New decade, new syllabi

We just kicked off the Spring semester here at Vassar College, and so I’ve got some freshly-updated bio-anthro syllabi hot off the press. This semester, I’m doing my annual introductory class (Anth 120, “Human Origins”), a resurrected seminar (Anth 305: “Human Evo-Devo”), and a second stab at a new methods module (Anth 211: “Virtual Anthropology”).

Anth 120 is similar to previous versions, although this year I’ve taken out a reading/lecture on Paleolithic technology, replaced with articles scrutinizing evolutionary psychology. We’ll see how it goes.

The other two classes are greatly overhauled from previous versions. Anth 211, “Virtual Anthropology,” is my first contribution to a new curricular initiative here at Vassar, which are called “intensives.” Anth 211 is kind of a hybrid between a regular class and an independent study, giving students experience with computer-based, “virtual” methods used in biological anthropology and related fields.  In the first half of the semester, students will get to try out some of these methods and see what kinds of research questions they’re used for. In the 2nd half of the term, students do their own Virtual Anthropology study drawing on the materials in my HEAD Lab, and then present a research poster at the end of the year. I debuted this intensive last Fall, and based on that experience I’m providing a bit more training and have more activities for students this Spring. If last semester’s projects are at all predictive, we should have some fun projects in store this year.


Anth 305 is a fossil-focused examination of the roles of growth and development in human evolution, and this year’s version is also highly modified from the last time I taught it over two years ago. In that first version, course content was patterned along the skeleton, e.g., one week looked at evolution and development of teeth, next week the spine, etc. Such a bauplan might work for building bodies, but it wasn’t the best for teaching. So this year, we’re spending the first few weeks on the fossil record of human evolution, getting acquainted with the curious characters of our deep past. From there, we go over skeletal / developmental biology, before delving into special evo-devo topics like “morphological integration” and “heterochrony” for the rest of the semester. We’ll also read lots of old, “classic” papers along the way.

Syllabi for these, and other classes, can be found on the teaching page of the site, if you want to learn more.

#AAPA2017 – Modularity & evolution of the human canine

I’m recently returned from this year’s AAPA Conference, hosted by Tulane University in New Orleans. What a trip!

Usually my presentations involve fossils and/or growth, but this year I wanted to try a different way of looking at the evolution & development – integration & modularity. In short, biological structures that share a common developmental background and/or function may comprise ‘modules’ that are highly ‘integrated’ with one another, but relatively less integrated with other structures or modules.

I hypothesized that canine reduction in hominins is a result of a shift in modularity of the dentition, such that the canine became more highly integrated with the incisors than with the premolars. I’d thought of this 5 years ago when creating the first rendition of my human evo-devo course (offering again next fall!), but never got to look into it. Interestingly, the results generally supported my predictions, except for one pesky sample…

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As my primatologist friends will tell you, male chimps are the worst.

Here’s a pdf version of the poster. It was fun to dabble with a new methodology, to see my far-flung friends, and to visit a fun historic place for the AAPA conference. Definitely looking forward to next year in Austin!