyright restrictions prevent us from making copies available directly to students.



Exams: There will be a midterm exam most probably consisting of short answers and problems sets, which is worth 1/3 of the term grade. The final exam will likely consist of short answers and essays and it is worth 2/3 of the term grade. The final is synthetic, not cumulative.
[Please note that the specifics of the exam format may change in any given year.]


Discussion Section/Lab
The material covered by this course is both fascinating and difficult. Given the large size of this class, discussion during the lecture will be limited. In order to give you a chance to examine and debate the issues presented and to more fully explore the connections between these concepts and your daily life experiences, students are advised to attend weekly discussion sections. These are not review sessions and students should not expect them to be conducted as such. Sections/labs also afford students the opportunity for "hands-on" experience examining skeletal material from modern primates as well as fossil casts of some of our evolutionary forebears. Though these discussion sections/labs are not mandatory, you are urged in the strongest possible terms to attend.

Notation is made of students who attend at least 9 of the 11 weekly sessions. Should a term grade be borderline, i.e., fall between two grades, the aforementioned notation will be used to swing the grade upward. Without this notation, there is nothing to swing that grade upward and students justifiably earn the baseline (lower) grade.

About this Website

This site has been designed as a complement to Courseworks. In addition to providing an overview of the subject matter of the course, it offers students the opportunity to explore some of the topics in greater depth. It also affords those who are visual learners a variety of experiences to enhance their understanding of the material. Students can read sections of Darwin's journal while on the Beagle, view animations of chromosome replication, watch the movement of tectonic plates over the last 750 millions years, analyze contrasts between skulls and find movie recommendations relevant to the topic. 

Students who register for the course will have access to Courseworks. This system will be used for basic course information including the syllabus, library links to all supplemental articles, optional practice problems sets and answer keys, study tips and miscellaneous course news.

A great debt is owed to Raymond Cha of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning who created the shell and was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge during the construction of this site.  My ongoing appreciation is also extended to the entire staff of the CNMTL, Romeo Giron and Jonathan Hall in the early years of this site and to Michael Cennamo and now the CTL team of Jessica Brodsky and Alexander Flatgard in particular, as the site is updated and expanded, who continue to offer assistance in the most gracious way, for this and related projects.