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Biological Anthropology: An Evolutionary Perspective

Biological Anthropology: An Evolutionary Perspective

Professor Barbara J. King Ph.D.
The College of William and Mary

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Biological Anthropology: An Evolutionary Perspective

Biological Anthropology: An Evolutionary Perspective

Professor Barbara J. King Ph.D.
The College of William and Mary
Course No.  1573
Course No.  1573
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

When we consider ourselves, not as static beings fixed in time but as dynamic, ever-changing creatures, our viewpoint of human history becomes different and captivating.

The crucial element of "time depth" has revolutionized the very questions we ask about ourselves. "Who are we?" has turned into What have we become? What are we becoming?"

What makes this viewpoint possible is the evolutionary perspective offered by biological anthropology through the study of the evolution, genetics, anatomy, and modern variation within the human species.

A Discipline of Far-Ranging Questions
  • Are the great apes a unique break point from the past—and toward the human—because they can understand other beings' mental states?
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When we consider ourselves, not as static beings fixed in time but as dynamic, ever-changing creatures, our viewpoint of human history becomes different and captivating.

The crucial element of "time depth" has revolutionized the very questions we ask about ourselves. "Who are we?" has turned into What have we become? What are we becoming?"

What makes this viewpoint possible is the evolutionary perspective offered by biological anthropology through the study of the evolution, genetics, anatomy, and modern variation within the human species.

A Discipline of Far-Ranging Questions
  • Are the great apes a unique break point from the past—and toward the human—because they can understand other beings' mental states?
  • Did we destroy the Neandertals?
  • Did modern Homo sapiens evolve entirely on the African continent, replacing other hominid forms as they fanned out into Asia and Europe? Or did they evolve simultaneously and in the same direction on all three continents?
  • Did hunting and its requirements for cooperation and intelligence make us human?
  • What is the role of our evolution in determining social hierarchy? gender roles? obesity? morning sickness in pregnancy?
  • How is evolution active in human development today?

As Dr. King addresses these and other questions in this scientific story, you will come to see evolution as not simply a textbook theory but a vital force.

Understand the Forces that Continue to Shape Us

In this course, award-winning teacher and scholar Barbara J. King—a William and Mary University Professor of Teaching Excellence from 1999-2002—delves into the story of how, why, where, and when we became human.

These lectures will help you understand the forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, our species.

"An evolutionary perspective on human behavior," notes Dr. King, "results in more than just knowledge about dates and sites—when and where specific evolutionary milestones likely occurred.

"It is also a window on the past and future of our species. An entirely new way of thinking comes into focus when we consider the human species within an evolutionary perspective."

Enjoy the Fruits of a Century of Scholarship

While covering these subjects in this 24-lecture series, Dr. King synthesizes the best that more than a century of scientific scholarship has to offer across a variety of disciplines.

Biological anthropologists study primate anatomy and behavior both to understand evolution and to learn more about our common ancestor.

Biological anthropologists are joined by molecular anthropologists to better understand hominids by studying fossils, ancient skeletal remains, and lifestyle information such as cave art and stone tools.

Case Studies that Clarify Evolution and Its Power

Dr. King begins by explaining key mechanisms through which evolution functions, citing famous and definitive case studies that demonstrate these forces.

In one such landmark study, for example, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant returned to the Galapagos Islands more than 100 years after Darwin's first voyage to conduct research on island finches.

In 1977, a drought-induced scarcity of soft, edible seeds brought forth in the very next generation a population of finches with larger, stronger beaks capable of crushing larger, tougher seeds.

Extraordinarily, in 1985, heavy rains produced a surplus of softer seeds, and natural selection produced a succeeding generation of the smaller-beaked variety.

Evolution had occurred in two different directions within a decade. This "natural selection" is the theoretical tool of evolution, which helps us make sense of these facts.

Learn Why Evolution Remains Important to Us Today

Perhaps the greatest measure of this theory's power is its relevance to our lives today.

  • Did you know that the gene which causes sickle cell anemia must be inherited from both parents to cause the disease but the disease does not occur when only a single gene is inherited?
  • Or that the single gene, in fact, affords protection from malaria?
  • Or that race, a category so securely ingrained in our consciousness, is practically meaningless in biological terms?
  • Or how to evaluate the claim that a gene can be responsible for a certain personality trait?

