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Health, ageing and genetic diversity


Admission requirements

This course is part of the minor Human Evolution and registration is restricted to students who followed the preceding courses of this minor.

Contact information

Coordinator: M. van der Zee


Ageing and disease are both negative traits that could have detrimental effects on an individual. Why would natural selection not act against these traits? Here we answer the questions ‘Why do we age?’ and ‘Why are we susceptible to disease?’, discussing the several evolutionary theories of ageing that have been postulated over the years using the original papers. We look at the epidemiology of ageing in recent history, using evolutionary medicine to differentiate between proximate and ultimate causes of disease. Finally, we address the mismatch between our evolutionary past and modern environment as a cause of the current most frequent diseases. Genetic traits such as haplotypes can help us to reconstruct pathways of human migration, population differentiation and can show us the remarkable unity, as well as diversity, of different ethnic groups. Furthermore, we will learn how other hominins contributed to the gene pool of modern humans.

Learning goals

Course objectives:

At the end of this course, students:

  • know how and understand why the human evolutionary past and present are mismatched.

  • understand why ageing and disease are not distinct phenomena, but are different aspects of the same phenomenon.

  • know how and understand why ageing is a consequence of the abovementioned evolutionary mismatch.

  • know how and understand why the most frequent diseases in our society are a consequence of the abovementioned evolutionary mismatch.

  • have been trained on critically reading and discussing primary literature.

  • know about genetic variation among human populations and its origins.

Final qualifications:

Students will be expected to have gained insights into the interplay of the theory of evolution and processes like ageing and various diseases. They will be able to outline the presence and origins of genetic diversity among human populations. They will be able to critically read and examine scientific publications.


From 9 November 2020 to 27 November 2020. A detailed time table will be published on blackboard.

Mode of instruction

Lectures and practicals. Also, reading textbook and primary literature. Selfstudy.

Assessment method

Grading will be done via a multiple choice exam and the journal club. The journal club is a discussion in which groups of around 8 students discuss the methods and argumentation of a single paper. The exam will count for 80% and the journal club will count for 20% towards the final grade.
Minimum grades to pass: Exam 5.6 & Journal Club 6.0

Inspection and feedback on the examination

Feedback on the course will be done at the end of the course. One hour is scheduled for the oral feedback.


Will be used for communication and instruction.

Reading list

Compulsory book: R. Boyd & J.B. Silk; How Humans Evolved, 8th edition, 2018; Norton Publishers.
Primary literature t.b.a.


Register for this course via Usis

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Prospective students website for information on how to apply.