Evolution of the Human Female:
The Natural History of Mating, Motherhood, and Menopause
(SCIE 639)


Jolee West, Ph.D.
Office: 170 Science Library

Course Description ** Assignments ** Schedule ** Grades ** Blackboard and the Readings

Course Description
The evolution of humankind is marked by the appearance of a number of traits that are unique--bipedal locomotion, the largest brain to body size ratio, language and symbolizing behavior, the developmental stage of "childhood," and a nearly life-long period of offspring dependency. Other traits we exhibit that are unique among the primates, include very short birth-spacing, and a long lifespan marked by extended post-menopausal survival in the female. The relationships between these traits form a complex web of biosocial adaptation entwining both sexes, but at whose center is the human female. This course examines the evolution of the human female, and in turn, all humankind, using a life-history approach that emphasizes the life cycle and reproduction.

The underpinnings of our adaptations lay in our mammalian heritage and the core traits defining the primates. We explore this inheritance with readings on the natural history and life histories of several mammalian and non-human primate populations. We then move on to investigate the evolution of our human anatomy and physiology, covering such topics as reproductive costs, attended birth, menopause and osteoporosis, the function of adipose tissue (fat) in female physiology, social intelligence, and the evolution of human sex differences. Moving on to cultural issues, we examine division of labor and various contexts of gender role definition. The "grandmother hypothesis" and "woman the gatherer" (versus "man the hunter") model will be explored in detail.

A research paper concerning a topic relevant to this course is required--the paper should be problem-oriented. I will provide a list of possible paper topics, or help you define your own, based on your personal interests. The paper is worth 70% of your final grade, but it is broken down into three separately graded assignments:

  1. The proposal of the paper topic--consisting of the argument (called the "thesis statement"), an outline, and a list of at least 5 references. (10%)
  2. The not-so-rough draft. (20%) Treat this draft as though it's what you would hand in as a final draft. It should be very complete.
  3. The final draft (submitted paper). (40%)

Reading Reponses and Discussions:starting in Week 2, you will submit a response to each week's reading, online, using Blackboard (response questions will be provided). Your responses will be visible to everyone in the class and will form the basis for in-class discussions (15%). Participation in in-class discussion (15%). I will provide you with a mid-semester grade to indicate how you're doing on the responses and in-class discussions.


Date  Topic Readings, Notes & Instructions (see Blackboard also)
Sept 14 Introductions -- getting to each other and the history behind the course topic

Please try to read this Lovejoy article before the first class meeting, or at the least bring a printed copy to class. Detailed knowledge of the article is not required for the discussion; we'll go through it.


Lovejoy, C.O. (1981) The origin of man. Science, 211(4480):341-350. (available in the course Blackboard http://blackboard.wesleyan.edu -- available to registered students)

Owen Lovejoy's 1981 article "The Origin of Man" is an excellent starting point for introducing "The Evolution of the Human Female." In the article, Lovejoy posits that monogamy and the "nuclear family" (male provisioning of a single female and their offspring) are the "sin qua non of human origin" (p. 341). These reproductive adaptations, he argues, are directly responsible for the evolution of large brain size, extended childhood development, and bipedality--unique human traits. I use the article as a "straw-man" -- a weak argument that is easy to refute, but instructive nonetheless.

No prior knowledge on the topic is necessary for this discussion.

Sept 21 Evolution, Phylogeny (evolutionary relationships), and Anatomy
  1. Popper, K. (1963) Science as Falsification. Conjectures and Refutations,  London: Routledge and Keagan Paul:  33-39.

  2. Foley, R. (1992) Studying human evolution by analogy. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. S. Jones et al.: 35-340.

  3. Zihlman, A. (1997) Natural History of Apes: Life History Features of Females and Males. The Evolving Female : A Life-History Perspective. M. Morbeck, A. Galloway and A. Zihlman. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press: 86-103.

Sept 28 Life History Analyses
  1. Fedigan, L.M. (1997). Changing Views of Female Life Histories. The Evolving Female : A Life-History Perspective. M. Morbeck, A. Galloway and A. Zihlman. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press: 16-24.
  2. Kaplan H., Hill K., Lancaster J., and Hurtado A.M. (2000) A theory of human life history evolution: Diet, intelligence, and longevity. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 9:156-185.
Oct 5 Social Relationships: The Centrality of the Mother-Child Bond
  1. Smuts, B. (1997) Social Relationships and Life Histories of Primates. The Evolving Female : A Life-History Perspective. M. Morbeck, A. Galloway and A. Zihlman. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press: 60-68.
  2. Bogin, B. (1997) Evolutionary hypotheses for human childhood. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 104:63-89.
Oct 12 Sex, Mating Systems, and Parental Investment: Male versus Female Strategies
  1. Einon D (1998) How many children can one man have? Evolution and Human Behavior 19:413-426.
  2. Buss DM (1991) Do women have evolved mate preferences for men with resources?: a reply to Smuts. Ethology and Sociobiology 12:401-408.
  3. Low BS (2005) Women’s lives there, here, then, now: a review of women’s ecological and demographic constraints cross-culturally. Evolution and Human Behavior 26:64-87.
Oct 19


Due Friday of this week (Oct 21): Paper Proposal (via email)