Take a Glimpse Into Our Selected Primate Heritage

With an understanding of the basic mechanisms of evolutionary change in hand, the course looks at how our ancient primate ancestors adapted.

Consider the anatomical features we share with monkeys, great apes, and other primates. Our large brains, grasping hands, and forward-facing eyes allowing us to perceive depth are critical to the way we function in the world.

Yet the fossil record tells us that some 70 million years ago these distinctive primate features did not exist.

What caused the first primates to emerge from existing mammalian populations?

One proposed solution was that the appearance of insects living in the lower canopies of trees offered a plentiful food resource to those species adapted to procure it. Could depth perception and grasping ability have provided an advantage here, and hence been naturally selected?

This is the function of biological anthropology: confronting the facts, then suggesting and testing possibilities.

A Course as Much About the Present as the Past

With so much of evolutionary history taken up with the past, the insights gained in these lectures may tempt you to add questions of your own:

  • Is human evolution still a force in today's world?
  • Hasn't our modern, mobile culture rendered evolution irrelevant?

In fact, human evolution is a stronger force than ever, interacting with human culture in complex ways.

Issues such as obesity, AIDS, and genetics are all discussed. And you may well find these lectures opening your eyes to the extraordinary ways in which the biological power of natural selection is still at work in the world today.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    What is Biological Anthropology?
    Whether studying primates in the field, gene sequences in a lab, fossils from the Earth, or modern human populations across the globe, biological anthropologists employ an evolutionary perspective to understand the history of our species, and perhaps its future. x
  • 2
    How Evolution Works
    Evolution, or systematic change in a gene pool over time, is driven by the mechanisms of natural selection, mutation, gene flow, and genetic drift. Understanding the role played by "differential productive success" helps us to see that evolution still plays an important role in our lives today. x
  • 3
    The Debate Over Evolution
    Americans continue to reject the theory of evolution in large numbers, perhaps because of a perceived incompatibility between belief in evolution and religious faith. In fact, some evolutionary scientists are deeply religious. Scientific creationism, however, and even the newer doctrine of intelligent design, are fundamentally at odds with the bedrock principles of biological anthropology, and of science itself. x
  • 4
    Matter Arising—New Species
    As different animal populations become isolated from each other, differing selection pressures cause them to adapt to their ecological niche, until a variety of forms emerge which cannot interbreed. About 65 million years ago, ancestral rodent-like populations underwent such pressures, resulting in the emergence of primates. x
  • 5
    Prosimians, Monkeys, and Apes
    The obvious anatomical and behavioral differences among these three subgroups of non-human primates led early anthropologists to focus on their static measurement and classification. In 1951, Sherwood Washburn focused on how the dynamic processes of evolutionary change had produced different yet fundamentally related species. x
  • 6
    Monkey and Ape Social Behavior
    The rhesus monkeys of Cayo Santiago, an island off Puerto Rico, organize their society around groups of differently ranked females, while chimpanzee communities are male-dominated, organized around communal male hunting and border patrols. As Washburn would have predicted, a common trend of hierarchical grouping and intense social bonding emerges, across diverse primates. x
  • 7
    The Mind of the Great Ape
    Is there a watershed difference in cognitive abilities between great apes and other non-human primates? Advocates of this viewpoint point to two phenomena: the great ape's "theory of mind," or its ability to comprehend another being's mental state, and the great ape's ability to communicate through gestures and human-devised symbol systems. x
  • 8
    Models for Human Ancestors?
    Some anthropologists create models for the evolution of human behavior by studying primates whose behaviors most closely resemble our own. Others say we should only study behavior shared universally by all great apes. Some stress that the process by which a behavior emerged in a primate group can best indicate how our own behaviors evolved. x
  • 9
    Introducing the Hominids
    The hominids are the first human ancestors, diverging from a common ancestor with the great apes some six or seven million years ago. Despite fossil evidence and the contributions of molecular science, the precise speciation date is still elusive. Climate change and dietary pressures are examined as possible explanations for the hominids' key anatomical adaptation, bipedality. x
  • 10
    Lucy and Company
    When the 40 percent complete Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) skeleton was found in 1974, she upset researchers' expectations by being bipedal, yet possessing an ape-sized brain. Subsequent studies of other species show us that a variety of bipedal hominid forms had evolved even earlier than Lucy, and that they co-existed. Rather than a straight line, evolution more resembled a many-branched bush. x
  • 11
    Stones and Bones
