Biology department evolves at FAS

5 min read

FAS creates a new dedicated Department of Human Evolutionary Biology

Earlier this month, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) made official what scientists worldwide have known for years: Harvard is a hotbed of research and teaching in the field of human evolutionary biology — the study of why we’re the way we are.

“As the first university to create a graduate program in what was then called ‘physical anthropology,’ Harvard has long been a leader in the study of human evolution,” says Jeremy Bloxham, dean of science in the FAS. “Through its use of techniques from biochemistry, engineering, and genetics, the modern field of human evolutionary biology has become increasingly aligned with the sciences. It seems only natural that we should foster our tremendous strength in this area by creating a dedicated Department of Human Evolutionary Biology.”

With its May 11 vote to establish this department, the FAS staked out a formal presence in a field that dates back to Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species” 150 years ago but has been reinvigorated in recent decades by the application of powerful new scientific approaches to the study of our collective origins.

“Why do we cook our food? Why are we able to run long distances? Why are we so susceptible to diabetes?” asks Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology, who has been part of the effort to launch the new department over the past five years. “Nothing in biology makes sense outside of evolution. You can’t hope to understand species or their traits without first knowing why they’re there.”

The research expertise of the nine faculty associated with the new Department of Human Evolutionary Biology touches on many of the most pressing social problems of our time: infectious disease, obesity, overpopulation, and aging, to name but a few.

“We’re watching the intersection of evolution and infectious disease in real time with the outbreak of H1N1,” Lieberman says. “This is a perfect storm of population density, human proximity to animals, microbial biology, and the evolution of infectious disease.”

It’s clear, Lieberman adds, that a holistic view — such as that embraced by his colleagues — is key to addressing problems of this complexity. And, he says, with its insights into what makes us us, human evolutionary biology can help address the underlying causes of major global problems, rather than just the symptoms.

“How humans came to populate the globe left an imprint on our genomes collectively,” says Maryellen Ruvolo, professor of human evolutionary biology. “The big questions that still remain are first, which genes have been molded by natural selection to make us different from our common ancestor with chimpanzees, and second, which genes have been selected for, more recently, in human evolution that are adaptations to new, diverse environments that humans have colonized.”

The field of human evolutionary biology is itself evolving fast, adds Richard Wrangham, Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, with advances in genetics, genomics, and neuroscience playing a particularly important role.

“The great thing about this area is that we can pull together advances from many different disciplines,” Wrangham says, “offering an integrated view of the effects of biological and cultural influences.”

Small by Harvard standards in terms of faculty, the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology is large by the standards of its field, which still counts but a few full-fledged academic departments. The Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, is an international leader in human evolutionary biology; on this side of the Atlantic, similar departments exist at Duke University and in Stony Brook University’s medical school.

Students have responded favorably to Harvard’s offerings in the area: The undergraduate concentration in human evolutionary biology, launched in 2006, is already home to some 150 concentrators — among the largest cohorts in the College.

“Human evolutionary biology attracts students from a wide range of interests, from philosophy to pre-meds — anyone wanting to understand where we come from, what we are, and where we are going,” Wrangham says.

The new Department of Human Evolutionary Biology evolved from the biological anthropology wing of the Department of Anthropology, one of three distinct divisions in existence since 1972.

“Anthropology at Harvard has a long and distinguished history, but the intellectual paradigms of the field have undergone rapid change in the past generation,” says Ted Bestor, professor of anthropology and chair of the Department of Anthropology, adding that modern human evolutionary biology differs tremendously from physical anthropology as practiced even 15 or 20 years ago.

“The new Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and the archaeologists and social anthropologists in the Department of Anthropology will continue to share — and collaborate on — their common interests in understanding human beings across cultures, across historical and prehistorical time, and across the much greater spans of evolutionary development.”

The new department, Lieberman says, is Harvard’s affirmation of evolutionary approaches to the question: “Why are we the way we are?”

“Evolution matters profoundly,” he says. “We need to understand our origins before we can possibly hope to address these urgent problems facing humanity.”