UNCG Biology 430 — Biological Evolution

This course is a general introduction to biological evolution, the most important organizing principle in biology. Because this will be a small class, I plan to teach it in a conversational mode like a seminar, and not as a formal lecture. We will be interacting closely with the texts all semester, trying to understand the points they are making, questioning their explanations, rephrasing them in different words, and so on. Evolutionary biology is the most intellectual branch of biology, so we will be doing a lot of thinking and talking about ideas and concepts. I will often provide a set of discussion questions for us to use during class; you should have these by you as you read the texts, and make notes that will allow you to discuss each of the questions raised. One of the things an upper-level course should do is help you learn to talk about the subject matter, not simply absorb the facts. That’s what this course (I hope) will do.

Meeting Time and Place

Monday/Wednesday 5:30–6:45 p.m. in Eberhart 226.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara (rjohara@uncg.edu). My office is room 118 in the Eberhart Building, and you are welcome to stop by any time; e-mail is a reliable means of contacting me, and I always welcome e-mail from students about our course or any other matters. I keep formal office hours Tuesday/Thursday 10:45–11:45 a.m., but am usually around at other times as well. You are always welcome to speak to me after class, leave a note in my mailbox in the Biology Department Office (Eberhart 312), or send me e-mail to discuss anything relating to our course or to academics generally. If you’d like to know a bit about my interests and other activities you’re welcome to visit my webpage (rjohara.net).


We will be using two texts: Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the work that began the study of evolutionary biology, and Stearns and Hoekstra’s new textbook Evolution: An Introduction. I think it is very important to understand the historical background of ideas, and that is why we use Darwin in addition to a modern work.

Course Webpage

The webpage for my courses (rjohara.net/teaching) has links to a copy of this syllabus, along with other course-related materials and general tips on studying. Be sure to pay it a visit.


Grades in this course will be based on two carefully-written abstracts (30%), two exams (60%), and class participation (10%). Abstracts are short versions of scientific papers that commonly appear at the beginning of a work. You will have to compose abstracts of chapters in the Origin of Species as though you were publishing those chapters for the first time. Abstract writing is a valuable skill, and it requires a very thorough understanding of the material; more details about the abstract-writing assignments will be provided later. The two exams will be short-answer tests based on our reading and class discussion. The class participation grade will be my evaluation of how well-prepared you are for class and how much you contribute to our discussions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to understand everything the first time through, but rather that you are making a genuine effort to grasp the material. In all aspects of the course students are expected to follow the University’s academic honor policy.


Attendance is expected, and in order to do well in the course you will have to attend class regularly. Unexcused absences from exams will result in a grade of zero for the exam missed; absences from exams are only excused for serious medical or family situations documented in writing.

Second Exam Question

The last question on the second exam will be to reproduce from memory the following quotation, which concludes Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). It is an excellent summary of Darwin’s entire argument, and with some qualifications it remains a very good description of how evolution works. We will practice it everyday at the beginning of class, so learning it will not be difficult. This question will be worth 5% of your final grade.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Expected Schedule

1/10 January: Background material you should know; observations outside that illustrate basic evolutionary principles.

15 January: Variation and artificial selection. Origin, ch. 1–2.

22/24 January: Struggle for existence and natural selection. Origin, ch. 3–4.

29/31 January: Geography, evidence for descent, and recapitulation. Origin, ch. 11–14.

5/7 February: The nature of evolution (in a modern sense). Stearns, ch. 1. First ABSTRACT due, 7 February.

12/14 February: Adaptive evolution. Stearns, ch. 2.

19/21 February: Neutral evolution. Stearns, ch. 3. First EXAM, 19 February.

26/28 February: Genetic change in populations. Stearns, ch. 4.

12/14 March: Origin and maintenance of genetic variation. Stearns, ch. 5.

19/21 March: The expression of variation. Stearns, ch. 6.

26/28 March: The evolution of sex. Stearns, ch. 7. Second ABSTRACT due, 28 March.

1/4 April: Speciation. Stearns, ch. 11.

9/11 April: Systematics. Stearns, ch. 12.

16/18 April: The history of life, I. Stearns, ch. 13.

23/25 April: The history of life, II. Stearns, ch. 14.

30 April: Conclusion and prospect. Stearns, ch. 17.

7 May, 7:00 p.m.: last EXAM.

© RJO 1995–2022