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The evolution of ageing and disease


Admission requirements

This course is open for all students that are enrolled in the minor Human Evolution.

Contact information

Contact person for students of Biology and Archaeology: Dr. K. Vrieling
Contact person for students of Medicine: Dr. D. van Bodegom

Students from other disciplines and students from abroad may contact either or both course coordinators.


This course consists of the following parts:

1. General introduction into evolutionary biology and evolutionary medicine (week 1)
For students without a proper knowledge on evolutionary biology, an introduction into evolutionary biology is provided, so that they become acquainted with its most important concepts, such as mutation, genetic variation, natural selection, drift, adaptation, constraint, gene-environment interaction, kin selection, inclusive fitness, phylogenetics, and speciation. For students without a proper knowledge on medical practice, an introduction into medical practice is provided, so that they become acquainted with the history of medicine, the concepts of complaint, symptom, illness behaviour, and disease, the epidemiology of ageing and disease, different types of therapy, and the basics of reproduction and sexuality. Students may follow both introductions or one of them.

2. The mismatch between our evolutionary past and present (weeks 2 and 3)
We suffer from ageing and disease as a consequence of a ‘mismatch’ between our evolutionary past and present. It will be explained in what way they are mismatched and how this mismatch can lead to ageing and disease. For this, we will study the environments, lifestyles, diets, and diseases of early humans.

3. The evolution of ageing (week 4)
With increasing age, humans become weak and ill. Why hasn’t evolution prevented this deterioration? In this week, the main theories about the evolutionary origins of ageing will be discussed. Also, it will be shown that ageing and disease cannot be separated. This means that, after having focused on the question ‘why’ evolution can lead to ageing, it will be studied ‘how’ evolution leads to diseases in the weeks hereafter.

4. The evolution of disease (weeks 5 through 8)
During four weeks, experts will present their knowledge and research on the importance of evolution in the understanding of different diseases in our current society. (i) Fertility plays an essential role in human evolution. It seems puzzling that giving birth conveys a great health risk for mothers, but we will solve the puzzle. (ii) Most of us like to eat and to be lazy. As a result, most adults suffer from obesity and diseases of affluence, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes mellitus. Evolution explains why and how our lifestyle is linked to disease. (iii) Microorganisms and humans coevolve. We are dependent on our commensal gut flora, but meanwhile innocent infections gain resistance against antibiotics and new dangerous infectious diseases continue to arise. (iv) Cancer and autoimmune diseases are frequently found in present-day society, which can be explained by their evolutionary backgrounds.

5. The evolutionary future of humans (week 9)
In this week, we don’t focus on the history of humans, but on their future. We will address questions, such as: Are we still under selection? How does evolution influence our health today and in the future? And how can we use our knowledge on evolution to design prevention and treatment?

6. Final presentations of the research projects (week 10)
Throughout this course, trios of students execute an independent research project under the guidance of a PhD student. The research project is presented orally and in a written report.

Learning goals

Course objectives:

At the end of this course, students:

  • know and understand the core concepts of evolutionary biology and evolutionary medicine; * know when and how the species of Homo sapiens has developed from other species and has spread over the world

  • know how and understand why the anatomy and physiology of humans is constrained by evolution

  • 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

  • can explain why and how evolution is of relevance for medical doctors

  • are able to design a research question and hypothesis

  • are able to design and execute a research project to answer a research question and hypothesis under the guidance of a senior researcher.

Final qualifications:
At the end of the course, students will be expected to be familiar with the basics of evolutionary biology and, more specifically, the evolution of the human species, in addition to having gained insights into the interplay of theories of evolution and medical sciences. They will furthermore have gained firsthand experience in the practice of scientific research, spanning the entire process from the conception of a research question to the presentation of findings.


From 31 August 2015 – 6 November 2015.
In general, a one-hour lecture and a one-hour seminar are provided every day. Throughout the course, trios of students work on an independent research project under the guidance of a PhD student. Every week the progress of the research projects is evaluated. A detailed schedule will be provided on Blackboard before the start of this course.

Mode of instruction

Lectures, self-study, seminars, research project

Assessment method

During the course a few short written examinations take place, covering the knowledge that is taught in the lectures and seminars. At the end of the course, the research project is presented orally and in a written report. Students are assessed by these performances, by their active participation during the seminars, and their presentations during the interim-evaluations of the research projects.

In order to pass a weighted average of the grades obtained for two examinations, an oral presentation and a written report on the research project (respective weights 50%, 15% and 35%) must amount to a passing grade.


Blackboard will be used for communication and exchange of documents. After application, check Blackboard regularly for the most recent information on this course.

Reading list

Compulsory book: Evolution in Health and Disease by S.C. Stearns and J.C. Koella (Oxford University Press, 2008).
A more detailed literature list will be provided on Blackboard.

Registration: via Usis and via Blackboard.

You have to register via Usis and Blackboard from 1 May 2014 till 15 August.

Students of Medicine will choose their minors of preference and will be allocated to a minor as communicated by the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC). These students will be registered in Usis as participants of this minor by the educational administration’s office of the LUMC (DOO).

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