Charles Nunn

    Evolutionary Anthropology and The Duke Global Health Institute



Human Health in Evolutionary Perspective
Evolutionary Anthropology 285D / Global Health 304D
Global Health Foundations Course in "Natural Sciences"
Next time taught: Fall 2016


Chronic and infectious diseases represent major global health challenges in developed and developing countries. The goal of this course is to understand "why we get sick" from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. We will find that the integration of evolutionary thinking to medical science and global health provides new understanding for a wide variety of medical conditions, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, allergies, cancer, sleep and mental illness. Similarly, evolutionary perspectives are shedding new light on our parasites and pathogens, including helping us understand the origins and evolution of new infectious diseases.

We will address many questions of global significance, such as:

  • Why are some infectious diseases more harmful than others?
  • How and why has our evolutionary history made us susceptible to "Western" diseases, such as diabetes, that have negative impacts on reproductive success and longevity? Why are these diseases now increasing in some developing countries?
  • Why do many infectious agents evolve resistance, and what can be done about it?
  • Can we use evolutionary perspectives to understand why our bodily functions decline with age, eventually resulting in death?
  • What does ecology and evolution have to say about cancer, for example in terms of the persistence of "cancer genes," or with regard to controlling tumor growth in an individual?

After completing this course, students will understand basic principles of evolutionary biology and how evolution has shaped our bodies, our health, and our infectious diseases. Students will also have a broader and more critical appreciation of the concepts of "health" and "disease" than is current in popular discourse and most medical or public health education programs. Through lectures and case studies, students will also gain experience in critically evaluating scientific evidence and in considering alternative explanations for reported findings and possible weaknesses with study design or interpretation.

I aim to foster a long-term appreciation of evolutionary perspectives to human health, for both the recipients of health care and for those who become providers of health care. This last point is important: the course is designed for all students regardless of background, not just those who are interested in a career in medicine or public health.



Primate Disease Ecology and Global Health
Evolutionary Anthropology 385D / Global Health 315D
Next time taught: Spring 2018 (probable)

Infectious diseases have played a major role in our past, and they are important for human health today and in the future. Many human infectious diseases have origins in non-human primates, such as HIV. This course covers a wide range of topics around infectious disease, including: the evolution of infectious disease, epidemiological transitions in human history, emerging infectious diseases, the conservation implications of disease, infectious disease challenges in global health, and more. We will also cover pressing issues of infectious diseases at the human-wildlife interface in the US, such as Lyme disease. You will leave the course with a rich foundation for understanding infectious disease, including basic epidemiology and a conceptual framework for making sense of the multitude of infectious diseases found in humans. Through an original research project, you will also gain experience in thinking critically about scientific research, identifying novel research questions, and communicating science. In addition to the project, students will be graded based on two midterms aimed at helping integrate the material, four fun problems sets to explore epidemiology in real life, and participation in section.