What does it mean to be human?
Teaching material: Exploring the question - What makes us human? (in preparation)
Our human characteristics are the result of evolution, culture, individual development
Evolution is the change of trait frequencies in a population. This change is the result of interactions between the abiotic, biotic and social environments, behaviors, bodies, brains, technologies, cultures, and genes of organisms. These interactions cause populations to change over time, as new features arise, some features become more common and others become more rare. These interactions therefore shape the evolution and development of our traits and our world.
Different scientists define and study evolution in different ways. Some are primarily interested in the change of genotypes and gene frequencies in a population. Others also look at change in many other things (phenotypes, e.g. behaviors, brains, bodies, social organisation, technologies, culture, and environmental features) in a population (see comparison table in Cultural Evolution). Depending on what we look at, there can be different ways that traits get inherited, transmitted or retained in a population - for example, through the inheritance of genes to offspring, or through imitation of behaviors. There can also be different ways how new variations of traits appear in the population, and different ways through which some traits become more common and others less common in a population.
If we want to understand the evolution of human behaviors and cultures, it makes sense to look at many different phenotypes and their interactions, and consider all of the possible mechanisms of their variation, selection, and inheritance.
How do the abiotic and biotic environments, the social environments, technologies, cultural knowledge, behaviors (including cognition), body features, brains and genes interact to shape the evolution and development of our traits and our world?
The resources below represent our on-going efforts to create and curate content and teaching materials about the evolution of our species that may help students understand the core concepts and causal relationships relevant to understanding the challenges to human well-being and sustainability we face today. The resources are organized by traits and themes (relationships among traits) that have more or less direct relevance to sustainability. Our focus is on themes and resources that help us understand our everyday behaviors and experiences, as well as human cooperation and our capacity to work together towards common goals under specific conditions. Other themes are included because they may be more broadly helpful for student learning of human evolution and for the development of deeper and transferable understandings of the complex causes inherent in the challenges of sustainable development.
These resources are continously being developed, so if you have a question or idea, or would like to use these resources in your classroom, please contact us to discuss.
Resources by Trait or Theme
The following traits and themes are roughly arranged according to their estimated temporal appearance in the course of our evolutionary history. However, as is so often the case in evolution, many traits have evolved over long periods of time and in close interaction with other traits. Most human traits are actually more or less elaborated versions of traits we find across many animal species. Various research methods and insights of evolutionary anthropology are included on the respective pages, which help us explain the evolutionary origins and development of the various human traits.
Humans are living beings, mammals, primates
Present and Future
Are humans still evolving?
How does our evolutionary past influence our present and future?
These big questions provide a foundational context for undestanding and influencing the evolutionary processes that shape our world towards global sustainability and well being for all.