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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.

Contact information

Coordinator: Dr. H.W. Slabbekoorn


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 also consider existing as well as past diversity in several traits across human cultures, such as in mating systems, between hunters gatherers and agricultural societies, and in language. We will examine which perspectives on the variety of traits are provided by comparative biology, archeology, anthropology and others.

Learning goals

Course objectives:

The student will obtain knowledge about:

  • the evolutionary background and adaptiveness of the variation in behaviour between different cultures of both the ancestors of modern humans and modern humans.

  • the evolution and variation of various cultural traits in humans.

  • how language and speech evolved.

  • the concept of cultural evolution and how if differs from biological evolution.

Final qualifications:

At the end of the course, the student is able:

  • to understand and present theories relating to the origin of ancient and modern variation in human cultures and behaviour.

  • to describe the similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution and their interaction.

  • to describe the possible origins of several universally shared human traits and their variation.


From 30 November 2021 to 10 January 2022. A detailed time table will be published on blackboard.

Mode of instruction

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

Assessment method

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


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.