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Evolutionary Biology of Health and Disease

Module titleEvolutionary Biology of Health and Disease
Module codeBIO3420
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Barbara Tschirren (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

Diseases have a major impact on people’s lives and society as a whole. They can limit food production and economic growth, and pose a threat to endangered species. However, despite major investments, disease control programs often have mixed success and disease eradication programs have largely failed. Furthermore, resistance to drugs continues to spread and for some infections we do no longer have effective treatment options. The module will explain why this is so by providing an evolutionary perspective to key topics in health and disease, and by examining how evolutionary processes affect health, disease risk and disease control.

Module aims - intentions of the module

Aim of the module is to provide an evolutionary perspective to key topics in health and disease. You will learn to distinguish between proximate vs. ultimate explanations for why we get sick, why some disease-causing agents are highly virulent whereas others are benign, why males are more susceptible to infectious disease than females, why we age, what role transgenerational effects play in triggering health problems and how cooperation theory can help to understand cancer. You will critically evaluate current disease control programs, agricultural practices and public health interventions, and you will formulate strategies to make them more ‘evolution-proof’.

The module is research-led and involves elements of research undertaken by the course convener, such as work on host-parasite interactions, resistance evolution and the ecology and genetics of wildlife disease. Moreover, you are encouraged to undertake enquiry-led learning, specifically through the problem-based learning component of the module.

The module will allow you to apply fundamental evolutionary principles to global health challenges. You will critically evaluate medical practice, livestock and plant breeding programs and wildlife disease management, and develop strategies to improve them. You will furthermore critically evaluate literature, take part in group-led discussions, and learn to develop arguments and communicate them effectively, all of which are skills key to future employability.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Distinguish between proximate and ultimate explanations for why we get sick
  • 2. Explain pathways by which evolutionary processes can affect health, disease risk and disease control
  • 3. Critically evaluate disease control programs, agricultural practices and public health interventions
  • 4. Formulate strategies how to make disease control programs, agricultural practices and public health interventions more ‘evolution-proof’

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 5. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of biosciences
  • 6. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise examples from the literature into written work
  • 7. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in biosciences
  • 8. Evaluate established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 9. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of biosciences 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. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 11. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 12. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data
  • 13. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary
  • 14. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements
  • 15. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Lectures will cover evolutionary processes that influence health, disease risk and disease control:

  • trade-offs and constraints that limit host defence evolution
  • factors that affect pathogen virulence and drug resistance evolution
  • sex differences in disease susceptibility
  • the ultimate causes of ageing and cancer
  • the role of transgenerational effects in health and disease

You will work in groups to discuss key research papers and formulate recommendations how to improve disease control programs and agricultural practices. The final project involves a problem-based learning assignment on a timely topic related to human or wildlife disease. 

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 teaching14Lectures and group activities covering all the material outlined above
Scheduled learning and teaching3Group-led discussion of key papers / topics
Scheduled learning and teaching4Group-led presentations
Guided independent study129Additional reading, research and preparation for assignment, preparation for assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answers during class and contribution to class discussionOngoing throughout the module AllOral
Group presentation and discussion10 minutes1-12Oral and written
Computer-based exercises1 hour7-8, 12-14Oral and written

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
Essay601500 words1-12Written feedback on request
Project essay401500 words1-12Written


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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-12August assessment period
Project essayProject essay1-12August 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

  • Stearns, S.C. & Koella, J.C. (2008). Evolution in Health and Disease. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Evolution, evolutionary medicine, disease, health, host-parasite interactions, resistance, virulence, disease control

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date