BISC 495, Evolution, Spring 2015

Section 010

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 12:30-1:45 p.m.

217 Gore Hall

Instructor: John McDonald
322 Wolf Hall (office)
Phone: 831-2007 (I rarely check messages, so e-mail is better)
Class web page:

Goals: In this course, I hope that you:

Note that learning facts is last on the list. I will place very little emphasis on memorizing, say, which animal phyla evolved in the Cambrian, the evolutionary relationships of vascular plants, or the assumptions of the Hardy-Weinberg relationship. Instead, I will emphasize evolutionary biology as a "way of knowing," a set of approaches to answering questions that is of broad importance to all kinds of biologists. I will present many examples of evolutionary research, some of which may seem trivial or irrelevant, but they will all illustrate how evolutionary biologists make our discoveries. I realize that very few of you will become professional evolutionary biologists, but whether you become a medical professional, a biomedical researcher, a teacher, a forensic detective, or a zookeeper, I hope that when you think about biology, you will think like an evolutionary biologist.

Exams: There will be two exams, on Tuesday, March 17, and Tuesday, May 12. The second exam will cover material from the entire semester. Study guides, with lists of topics to be covered and some example questions, will be linked below. Each exam will be worth 20 percent of the total grade. The grades will not be curved.

Term papers: You will write two papers on evolutionary topics. The first must be at least 12 pages long, and it must cite at least 25 references. This will count for 35 percent of your grade, broken down as follows: topic choice, 2 percent; initial reference list, 4 percent; outline, 4 percent; finished paper, 25 percent. You must turn in your topic choice on February 19, turn in the initial reference list on March 3, turn in the outline on March 10, and turn in the final version on April 14. See the instructions for the big paper here.

The second paper must be at least 5 pages long, and it must cite at least 12 references. This will count for 15 percent of your grade. It will be due May 7. See the instructions for the little paper here.

Other homework assignments: There will be some additional homework assignments, worth a total of 10 percent of your overall grade. The first will involve literature research, and the others will probably be computer simulations of evolutionary processes using Excel spreadsheets. I have tentatively scheduled four of these assignments, but the number of assignments and their due dates may change; I will let you know when I update the syllabus.

Turning in assignments: You should turn in assignments in class on the day they are due. If you will not be in class that day, bring the assignment to my office (322 Wolf) before class and slide it under my door if I'm not there. If you have printer problems, car problems, illness, etc. on the day an assignment is due, e-mail the assignment to me before class time, then turn in the printed copy as soon as possible. You must turn in a printed copy; I will not grade the e-mailed copy, I will just use it to establish that you were done on time. If you make substantial changes between the e-mailed copy and the printed one, I will penalize you for lateness, based on when you gave me the printed copy.

Picking up exams and assignments: I will try to return graded exams and assignments in the first class following the due date, but I can't guarantee I'll always be able to. I will bring unclaimed items for a couple of lectures after that.

Integrity: If you copy another student's work or cheat in some other way on an exam, you will receive an F for the course. See the term paper instructions for the policy on plagiarism.

Grading philosophy: I view grades as a form of communication, a way for me to tell others (your future employers or schools you apply to) how well you have learned the skills and concepts this class is teaching you. An "A" is my way of saying, "Dear person of the future: this person took my Evolution class and learned everything I wanted them to learn." If I were the world's best teacher, every student would learn everything, and the grade roster for this class would have 40 A's on it. That is my goal. I will not grade on a curve; I see no reason that there should be mostly C's and B's, with a few A's and D's for symmetry, and just enough F's to prove that I'm tough. If everyone does well on the exams and term papers, everyone will get an A; if everyone does poorly, everyone will get an F. So far, I have not been the world's best teacher; in most years, the proportion of students who earn A's is fairly small. I'll try to make this year different. Please help me by asking for my assistance if you have trouble understanding the material or doing the assignments.

Grade scale: A 93-100; A- 90-92.9; B+ 87-89.9; B 83-86.9; B- 80-82.9; C+ 77-79.9; C 73-76.9; C- 70-72.9; D+ 67-69.9; D 63-66.9; D- 60-62.9; F 0-59.9.

Students who are less than 3 points below the minimum grade needed for their program (such as an undergraduate biology major with 67 to 69.9 points) will be given the opportunity to take an incomplete grade and complete an extra credit project. This project will be a lot of work, such as writing another 12-page term paper on a topic of my choice. Upon satisfactory completion of the project, you'll get the minimum grade needed for your program (such as C- for undergraduate biology majors). There will be no other extra credit.

Attendance: You are not required to attend the lectures, and your class participation will not affect your grade. However, because almost all of the material on the exams will come from the lectures, you will find it very difficult to do well in the class if you don't attend the lectures; I recommend getting the lecture notes from someone else if you have to miss a class. If you have a valid reason to miss one of the exams, let me know as soon as possible so that we can schedule a makeup exam. Note that I do not consider having other exams on the same day to be a valid excuse.

Classroom rules: On some days, we will be doing in-class exercises using computers; I will mark those days on the syllabus and send an e-mail reminder the day before. If you have a laptop or tablet, you should bring it on those days; if you don't have one, you'll be able to share with a classmate.

If we are not doing an exercise in class that requires a computer, you may not use laptops, tablets, smartphones, or other electronics. I find that it is distracting for the students around you if you are looking at your computer instead of paying attention to the lectures. If I see you using such devices, I'll assume you're looking at porn and mock you accordingly.

Office hours: I will not have formal office hours; if you'd like to talk to me, e-mail me to set up a time when we can meet. I will try to get to class a few minutes early, in case you have any quick questions. I teach another class at 2 p.m. so I'll only have a few minutes for questions after class; I apologize if I have to rush off.

zOMG, when u e-mail me, pls spell teh words lik a grownup. kthxbai.

Tentative schedule: This is a tentative schedule of lecture topics; check back here for updates as the semester progresses.

Day Date Topic Events
Tuesday Feb. 10 Introduction; why study evolution?
Determining the age of stuff: radiometric dating, etc.
Thursday Feb. 12 Getting started on the term paper: literature research
Bring your laptop
Tuesday Feb. 17
More on fossils
Homework 1 due: Literature research
Thursday Feb. 19 Systematics Topic choice due for big paper
Tuesday Feb. 24 Systematics and the comparative method  
Thursday Feb. 26 Development, vestigial structures  
Tuesday March 3 Mutation Initial reference list due for term paper
Thursday March 5 Snow day--no class!  
Tuesday March 10 Random drift Bring your laptop
Thursday March 12 Selection: Theory Bring your laptop
Outline of term paper due
Tuesday March 17 Selection: visible characters Second homework assignment due
Thursday March 19   First exam; see the study guide and the answers.
Tuesday March 24 Selection: molecular evidence  
Thursday March 26 Recombination and sex  
Tuesday March 30 --- Spring Break
Thursday April 2 --- Spring Break
Tuesday April 7 Adaptations: survival  
Thursday April 9 Adaptations: sexual  
Tuesday April 14 Species and speciation Big paper due
Thursday April 16 More on speciation  
Tuesday April 21 Human evolution: fossils  
Thursday April 23 Human evolution: DNA  
Tuesday April 28 Human evolution: present and future Bring your laptop
Thursday April 30 Applied evolution Fourth homework assignment due
Tuesday May 5 Origin of life  
Thursday May 7 Biology education vs. creationism Little paper due
Tuesday May 12   Second exam
Thursday May 14 Return exams;
Miscellaneous questions about evolution;
Yummy evolution-themed snacks

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