nl en

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

Contactperson: Prof.Dr. C.J. ten Cate


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 origin of humans (week 2)
This week provides background on the origins of humans and some of their distinguishing traits.

3. The evolution of ageing (weeks 3 and 4)
With increasing age, humans become weak and ill. Why hasn’t evolution prevented this deterioration? In these weeks, 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 thriftiness and diseases (weeks 5 through 9)
During these 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. Week 10 – self-study and examination

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 evolved 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

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, searching for and reading scientific literature and presentation of a literature project of their choice.


From 4 September 2017 - 10 November 2017.
In general, several lectures and reading assignments are provided every day. Throughout the course, students work on an independent literature research project. A detailed schedule will be provided on Blackboard before the start of this course.

Mode of instruction

Lectures, self-study, seminars.

Assessment method

During the course a few written examinations take place, covering the knowledge that is taught in the lectures and seminars. Later in the course, the literature research project is presented orally and in a written report. Students are assessed by these performances, by their active participation during the seminars, their contribution to reading assignments (using Perusall) and their presentations.

In order to pass a weighted average of the grades obtained for two examinations, the oral presentation and a written report on the research project must amount to a passing grade.


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

Reading list

Compulsory book: Stearns, Evolutionary Medicine, 2016
A more detailed literature list will be provided on Blackboard.

Registration: via Usis and via Blackboard.

You have to register via Usis and Blackboard.

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