Oct 26 Fat and Fecundity: Is it true "you can't be too rich or too thin"?
  1. Caro, T. M. and D. W. Sellen (1990). "The reproductive advantages of fat in women." Ethology and Sociobiology 11(1): 51-66.
  2. McFarland, R. (1997). Female Primates: Fat or Fit? The Evolving Female : A Life-History Perspective. M. Morbeck, A. Galloway and A. Zihlman. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press: 163-175.
  3. Smuts, R. W. (1992). "Fat, sex, class, adaptive flexibility, and cultural change." Ethology and Sociobiology 13(5-6): 523-542.
Nov 2 The Energetics and Risks of Pregnancy, Lactation, and Child-Rearing
  1. Vitzthum, V. (1997) "Flexibility and Paradox: The Role of Adaptation in Human Reproduction." The Evolving Female: A Life-History Perspective. M. Morbeck, A. Galloway and A. Zihlman. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press: 242-258.
  2. Rosenberg, K. R. and W. R. Trevathan (2001). "The Evolution of Human Birth." Scientific American 13: 73-77.
Nov 9 Menopause and Osteoporosis: Function or By-Product?
  1. Galloway, A. (1997) "The Cost of Reproduction and the Evolution of Postmenopausal Osteoporosis." The Evolving Female : A Life-History Perspective. M. Morbeck, A. Galloway and A. Zihlman. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press: 132-146.
  2. Perls T.T., and R.C. Fretts (2001) The evolution of menopause and human life span. Annals of Human Biology 28:237-45.
Nov 16 The Grandmother Hypothesis: Is the role adaptive, or just a by-product of long life?

Due today: Rough Draft of Paper

  1. O'Connell, J. F., J. F. Connell, et al. (1999). "Grandmothering and the Evolution of Homo erectus." Journal of Human Evolution 36(5): 461-485.
  2. Kennedy, G. (2003). "Palaeolithic Grandmothers? Life History Theory and Early Homo." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 9: 549-572.
Nov 23 ***** THANKSGIVING BREAK *****
Nov 30 "Man the Hunter," "Woman the Gatherer"--Historical Perspectives
  1. Washburn, S.L. and C.S. Lancaster (1968) The Evolution of Hunting. Man the Hunter. R.B. Lee and I. DeVore. Chicago, Aldine Publishing Co: 293-303.
  2. Zihlman, A. (1981) "Women as Shapers of the Human Adaptation."  Woman the Gatherer. F. Dahlberg. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press: 75-120.
Dec 7 Gender Roles and the Division of Labor: Nature vs. Nuture
  1. Draper, P. (1997) "Institutional, Evolutionary, and Demographic Contexts of Gender Roles: A Case Study of !Kung Bushmen" The Evolving Female : A Life-History Perspective. M. Morbeck, A. Galloway and A. Zihlman. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press: 220-232.
  2. Panter-Brick, C. (2002) Sexual Division of Labor: Energetic and Evolutionary Scenarios. American Journal of Human Biology 14:627-640.
Dec 14 Research Presentations

Due today: Final Paper

Each student will present briefly on their research paper.

How to Get a Good Grade in this Course
To get a good grade in this course, you should work on learning three primary skills (I'll help you do this). They are:

  1. Analyzing Ideas
  2. Reading critically
  3. Writing effectively

You can demonstrate your skills or improvement in these skills by participating in discussions and writing thoughtful reading responses.

Since you may be new to reading this type of material, I'm going to work to help you read them in such a way as to be able to analyze the author's ideas and critically evaluate their arguments. You don't already need a degree in anthropology, biology, or whatever, to do this.

Things to think about when you're reading are:

  • What's the major theme of the article?
  • What is the problem or issue that is being addressed, what's the author's argument? Try to state it explicitly (sometimes authors don't do this themselves!).
  • What is the history of the issue? Does the author explain that? Sometimes, because of the brevity required by a journal, authors briefly skim over this part, referring only to past work by citations to published work, but without much explanation. Don't worry, I'll explain that stuff in class, if need be.
  • Does the author have an apparent bias? If they do, does the biased author nonetheless try to cover the problem in an even-handed way?
  • What new data or new analysis does the author bring to bear on the issue?
  • Do their methods make sense? Even if you don't understand the methodology, skim through it, then cut to the end and read the conclusions. Sometimes, the conclusions are so fascinating (or irritating, or incredible) that you actually are then more interested in reading the methods section in greater detail.
  • Don't stop if it gets mathematical, jargony or complicated, such as going into detail about anatomy, lab protocols, statistical analyses. Just skim that and keep going. You'll get something out of the paper anyway. Sometims it helps to read the abstract and conclusions first, then read the whole article.That way, you have more context to understand it.
  • Common sense does matter! If you cannot make sense of the argument, maybe that says something about the work. Trust your instincts.

I consider this course to be, in part, a learning experience for research writing. As such, I want to give you a chance to learn something about doing research (library research, not primary research) in the field of paleoanthropology.

Papers are graded as an average of a score (out of 100 points) for quality of research and argument, and a score (out of 100 points) for effectiveness of writing. You should refer to standard reference works like Turabian, KL (1996) A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. 6th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Wesleyan library catalog # LB2369 .T8 1996). For style of citations and the like, please use the "Guide for Authors" of either the Journal of Human Evolution or the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. I'll cover this in class, in case you have no idea what I'm referring to.

I encourage everyone to take advantage of Personal Research Sessions with Olin Library or Science Library Librarians. For more information see http://www.wesleyan.edu/libr/services/gls.html#personalresearchsessions .

Blackboard and the Readings
The readings are or will be available in Portable Document Format (PDF) in Blackboard. You can view and print the PDFs using the free Adobe Reader. I expect that you will print them out, mark/highlight/comment on them while you read (also you can take notes on a separate sheet), and bring them to class to use during the discussions. They will not be available on Reserve in the Library unless there's some tragedy that prevents us from accessing the online environment. If you don't have a printer, or a fast connection at home, print them out in a computer lab here on campus. See info about lab printing here.

I am a computer-support professional the rest of the time, so I'm very familiar with Blackboard, PDFs, and the like. If you have problems, questions, or need assistance with anything, let me know!


Last Updated: 25 Aug 2005