Course Description

Evolution, Behavior and Public Health

Psychology 515/ Epidemiology 509

Tues/ Thursday 1:30 - 3:00 Room M1112 SPH II

Betsy Foxman and Randolph Nesse, Instructors


Evolution is the foundation for all biology, but most psychologists and health professionals never have a chance to get a solid grounding in the basic principles and their specific applications to behavior and health problems.  In psychology, a tendency to present evolutionary approaches as a separate subdiscipline instead of a foundation for all psychology has slowed the applications of core principles in some areas. In public health, evolutionary theory has been used mainly to explain observations; its ability to make predictions whose testing generates practical conclusions is only now developing rapidly.  This course will teach the core principles of evolutionary biology and how they can be applied to important public health problems, with a focus on mental disorders, infectious disease, and the ways in which infections influence behavior and behaviors influence infections.  Relevant human behaviors that influence disease risk include hygiene, sexual behaviors, diet choices, and decisions about use of vaccines and antibiotics.  Human behaviors and host responses select for pathogenic mechanisms that influence virulence, including manipulating host behavior, and engaging in remarkably complex social interactions among bacteria that offer model systems for testing ideas about cooperative behavior in all organisms. 

 This course will bring upper level psychology undergraduates and some EEB undergraduates together with graduate students in public health.  We anticipate this mix will be particularly good, given the complementarities of psychology student’s expertise in behavior and biology, and public health student’s expertise in epidemiology, social factors, and disease.  This course builds on experience teaching a previous UM course on evolution and health for undergraduates that was extremely popular with psychology undergraduates and whose syllabus is now the basis for scores of courses world-wide.  This new course is at a more appropriate higher level. It will appeal especially to the many psychology undergraduates who are considering a career in medicine, clinical psychology, or heath-related research, but we anticipate it will also prove popular with other psychology students for the same reasons as other courses that provide grounding in basic sciences relevant to behavior.  Many public health students are aware of rapid growth in evolutionary applications to medicine and epidemiology, especially in understanding infectious diseases; they will be eager to learn what this course has to teach.  We anticipate that this mix of upper level undergraduate and beginning graduate students will benefit both, and make for an especially engaging experience.

 Course description

This course will teach the core principles of evolutionary biology and the special challenges of applying them to problems in psychology and public health.  The course will begin with the subset of core principles of evolutionary biology that have particular applications in psychology and public health.  Some of the early classes will be divided into subsections so we can match teaching to the backgrounds of students from different areas.  It will then survey the fast growing field of evolutionary medicine, what it offers to psychology and public health already, and new applications that are likely to be especially useful. Most of the detailed examples will be from infectious disease and evolutionary aspects of behavioral disorders and behaviors that influence disease susceptibility.  The course will close by addressing the challenges of formulating and testing evolutionary hypotheses about why natural selection left our bodies vulnerable to diseases, emphasizing how new research questions emerge from an evolutionary perspective, and new methodologies for rigorously testing evolutionary hypotheses about disease.  At the conclusion of the course, participants will understand how core principles of evolutionary biology have been and can be applied to public health problems, and they will have a moderately developed critical capacity for assessing research reports in the area.

 Course Goals: 

1.  Introduce students to basic principles of evolutionary theory, especially as they apply to health and disease, with special emphasis on infectious diseases and behavioral and mental disorders.

2.  Learn how to formulate and test evolutionary hypotheses about why selection has left the body vulnerable to physical and mental disorders.

3.   Learn to critically review and analyze applications of evolutionary theory to problems in public health, psychology and medicine.


1.  Be able to define and give examples of the relevant core evolutionary concepts.

2.  Demonstrate familiarity with the techniques and methods used in evolutionary biology.

3.  Demonstrate ability to formulate and plan studies to test evolutionary hypotheses.

4.  Be able to critically review and analyze applications of evolutionary theory in the scientific literature.


A general background in biology is required, but a full course in evolution is not. A basic knowledge of statistics and research design will be helpful, but is not mandatory. 

 Target audience

This course will bring together upper level undergraduates with graduate students in public health in a mix that we anticipate will benefit both.


Betsy Foxman, Professor of Epidemiology, Director, Center for Molecular and Clinical Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, School of Public Health

Randolph M. Nesse, Professor of Psychiatry, Professor of Psychology, Research Professor RCGD ISR, Director Evolution and Human Adaptation Program

Additional faculty offering specialized assistance:

Alan Weder, Professor of Internal Medicine, Co-Director of the Vascular Medicine Program

Howard Hu, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, Professor of Epidemiology, Professor of Internal Medicine


Required Readings:

·       Randolph Nesse and George Williams, Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Evolutionary Medicine.

·       Peter Gluckman, Alan Beedle & Mark Hanson.  Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, Oxford University Press, 2009.

·       Additional readings from the scientific literature demonstrating application of evolutionary theory to infectious disease, behavioral and mental disorders, and other health topics will be posted on Ctools.



Class participation 10%

Quizzes 20%

Midterm 30%

Term paper 40%