Evolutionary Biology

Course Name: Evolutionary Biology

Credits: 2.0

Level: Undergraduate

Pre-requisite: Introduction to Life Sciences, (Molecular) Genetics, Molecular Biology

Lecture Time: 20 weeks, 1 session/week, 2 hours/session


Prof. De-Xing Zhang, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Prof. Zhong-He Zhou, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Prof. Yong Zhang, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Course Description

Evolution is a unifying theory for all disciplines of biology. This course introduces fundamentals of biological evolution, from the origin of life to the evolution of biological diversity, from the basic patterns of molecular evolution to social and behavioral evolution, with an emphasis on the processes and primary mechanisms responsible for evolutionary changes of living organisms over time. This course is designed for undergraduate students majoring Biology, and is also one of the major courses for students from other disciplines interested in biology. It is expected that at the end of the course students will have a thorough understanding of basic evolutionary theory, a good knowledge on evolutionary patterns deciphered from the molecular level to the fossil record, and be able to apply critically evolutionary principles to explain human evolution and to answer popular questions on evolution.

Topics and Schedule

  1. Introduction (2 hrs)

1.1    What is evolution?

1.2    The concepts of microevolution and macroevolution

1.3    Darwin’s theory of evolution

1.4    The modern synthesis

1.5   Current evolutionary theory

1.6    How to study biological evolution?

1.7    How to learn evolutionary biology?

  1. The Origin of Genetic Variations (2 hrs)

2.1    Origin and types of genetic variations

2.2.   Germline mutation

2.3.   Somatic and epigenetic mutation

  1. A History of Life on Earth (2 hrs)

3.1    The Earth, fossils and geological time table

3.2    The emergence of life and early evolution

3.3    The Cambrian explosion and the substitution of Paleozoic ecosystem

3.4    The formation of terrestrial ecosystem and the early evolution of vertebrates

3.5    Biota in the Dinosaur era and the continental transformation

3.6    Evolution of mammals in the Cenozoic and the emergence of human

  1. Patterns of Evolution (2 hrs)

4.1    The basic patterns of biological evolution

4.2    Methods to study patterns of evolution

4.3    Applications of phylogenetic theory and methods

  1. Evolution of Genes and Genomes (2 hrs)

5.1    Protein evolution

5.2    Evolution of regulatory sequences

5.3    The origin of new genes

5.4    The loss of old genes

5.5    Genome duplication

  1. The Foundation of Evolution: Variation in Population (2 hrs)

6.1    The category of variations

6.2    The major forces driving evolution

6.3    Population genetic basis of evolution

6.4    Variation in natural populations

6.5    Variation among populations and population differentiation

6.6    Evolution beyond variation in gene frequency

  1. The Random Forces in Evolution (2 hrs)

7.1    Various random forces in evolution

7.2    Theory of random genetic drift

7.3    Coalescent theory and its application

7.4    The neutral theory of molecular evolution

7.5    Inference of demographic history and phylogeography

  1. The Deterministic Force in Evolution (2 hrs)

8.1    Why does milk do bad to some people?

8.2    The nature of adaptations

8.3    The nature of natural selection

8.4    Levels of selection

  1. The Genetic Theory of Natural Selection (2 hrs)

9.1    Fitness and natural selection

9.2    Types of selection and acting modes

9.3    Factors that affect the effectiveness of natural selection

9.4    Interaction of natural selection and other forces

9.5    The limit of natural selection

  1. Phenotypic Traits and Evolution (2 hrs)

10.1 Phenotypic traits and variation

10.2 Genetic basis of Phenotypic variation

10.3 Evolution of quantitative traits

10.4 Methods for studying quantitative traits

  1. The Evolution of Life Histories (2 hrs)

11.1  Concept of life history

11.2  Inclusive fitness and selection

11.3  Life history variants and evolution

  1. Sex and Reproductive Strategies (2 hrs)

12.1 Reproductive strategies: Sxeual and asexual reproduction

12.2 Adaptation of selfing and outcrossing

12.3 Evolution of mating systems

12.4 Sexual selection and its evolutionary implications

  1. Species: Theory and Reality (2 hrs)

13.1 What are species?

13.2 The diverse species definitions and species concepts

13.3 Gene flow and reproductive isolation

13.4 The genetic basis of reproductive isolation

  1. Speciation: The Bridge between Microevolution and Macroevolution (2 hrs)

14.1 Speciation and evolutionary implications

14.2 Modes of speciation

14.3 Mechanisms of speciation

14.4 Rates of speciation and evolutionary consequences

  1. Macroevolution: Evolution Above the Species Level (2 hrs)

15.1 Developmental constraints

15.2 Evolutionary trap and Dollo’s law

15.3 Gradualism and saltation

15.4 Evolution of a novel complex trait

15.5 How to interpret convergent evolution?

  1. Evolution and Development (2 hrs)

16.1 Hox genes and the reunification of evolution and development

16.2 Rethinking homologies and the developmental principle in evolution

16.3 Genetic toolkit and the evolution of morphological structures

16.4 Modularity and evolution

16.5 Redundancy and tinkering in evolution

  1. Evolution in the Fossil Record (2 hrs)

17.1 The significance of fossil record to evolutionary studies

17.2 Punctuated equilibria

17.3 Origin of tetrapods

17.4 Origin and the early evolution of birds

17.5 Origin and the early evolution of mammals

17.6 The Hominin fossil record and the evolutionary history of human

  1. The Geography of Evolution (2 hrs)

18.1 History and basic concepts

18.2 Paleobiogeogrphy: dispersal and vicariance

18.3 The breakdown of Gondwana and Paleobiogeogrphy

18.4 Phylogeogrphy

18.5 Paleobiogeogrphy and biodiversity in islands and continents

  1. Evolution of Biodiversity (2 hrs)

19.1 Concepts and definitions

19.2 Biological radiations in geological past

19.3 Five mass extinctions

19.4 Adaptive radiation

19.5 Factors influencing biodiversity

  1. The Evolution of Interactions among Species (2 hrs)

20.1 Interactions among species

20.2 Coevolution: The universal consequence of evolution

20.3 Overview and summary


A weekly homework will be given during the 20 weeks of the class, the homework will be graded and their scores will count for 20% of the total. Attendance counts for 10%. At the end of the class will be followed by a final examination, which will count for 70%.


Futuyma DJ (2013) Evolution. 3rd Edition. Sinauer Associates.


[1]   Darwin C (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. 1st ed. John Murray.

[2]   Cowen R (2013) History of Life. 5th Edition. Wiley-Blackwell.

[3]   Arthur W (2010) Evolution: A Developmental Approach. Wiley-Blackwell.

[4]   Gould SJ (1992) Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. W. W. Norton & Company.

[5]   Mayr E (2001) What Evolution Is? BasicBooks.

[6]   Carroll SB (2005) Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. Norton.

[7]   Ridley M (2004) Evolution. 3rd Edition. Blackwell Science Ltd.

[8]   Charlesworth B, Charlesworth D (2003) Evolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

[9]   de Panafieu J-B, Gries P (2007) Evolution in Action: Natural History through Spectacular Skeletons. Thames & Hudson.

[10] Coyne JA (2010) Why Evolution Is True? Penguin Books.

[11] Zimmer C (2006) Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. Harper Perennial.

Course Website