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Evolution: The Unity and Diversity of Life

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The theory of evolution is one of the most important theories in all the natural and social sciences, and it is crucial to understanding the diversity of life on Earth.  This course explores the history of evolutionary thinking from Darwin (and his predecessors) to Dawkins, with an emphasis on the growing tool kit of evolutionary principles for understanding and conserving the Earth’s biodiversity. We’ll look in detail at key forces of evolutionary change, including natural selection, sexual selection, kin selection, and more, and we’ll look at their leading products in adaptation and diversification.

Students working singly or in small groups will take on such fascinating challenges as why do hammerhead sharks have a strange front end? Do flying squid really fly? How and why do pistol shrimp generate light underwater? How does the waved albatross thrive without a nest? Among aerodynamic cormorants, why is there one that does not fly? And why do you have a vermiform appendix? These and other peculiarities will help us understand pattern and process in evolution. Far from being an old and esoteric subject, we’ll see how evolution offers indispensable tools both for understanding and conserving the wonderful diversity of life on earth. 

Meet the Instructor(s)

Bill Durham

Bing Professor in Human Biology, Emeritus

Bill Durham

Bill Durham received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Michigan before joining the Stanford faculty in Human Biology and Anthropology. Bill’s career has focused on two main themes (1) putting principles of evolution to work in understanding and sustaining biological and cultural diversity in the world today; and (2) identifying the social dimensions of contemporary environmental problems and working with local people to help solve them. He has carried out field work in Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador (especially Galápagos) in South America, and in El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica in Central America. Winner of the MacArthur Prize and other awards for research and teaching, Bill’s publications include Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity, Ecotourism and Conservation in the Americas (co-editor), and Exuberant Life: An Evolutionary Approach to Conservation in Galápagos. He served 16 years as editor of the Annual Review of Anthropology and was Co-founder and Co-director of the Center for Responsible Travel for a decade. He is currently Co-Director Emeritus of the Osa and Golfito Initiative (INOGO) in Costa Rica for Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.