The "biology" of a species is how it makes a living, and what its most salient features are. The biological examination of humans differs from the study of other organisms in several respects. On the one hand, it would be unethical to do potentially harmful experiments with humans. On the other hand, there is a treasure trove of medical literature. Also, the human genome project is completed and is now driving many lines of investigation on all organisms for which the genomic sequence is known. However, there is concern that applications of genomics and cloning are racing ahead while the political process of creating an economical and legal framework for these applications is lagging behind. There is also a sense of urgency about other biological issues, such as the human population growth and environmental degradation. Life scientists have a special responsibility to contribute their expertise to the public discussion of these topics.
After an introductory lecture (Part I), this course covers four related sets of topics in human biology: evolution (Part II), genetics and genomics (Part III), brain and behavior (Part IV), and impact on the environment (Part V). For each part, the individual topics are listed in the syllabus.
Part II: We humans are unique animals. We have several features that set us apart from all other primates, including habitual bipedalism, hand precision grip, extensive reliance on tool making, language, very large brain size, and an exceedingly complex behavior that is shaped by both nature and nurture. Yet our genetic make-up is very similar to that of chimpanzees. How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction? We have to assume that small genetic changes were positively selected for during the evolution of our ancestors. Indeed, we are beginning to identify some of the genetic alleles that have made the human species so unique, and we are exploring the environmental conditions that seem to have favored a positive selection for these alleles.
Part III: Cloning and molecular genetics are revolutionizing agriculture, medicine, and law. The use of human genomic data, gene therapy, reproductive and therapeutic cloning, and genetically modified organisms will shape our lives - more so than building space stations. Whether modern biology will be used for better or worse will depend on the legal and administrative conditions under which the new techniques are used. For the political process of crafting these conditions, biologists may not have all the answers but they can certainly help to raise the level of discourse.
Part IV: The biological underpinnings of human behavior raise issues that are at the same time biological, political, and personal. Are the brains of males and females different? Are behavioral traits like intelligence, sexual orientation, and aggressiveness hereditary? Exploring these issues should help greatly in developing realistic views of ourselves and our future, and in shaping laws and institutions accordingly. To some people, even discussing genetic and hormonal effects on human behavior smacks of "biological determinism". However, it needs to be kept in mind that statistical data do not negate invidual freedom of choice, and that a behavior's adaptive value during stone age does not dignify the same behavior today.
Part V: The number of humans living on Earth has increased enormously, and humans are modifying many ecosystems to satisfy their needs and wants. However, the current growth of the human population, and many of our ways of exploiting nature are not sustainanable. Of critical importance is how we can improve the standard of living in the underdeveloped parts of the world while containing global warming, which is caused by burning fossil fuels. Another dilemma is how we save as many plant and animal species as possible from extinction while keeping as many humans as possible from strarvation and abject poverty. Addressing this problem will be our greatest challenge during this century.
The topics discussed in parts II through V are connected. The same traits that have sustained us through millions of years of evolution are now bringing us to the brink of disaster. Our superior skills as tool-makers, which originally compensated for our lack of natural weapons, have led to arsenals of weapons that can destroy all of us. The same technical skills have promoted, in the developed countries, an energy-burning life style that wreaks havoc on our environment. This life style is stoked by traditional behaviors such as the display of wealth, through which males acquire status and mating opportunities. An innate aversion to discrimination, which we share with other social apes and monkeys, is now leading developing countries to emulate the environmentally destructive lifestyles of developed countries. Biologists should be well prepared to understand these connections and to promote their appreciation by the general public.
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Last modified: 1 December 2011