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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Eric A Smith
BIO A 469
Seattle Campus

Special Topics in Biocultural Anthropology

Delineation and analysis of a specific problem or a more general area in biocultural anthropology. Offered occasionally by visiting or resident faculty.

Class description

Is religion a cross-cultural universal? Why do so many people ascribe powers to invisible supernatural agents that defy empirical verification? Are these beliefs key in upholding norms of fairness, cooperation, and mutual aid in the face of selfish tendencies? Or are they drivers of conflict between groups, justifications for violence and conquest? Are religious impulses part of our biological heritage, or do they evolve purely in the cultural realm? This special-topics course critically examines these and other questions about the evolutionary bases of religion. We will survey current theoretical and empirical research, and explore key concepts and theories such as costly signaling, cognitive biases, the tension between self-interest and community, and parochial altruism. Readings come primarily from the scholarly literature (chapters in "The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories & Critiques" ed. by J. Bulbulia et al., 2008; "Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religions Thought" by P. Boyer, 2001; and various journal articles), plus a recent semi-popular survey ("The Faith Instinct" by N. Wade, 2009). (Note: this course is NOT about religious views on evolution; rather, it examines evolutionary views of religion.)

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

The format of the course is a combination of lecture, discussion, and student presentation.

Recommended preparation

To obtain an add code, please email the instructor ( with the following information: - Major, class standing (senior, etc.) - Prior relevant coursework - Why you are interested in taking this course BIO A 201 is a required prerequisite (which the instructor can choose to waive it in particular cases); prior coursework in evolutionary biology (BIOL 115, BIOL 354, or equivalent) can substitute for this prerequisite.

Class assignments and grading

Assignments: - concise discussion topics (based on assigned reading) posted on the course GoPost site on a regular basis - a class presentation summarizing a scholarly article related to one of the weekly topics of the course - another presentation on a case study of a religious beliefs & practices in a particular culture or community, evaluated in light of issues and theories discussed in lectures & assigned readings - a bibliographic essay on the sources used the case-study presentation - informed participation in class discussion

The above assignments will be weighted as follows: - Discussion topics (28%) - Article presentation (16%) - Case-study presentation (20%) - Bibliographic essay (20%) - Discussion participation (16%)

The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Course web site
Last Update by Eric A Smith
Date: 09/29/2010