    Homo habilis, who first appeared 2.4 million years ago, was not the first gracile, light-boned hominid, but it was the first to leave evidence of its lifestyle. It manufactured rudimentary stone tools, probably used to forage and to process animal carcasses. Different cultural practices have been inferred from this tool use, but the technological leap it represents is certain. x
  • 12
    Out of Africa
    With Homo erectus, some hominid populations migrated from their African homes and into Asia. Anatomical advantages of this species included a larger brain, and in the case of an African specimen, a tropically adapted body frame. Its more advanced toolkit allowed more efficient animal processing, while its probable control of fire aided hunting, cooking, defense, and temperature control. x
  • 13
    Who Were the Neandertals?
    In 1911, a French anatomist fashioned a reconstruction of a Neandertal based on a skeleton afflicted with arthritis, and the stooped, shambling, primitive figure that resulted has lived on in the popular imagination. In truth, Neandertals were large-brained, upright bipeds, effective hunters, and sophisticated toolmakers. Their practice of deliberately burying their dead hints at a possible symbolic dimension. x
  • 14
    Did Hunting Make Us Human?
    Intelligence and the ability to cooperate are essential to success in hunting. Could these qualities have been naturally selected, and acted as prime evolutionary movers in the evolution of human intelligence? Critics note that there is little evidence for hunting in many of the early hominids, while others stress that social coordination and problem solving are equally required in female gathering activities. x
  • 15
    The Prehistory of Gender
    The prehistoric landscape of behavioral gender differences is a veritable minefield, where an anthropologist's inferences may always fall prey to ideology. From the 1960s until today, we have seen models that promote the male as the protector and provider, making no allowances for behavioral flexibility. Alternatives that posit the primacy of female-centered networks in place of the nuclear family are no less constraining. x
  • 16
    Modern Human Anatomy and Behavior
    Unlike bones, modern human behavior cannot easily be dated. The famous Lascaux cave paintings, together with other artifacts from Western Europe, were once thought to be firsts. New excavations of rock art and finely worked tools in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Namibia are challenging this view, and showcase Africa once more as the likely crucible of progress. x
  • 17
    On the Origins of Homo sapiens
    Did modern Homo sapiens evolve entirely on the African continent, then fan out into Asia and Europe, replacing other hominid forms as they went? Or would it be more accurate to see evolution from intermediate hominid forms occurring simultaneously, and in the same direction, on all three continents? Fossils, knowledge of evolution, and genetic testing all contribute to theories, but no single answer has yet been reached. x
  • 18
    Language
    With its immense vocabulary and complex syntax, modern language is often seen as a mysterious development, lying on the far side of some mist-shrouded Rubicon from which the point of origin is barely visible. This need not be so. Anthropologist Robbins Burling has proposed a scenario that includes the step-by-step evolutionary shifts necessary to get us from ape communication to human language. x
  • 19
    Do Human Races Exist?
    To quote anthropologist Michael Blakey, the idea that people can be grouped into races may seem as obvious to us as the sun rising in the east. Blakey's point, however, was that our eyes can mislead us, and common sense can be inadequate to deal with scientific questions. This lecture confronts the question of whether skin color or other attributes can be used to sort people into biologically meaningful categories. x
  • 20
    Modern Human Variation
    If race is a flawed prism through which to view human diversity, how ought we to understand it? A population that undergoes pronounced selection pressures may experience significant evolutionary changes. This lecture considers the anatomical adaptations that occur in response to extreme climates, as well as the process of acclimatization, a non-genetic type of human adaptation. x
  • 21
    Body Fat, Diet, and Obesity
    Humans developed the ability to convert calories into fat deposits to combat the periodic food shortages endemic to early hominid life. Consequently, we are not well adapted to process large portions of salt, sugar, and fat. Anthropologists propose various ways of coping with this adaptation to the past. x
  • 22
    The Body and Mind Evolving
    Recent research suggests that morning sickness in pregnant women, and hypertension in African-Americans, can be explained in evolutionary terms. By considering psychology and even moral action as similarly influenced by evolutionary pressures, are we at risk of endorsing biological determinism? x
  • 23
    Tyranny of the Gene?
    The disappointing results of animal cloning confirm that environment plays as great a role as genes do in an organism's biological destiny. Understanding how genes affect human health may produce promising treatments, but we affirm the fundamental truth that genetic material acts, and is acted upon, in complex and unpredictable ways. x
  • 24
    Evolution and Our Future
    Even though Homo sapiens is now the planet's dominant species and prime evolutionary mover, the selection pressures we generate and are subject to will have consequences that we cannot predict. The intimate connection we share with our primate relatives and all other animal species should inspire a sense of common responsibility as we meet the challenges of the future. x

