In the midst of the other projects on which I am working this month, I have had to submit a proposal for a new course that I plan to teach in Fall 2015. Fall seems far away, but soon enough, I’ll have to submit book orders, and I’ll be in the midst of my summer research, hurtling towards the inevitable mid-August course prep scramble.
One of the benefits of proposing a new course this early in the year has been that it has forced me to put together a preliminary syllabus (it is truly preliminary). I have included it below with a short summary of the course, which is targeted towards upper-level undergraduates. As you will note, the course is quite interdisciplinary, drawing on work in history, biology, anthropology, psychology, and more. I would truly appreciate any suggestions — especially for course readings that have worked particularly well for your undergraduates — from my colleagues across the disciplines.
Most professional historians focus on studying humans and human societies over the last 500 years. A significant number examine humanity’s history over the past 3000 years. And, a handful analyze the past 10,000 years. However, the earliest humans emerged approximately 2.3 million years ago. This means that well over 2 million years of human history are virtually ignored by most professional historians.
This is not entirely unexpected. For centuries, scholars lacked the tools and techniques to study the deep history of the human past. However, over the last several decades, new discoveries, technologies, and methodologies have uncovered a rich history embedded in rocks, bones, and genes. Most of this work has been done by scientists and social scientists, but a small number of historians have begun collaborating with them to trace the evolution of humans, their societies and their cultures.
What these researchers have found has profound consequences — not simply for our understanding of the deep past, but for our understanding of modern societies and cultures. It is evident that professional historians will increasingly need to engage with these discoveries as well as disciplines such as archaeology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.
This course introduces students to these debates by asking a fundamental question: what makes us human? The answer, we will find, requires that we explore the histories of religion, philosophy and science. It will necessitate that we explore the evolution of humans — and most importantly the evolution of brains, consciousness, and culture. We will draw on research from biology, anthropology, and history to explore our pasts, presents, and futures.