Biology 48: Principles of Evolutionary Medicine



Instructor:                Michael R. Dietrich

Office Location:      LSC 25


Office Phone:           646-1389

Office Hours:           Scheduled T, Th 12-1pm and by appointment.

X-hours:                    3:00-3:50pm.  X-hours will be used for class discussion and review.


Rationale or Course Description 

This course considers human health and disease from the perspective of evolutionary biology.  Topics will include adaptive explanations for life history traits, the evolution of nutrition metabolism, host-pathogen co-evolution, models of disease dynamics and the ecology of disease, the evolution of sexual reproduction and sexual dimorphism, and the evolution of altruism.


Throughout the course, we will focus on major hypotheses proposed for the evolution of medical conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, and obesity.  As a class, we will critically evaluate the formulation and evaluation of these evolutionary hypotheses.  Students will be asked to extend this type of analysis to a medically relevant evolutionary hypothesis of their choice in a research paper.


Course Goals

Students who successfully complete this course will have an understanding of complex adaptations and their experimental evaluation, the principles driving evolutionary arms races, including disease dynamics, competing explanations for the evolution of sexual reproduction, and the principles of life history evolution.  Students will develop skills in critical thinking, written communication, hypothesis testing, and evolutionary modeling.



Biology 15 or 16 or permission of instructor



You are expected to make the most of this opportunity by coming to class ready to engage with each other in an informed discussion of the material assigned.  This means you should have read the assigned material at least once in advance of each class meeting.

If you bring a computer of any kind to class, I expect that it will be used to do work that is directly related to this course.  Cell phone use is not allowed in this class. 

Text and Resources


Peter Gluckman, Alan Beedle, and Mark Hanson, Principles of Evolutionary Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2009).


Marlene Zuk, Riddled With Life (New York: Harcourt, 2007).


Selected articles noted in the course schedule below.



Course Website






Due Date

Exam #1


Short answer and short essay format.  In class.



Exam #2


Short answer and short essay format.  In class.



Adaptation Evaluation




Research paper on an approved topic, prospectus required, 5000-7000 words



Final Draft

Final Examination


Short answer and short essay format. 




Academic Honor

Academic honesty is essential. The following is quoted directly from the Dartmouth College Student Handbook:  “Fundamental to the principle of independent learning are the requirements of honesty and integrity in the performance of academic assignments, both in the classroom and outside. Dartmouth operates on the principle of academic honor, without proctoring of examinations. Students who submit work that is not their own or who commit other acts of academic dishonesty forfeit the opportunity to continue at Dartmouth."  The complete text of the Academic Honor Principle is in the Student Handbook.  Please read it carefully. Any violations of the Honor Principle will be referred to the Committee on Standards.  The three papers you submit must be completely your own work, and the exams must be completed without reference to written materials other than those provided with the exam and must be completed without communication with anyone else (the only permissible exception is that students may request clarification of any exam question from the course instructor who is present expressly for that purpose). The answers that you provide must be entirely your own work.


Student Needs

Students with disabilities enrolled in this course and who may need disability-related classroom accommodations are encouraged to make an appointment to see me before the end of the second week of the term. All discussions will remain confidential, although the Student Accessibility Services office may be consulted to discuss appropriate implementation of any accommodation requested.


Religious Observances

Some students may wish to take part in religious observances that occur during this academic term.  If you have a religious observance that conflicts with your participation in the course, please meet with me before the end of the second week of the term to discuss appropriate accommodations.




Course Schedule: (Subject to Change)


Week 1          Why Medicine Needs Evolutionary Biology



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapter 1.

Riddled with Life, Chapter 1

Nesse, R. M., C. T. Bergstrom, P. T. Ellison, J. S. Flier, P. Gluckman, D. R. Govindaraju, D. Niethammer et al. 2010. Making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107 (Suppl. 1): 1800–1807.

Nesse RM. Ten questions for evolutionary studies of disease vulnerability. Evolutionary Applications 2011



Week 2          Adaptation, Variation, and the Processes of Evolution



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapters 2-4.



Week 3          Life History Evolution and the Thrifty Gene Hypothesis



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapter 5

Neel JV (1962). "Diabetes Mellitus: A "Thrifty" Genotype Rendered Detrimental by "Progress"?". Am. J. Hum. Genet. 14 (4): 353–62.

                                    Neel JV (May 1999). "The "thrifty genotype" in 1998". Nutr. Rev. 57

                        (5 Pt 2): S2–9.


Week 4          Metabolic Adaptation and the Mismatch Hypothesis


Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapters 7 and 8.

Bellasari, A. “Evolutionary Origins of Obesity,” Obesity Reviews 9 (2008), 165-180.



Week 5          Evolution, Immune Systems, and the Hygiene Hypothesis



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapter 8.

Riddled with Life, Chapter 2

Erika von Mutius, “The Increase in Asthma Can be Ascribed to Cleanliness,” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 164 (2001), 1106-7.



Week 6          Disease Dynamics and Evolutionary Arms Races



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapter 8.

Stephen Palumbi, “Humans as the World’s Greatest Evolutionary Force,” Science 293 (2001), 1786-1790.

Kilpatrick, A. M. & Altizer, S., “Disease Ecology,” Nature Education Knowledge 3(2012), 55.



Week 7          The Evolution of Sex and the Parasite Hypothesis



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapter 7.

Riddled with Life, Chapters 3-6



Week 8          Looking Good: Sexual Selection and the Nutritional Hypothesis



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapter 9

Riddled with Life, Chapters 7-8



Week 9          The Evolution of Altruism



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapter 10.

Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tamita, and E. O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Eusociality,” Nature 466 (2010), 1057-1062.



Week 10        Evolutionary Medicine and the New Eugenics?



Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Chapters 11-12