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Barbara J. King
Ph.D. Barbara J. King
The College of William and Mary

Dr. Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist and Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. She earned her B.A. in Anthropology from Douglass College, Rutgers University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma. Professor King's research interests concern the social communication of the great apes, the closest living relatives to humans. She has studied ape and monkey behavior in Gabon, Kenya, and at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University. The recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, she has published three books on anthropology, including The Information Continuum: Social Information Transfer in Monkeys, Apes, and Hominids. At William and Mary, Professor King has won four teaching awards: The William and Mary Alumni Association Teaching Award, the college's Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, the Virginia State Council of Higher Education for Virginia's Outstanding Faculty Award, and the designation of University Professor for Teaching Excellence, 1999-2002.

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Reviews

Rated 3.6 out of 5 by 58 reviewers.
Rated 2 out of 5 by Very angry professor Ms. King comes off as a man-hating feminist the way she talks about the "Guuuuuys", 19th century pioneers in the field of archaeology. The inference is that, had the "Giiiirls" been active in the fledgling profession they would have done things any differently. That's hubris at its most arrogant. It was a beginning science and, though mistakes were made, they learned over the years how to preserve and protect artifacts and report on what they discovered. We should be thankful that myriad items were found and preserved in museums and collections before they were destroyed. She should keep her personal, and untrue, opinions to herself when people are paying good money for this type of course. I would not recommend it to anyone. October 6, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Skepticism is a good thing. I was willing to accept that some believe anthropology is a science as psychology is a "science." When the lecture turned to "anthropological psychology," I thought, there is a whole lot of rectal extrapolation going on here. If you keep due scientific skepticism when listening to the lectures there is information worth listening to. I found it valuable. The Professor is intelligent and articulate. I would love to have a conversation with her. Just keep your skepticism when listening. September 29, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good survey of biological anthropology (Audio download) I purchased this course (deeply discounted with a coupon...I try to keep costs to less than $1/lecture) hoping to understand a little more about the evolutionary transitions in Homo sapiens...and just what the heck is 'biological anthropology'. I was not disappointed. Yes, as other reviewers have noted, the course needs updating, particularly the role of neanderthal-sapien interactions. But the fundamentals are still there, like the outline of the transitions from great apes to Australopithecus/hominids to homo. I find that the concepts presented are fascinating (like what has happened to our species in just 125,000 short years!!) and leave me hungry to learn more. Isn't that what it's all about? Dr King's presentation style was pleasant and clear, albeit a bit dry. I followed the lectures (mostly) in front of a laptop with the ability to augment the lectures with specific topics that provided more depth than the lousy notes provided...not one picture, photo, or map...so that helped a great deal. She does emphasize that the listener should read the reference material as if it were part of the course work...kind of like when we were in college, eh? So, if you are considering buying this series, be warned that it is not the final word in biological anthropology, it is merely the first. Get it cheap! August 17, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Almost a Great Course Overall an enjoyable course. I received the audio CD version of it for Christmas. The Professor is a reasonably good speaker. There have been a few moments that raised an eyebrow. For example: she tried at one point to make a singular out of "indices" instead of just correctly using the word "index." But these mistakes are few and far between. The content wasn't quite what I hoped for when I saw the Course title. I expected something more along the lines of using anthropological concepts to explain current human behavior. If that is what you are looking for - this is not really the course for you. This is very basic anthropology and evolution. Also - and I think this is very important - about halfway through the course I realized that some of the references Prof. King was using sounded dated. So I checked the box. This course is copyrighted 2002. And considering the speed at which the consensus in the softer sciences changes that leaves the conclusions somewhat outdated. I am finishing the course and as I said overall it's a good one, but I'm just as glad that I didn't purchase it myself. May 29, 2014
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