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Universals and variation in human behaviour


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.


This course addresses a series of traits that characterize all modern humans, such as the presence of culture, language and music and what is known about their origins and evolution. We start with a comparison of the variation in behaviour and cognitive skills of different primate species. We explore how variation in behaviour and mental abilities may be shaped by phylogenetic descent and convergence under influence of selection. This will include observations and practical assignments on the behaviour of primates (zoo) and a visit to the Biomedical Primate Research Center at Rijswijk.
We then continue to consider existing, as well as past, diversity in several traits across human cultures. We examine differences in mating systems, between hunters gatherers and agricultural societies, and within language. The perspectives on the variety of traits are provided by comparative biology, archeology, anthropology and others.

Course Objectives

At the end of the course, the student will be able to:
1. Demonstrate knowledge about primate evolution, morphology, diversity and behaviour.
2. Demonstrate knowledge about how human morphology, brain, cognitive abilities and behaviour relate to that of non-human primates and other animals.
3. Apply their knowledge on variability in primate diversity in species and their (social and reproductive) behaviour.
4. Implement their knowledge of systematic observations and analyses on primate behaviour.
5.Explain the evolutionary background and adaptiveness of the variation in behaviour between different cultures of both the ancestors of modern humans and modern humans.
6. Understand the different theories on how language and speech evolved.
7. Classify and present theories relating to the origin of ancient and modern variation in human cultures and behaviour.
8. Describe the similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution and their interaction.
9. Discuss the possible origins of several universally shared human traits and their variation.


From 14 November 2022 until 23 December 2022. A detailed time table will be published on Brightspace

You will find the timetables for all courses and degree programmes of Leiden University in the tool MyTimetable (login). Any teaching activities that you have sucessfully registered for in MyStudyMap will automatically be displayed in MyTimeTable. Any timetables that you add manually, will be saved and automatically displayed the next time you sign in.

MyTimetable allows you to integrate your timetable with your calendar apps such as Outlook, Google Calendar, Apple Calendar and other calendar apps on your smartphone. Any timetable changes will be automatically synced with your calendar. If you wish, you can also receive an email notification of the change. You can turn notifications on in ‘Settings’ (after login).

For more information, watch the video or go the the 'help-page' in MyTimetable. Please note: Joint Degree students Leiden/Delft have to merge their two different timetables into one. This video explains how to do this.

Mode of instruction

LLectures and practicals, including two excursions. Also, reading textbook and primary literature. Selfstudy.

Assessment method

Multiple choice test for testing theory (70%) and two presentations (both 15%).

Reading list

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


From the academic year 2022-2023 on every student has to register for courses with the new enrollment tool MyStudyMap. There are two registration periods per year: registration for the fall semester opens in July and registration for the spring semester opens in December. Please see this page for more information. Exemptions are minor students and fall semester for 1st year bachelor students: the student administration will enroll these groups for courses.

Please note that it is compulsory to both preregister and confirm your participation for every exam and retake. Not being registered for a course means that you are not allowed to participate in the final exam of the course. Confirming your exam participation is possible until ten days before the exam.

Extensive FAQ's on MyStudymap can be found here.

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




Brightspace will be used for communication.