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The Complexity of Human Societies

Module titleThe Complexity of Human Societies
Module codeBIO3428
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Thomas Currie ()

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

Human social organisation is extraordinarily complex. In this module you will learn more about the processes of cooperation and conflict involved in the origin, maintenance, and collapse of complex societies. Using evolutionary and ecological theory you will examine a number of topics including human health, migration, technological change, structural inequalities, division of labour, warfare, and population cycles. By actively taking part in debates you will explore how this perspective can address important issues facing the world today including failed states, environmental sustainability, and global disparities in economic development.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The aim of this module is to develop and expand your understanding of the evolutionary and ecological processes involved in the growth, decline and collapse of complex human societies. The module will increase your understanding of human social organisation, why the world is the way it is today, and the challenges that face complex societies.

Through discussions and lectures you will see how the theories you have been learning about can be applied to understand and potentially find solutions to real-world problems. In enquiry-groups you will investigate a topic of your choosing and present your findings. You will learn about a range of topics including how behavioural and psychological experiments are being used to understand how people make economic decisions, how researchers are applying models from biology to understand how societies rise and fall, and how evolutionary perspectives are being applied to solve real-world problems, from how to spread beneficial health practices (e.g. vaccination) to the challenges of migration in an increasingly globalised world.

The teaching contributions on this module involve elements of research undertaken by module staff, such as work on cultural microevolution and social learning (Mesoudi), and cultural macroevolution and the evolution of cooperation (Currie). Many examples and case studies that you will engage with will come from the module staff’s previous and current research.

The module will develop a number of skills that will be valuable in future employment, such as researching and planning projects independently, working as part of a team and dealing with group dynamics, synthesising knowledge from different sources, and giving presentations and effectively communicating your ideas.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Describe in detail the main features of complex human societies
  • 2. Critically assess the role of evolutionary and ecological processes in the emergence and collapse of complex societies
  • 3. Identify and examine the key challenges facing human societies from an ecological and evolutionary perspective
  • 4. Explain in detail the role of cultural evolutionary theory in explaining human behaviour and societies

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 the human sciences
  • 6. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed 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 the human sciences
  • 8. With minimal guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within the human sciences
  • 9. Describe and evaluate in detail 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. 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 and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance
  • 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. 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 introduce topics such as the spread of health practices, the challenges of migration, technological evolution, the origin and emergence of complex societies, structural inequalities, division of labour, warfare, and population cycles.

You will explore topics in greater depth during seminars. Each week designated students will present further information from their reading of the literature, and lead a discussion around the topic, including practical implications of that week’s topic. Speaking effectively in public and giving presentations are increasingly important in many careers.

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 Teaching10Lectures (10 x 1-hour)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching10Seminars (10 x 1-hour)
Guided independent study130Additional reading, research and preparation for module 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 moduleAllWritten
Class seminar presentation 10-minute presentation1-12, 14Oral

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 701500 words1-12Written
Class seminar presentation3015 minutes1-12, 14Written


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
Class seminar presentationIndividual presentation1-12August 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 submit a further assessment. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Alex Mesoudi 2011 Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences, University of Chicago Press
  • 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. 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin UK
  • Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and Peter Coppolillo. 2005. Conservation : linking ecology, economics, and culture. Princeton University Press.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Human societies, social organisation, complex societies, population cycles, warfare, evolution, ecology, structural inequalities, cultural evolution

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date