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Origins of human anatomy, physiology and behaviour


Admission requirements

This course is part of the minor Human Evolution and only open to students who have been admitted to that minor.

Contact information

Contactperson: Dr. C. Tudorache


This course starts with a week providing a general introduction into evolutionary biology and genetics. For students without basic knowledge of the fundamentals of genetics and evolutionary biology (genetic variation and mutations, natural selection, adaptation, gene-environment interaction, gene regulation, population genetics, phylogeny, and speciation), this module will introduce the most important concepts relevant to follow the course and the later parts of the minor.

Hereafter the remainder of the course is devoted to using comparative approaches to understand the origins of human anatomy, physiology and behaviour. It examines how the study of other animal species, an in particular that of non-human primates, can contribute to our understanding of the evolution of human bodies and minds. First, the anatomy and evolution of the human and non-human primate body will be studied, with special emphasis on the skeleton, brain and digestive system. The human skull is studied in detail and compared with the skulls of other primates. Soft tissues of humans will be studied in a practical using human cadaveric remains. Next we turn to a comparison of the variation in behaviour and cognitive skills of both primate and more distantly related 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 social behaviour of primates (Artis) and a visit to the Biomedical Primate Research Center at Rijswijk.

Learning goals

Course objectives:

  • Introduce students to several core concepts of genetics and evolutionary biology

  • Provide knowledge about primate evolution, morphology, diversity and behaviour

  • Provide knowledge about how human morphology, brain, cognitive abilities and behaviour relate to that of non-human primates and other animals.

  • Familiarize students with primate diversity in species and their (social and reproductive) behaviour.

  • Introduce students to systematic observations and analyses on primate behaviour.

  • Provide understanding how the anatomy, physiology and behaviour of humans is constrained by evolution.

  • Provide experience to students with presenting data and theoretical insights by verbal and written presentations.

Final qualifications:
At the end of the course, students are expected to be familiar with the most prominent comparative approaches (based on homology or convergence) towards getting an understanding in the evolution of modern humans from animal ancestors. They will be able to outline the relationship of humans to other non-human primates and the processes giving rise to interspecies variation in morphological and behavioural traits. They will be able to outline how the study of convergent behavioural and cognitive traits of non-primate species can contribute to insights in their evolution in humans. They will furthermore have learned how to work with public databases containing genome information, be able to find and critically evaluate and discuss relevant scientific literature and to present the obtained knowledge to others in written and verbal presentations.


From 31 August 2020 to 9 October 2020. A detailed time table will be published on blackboard.

Mode of instruction

Lectures and practicals (including excursions). Also, reading textbook and primary literature. Selfstudy.

Assessment method

Two multiple choice tests (for part 1 and part 2) for testing theory, assessment of essay and powerpoint presentation. Attendance at practicals and performance on assignments may be part of the final score.


Will be used for communication.

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.