Friday, July 6, 2012

Intro to Physical Anthropology: The Core Concepts

As I posted, I'm completely overhauling my intro to physical anthropology class. The result will be a class that covers fewer topics, but in greater depth.  Which topics are so critical they should remain in the course, and which topics can be allowed to slide?

In previous years, I've followed the topics laid out in a standard intro textbook. I've used two different textbooks in the past five years, neither of which I love, and the problems with (and costs of) the textbooks are another reason I want to change my approach to this class. 

In a quick brainstorm session, I wrote down all of the topics that I cover in the intro course. I then whittled these down to 15 topics (more or less one for each week of the semester)*. Here is my list of core concepts that must be covered in an intro to physical anthropology class. Some of these are pretty broad, so I'll have to cut them down in order to cover them in-depth. Also, nothing says I have to cover a new topic each week. Perhaps the class would be better if I spent longer on one, and dropped another.

What's missing? What's not worthy of being included on this list? I welcome feedback and suggestions! 

Core concepts:
1) "Nature vs. nurture" (I don't like that phrase, but, generally, I cover the flexiblity of the genetic code and how the environment and our genes work together. Much of this is aimed at improving students' media savvy, when it comes to claims about "a gene for...").

2) Adaptation and evolution (these are key background concepts students should have gotten in high school biology, but often have not)

3) The four forces of evolution and how they work (ditto)


4) Modern human biodiversity, why it exists, what shapes it (finally, some actual anthropology!)

5) Race as a cultural concept/more on physical differences between populations

6) Primate adaptations (shape of teeth and bones, biomechanics, sexual dimorphism, and other physical traits related to particular adaptations)

7) Primate social adaptations (reproductive strategies, altruism, etc.)

8) Speciation (more key background information)

9) Cladistics (with a focus on how relationships are determined)

10) Bipedalism (origins and function of)

11) Tool use (origins and function of)

12) Encephalization (origins and functions of)

13) Cooperative breeding/human social organization (origins and functions of)

14) Origins of modern humans

15) Origins of behavioral modernity


Next up: What are the core skills that should be taught in an intro to physical anthropology class?

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*The class has lab sessions, and those sessions will cover some Mendelian genetics (pedigree analysis, etc.), Hardy-Weinberg, human osteology, primate skull identification, and hominin skull identification

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