Charles Nunn

    Evolutionary Anthropology and The Duke Global Health Institute

Research in my lab uses evolutionary approaches to understand and improve human and animal health.

We investigate the ecology and evolution of infectious disease, drivers of variation in sleep, and the links between ecology, evolution and global health. We use a diverse portfolio of approaches, involving phylogenetic methods, mathematical modeling, and through fieldwork in Madagascar, Kenya and other locations.

We are also developing new comparative approaches to study evolution along the human lineage, supported by the NSF (BCS-1355902). This research is opening new avenues to integrate studies of non-human primate behavior, ecology and morphology into our understanding of human evolution.

A major component of our research involves global health activities in a rural village (Mandena) in northeastern Madagascar, near Marojejy National Park.

The following gives more details on specific topical areas of interest.

Infectious disease: Parasites and pathogens are ubiquitous in wild primates, yet we know remarkably little about the ecological drivers of parasitism and their evolutionary consequences. My lab and I develop theoretical models to investigate how infectious diseases move through populations and social networks. We also investigate how parasites have shaped the evolution of primate behavior and immune defenses, and we conduct comparative studies of parasite richness and prevalence in primates and other mammals. Throughout, we use this knowledge to improve our understanding of disease threats to human populations.

Evolution of sleep: Sleep is a critically important aspect of human biology and health that varies among human populations in relation to environmental, social, and cultural factors. Many factors are changing sleep patterns and sleep quality, including expanded use of artificial lighting, shift-work, screen-based digital media, and excessive environmental stimuli as human population densities increase. People experience these changes to different degrees, resulting in sleep-related health disparities within and across populations. My research aims to understand sleep along the human lineage, and also to investigate how sleep disparities relate to health disparities in a global health context.

Global health research in Madagascar: We bring new ecological and evolutionary perspectives to global health through our research in the rural village of Mandena, in northeastern Madagascar. Our research engages with how people's lives are changing in this community, including effects on diet, sleep, musculoskeletal health, and exposure to infectious disease. We also investigate how land use change influences human health. In our current research, we are investigating indoor air pollution from traditional cooking practices, and the impacts of these practices on sleep, cardio-pulmonary disease, and loss of biodiversity. This research is conducted in collaboration with the Duke Lemur Center's SAVA Conservation Initiative.

In addition to these research activities, I facilitate research in evolutionary medicine in the North Carolina Triangle universities through my role as director of the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine (TrICEM). Evolutionary medicine is a rapidly growing field of inter-disciplinary research that takes an evolutionary perspective on human health and disease, including topics of global health importance. Evolutionary medicine involves both understanding disease - such as selection pressures leading to increased obesity or cancer risk - and treatment of disease - including new solutions to avoid the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria, cancers and insect vectors of disease.



Charles L. Nunn

107 Biological Sciences
Box 90383
Duke University
Durham NC 27708

617 495-4710
clnunn [at]

Lab Website


The Comparative Approach in Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology

by Charles Nunn

University of Chicago Press (2011)

Infectious Diseases in Primates: Behavior, Ecology and Evolution

by Charles Nunn
and Sonia Altizer

Oxford University Press (2006)

Evolution of Sleep

Edited by Patrick McNamara, Robert Barton and Charles Nunn

Cambridge University Press (2009)