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Evolution of Human Societies

Module titleEvolution of Human Societies
Module codeBIO2451
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Professor Alex Mesoudi (Lecturer)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

How can we explain the great diversity of human cultures around the world? How and why have human societies changed over time? How has our species come to dominate the planet, while all other hominin species are extinct and other great apes are endangered? In this module you will explore aspects of human culture and society within a scientific and evolutionary framework, with reference to the historical development of our understanding alongside high-impact modern research. The module focuses on the evolutionary origins of human behaviour, and shows how cultural change and human societies can be studied within an evolutionary framework. We will examine major patterns of variation in human societies, and the changes that have occurred over the last 10,000 years or so. Topics covered include the evolution of human cognition and culture; cultural evolution; the evolution of human cooperation; subsistence strategies and the development of agriculture, population expansions, language, religion, social and political organisation, and the ways culture can affect the evolution of genes and vice versa.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The aim of this module is to develop and expand your understanding of the diversity of human behaviour and culture around the world in an evolutionary context. The module will increase your understanding of why humans behave in the way they do and the evolutionary forces acting on human cultures. You will examine a number of topics including how culture can be studied scientifically, how and why cultural traits spread, and how psychological biases can influence how culture evolves. You will then take these perspectives to see how they create differences between societies in such things as language, and social, political, and religious organisation.

The topics you learn about will be directly illustrated using cutting-edge research, with the examples used often being taken from research being conducted by your lecturers, such as work on cultural microevolution and social learning (Mesoudi), and cultural macroevolution (Currie). In the practicals you will perform tasks that involve research techniques that will be used to address outstanding research questions.

Through weekly lectures and completing the assessments, you will further develop transferable academic and professional skills that will be important in your degree and future careers, such as data handling, report writing, problem solving, applying theories you have learned to novel situations, identifying main priorities of tasks, time management, and understanding how to present your arguments appropriately depending on the task and the audience.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Evaluate evolutionary theories of the origin of human cognition, culture and adaptation
  • 2. Recognise the fundamental theoretical cornerstones of cultural evolutionary theory
  • 3. Illustrate with examples the main processes by which cultural diversity arises
  • 4. Describe the major patterns of variation in human societies and their evolutionary causes

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Describe in some detail essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of the human sciences
  • 6. Identify critical questions from the literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 7. Identify and implement, with guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for addressing specific research problems in the human sciences
  • 8. With some guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within the human sciences
  • 9. Describe and evaluate approaches to our understanding of the human sciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 10. Develop, with some guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with valid conclusions
  • 11. Communicate ideas, principles and theories fluently using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 12. Collect and interpret appropriate data and complete research-like tasks, drawing on a range of sources, with limited guidance
  • 13. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to professional and practical skills, and apply own evaluation criteria

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Lectures will cover topics such as

  • human evolution and human origins
  • evolution of human cognition, culture and cooperation
  • cultural evolutionary theory
  • social learning biases
  • subsistence strategies
  • demographic movements
  • language
  • religion
  • social and political organisation
  • gene-culture co-evolution

Practical sessions will reinforce topics covered in lectures, emphasising the nature of scientific enquiry. Skill-based seminars will provide and reinforce study skills required to complete the assessments.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching16Lectures - including material on evolution of human cognition, culture and cooperation, social learning biases, cultural evolutionary theory, subsistence strategies, demographic movements, language, religion, social and political organisation, and gene-culture co-evolution.
Scheduled Learning and Teaching9Laboratory practical sessions, focusing on scientific methods used to investigate cultural evolution and to illustrate the topics covered in lectures, and assistance in completing the assessment (e.g. engaging with scientific literature, writing essays) (3 x 3-hours)
Guided independent study125Additional reading, research and preparation for the short essay assignment, laboratory report and essay examination.


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay plan including references1 page A41-12Written

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay 601500 words1-6, 8-12Written feedback after formal submission
Short essay401500 words1-6, 8-12Written feedback after formal submission


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay Essay1-6, 8-12August assessment period
Short essayShort essay1-6, 8-12August assessment period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further assessment. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Joseph Henrich (2015) The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton University Press.
  • Jared Diamond (1997) Guns, Germs & Steel. W. W. Norton & Company

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

ELE page:

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Evolution, ecology, society, culture, cultural evolution, subsistence strategy, social organisation, gene-culture co-evolution

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date