Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts

Center forHuman Evolution and Diversity


Historically studies in neuroscience have presented their findings regarding how the brain works as universal to all humans, whereas studies in anthropology have focused on the great cross-cultural diversity in behavior and thought. Furthermore, studies of the human brain and mind are typically conducted with samples that are highly unrepresentative of the global population. Therefore, in order to truly understand the functions of the brain and mind across the spectrum of human diversity, it is necessary to integrate theory and methods from anthropology, psychology and neuroscience.

Elizabeth Losin, Associate Professor of Biobehavioral Health


There is an urgent imperative to unbias human microbiome studies across the diversity of all of us to solve the major challenges relating to health disparities and inequities. More precise and personalized approaches must take into account microbial influences on and responders to our lived experiences. Without a sense of urgency and mission, the generalizability of microbiome findings across populations will be limited and likely generate new cascading health disparities.

Seth Bordenstein, Director of the Microbiome Center, Professor of Biology and Entomology


Reconstructing human ecosystems of the past and their evolution provides not only a window into the past but helps us better plan for the future. We can use information from our ancestors to improve our lives tomorrow.

Laura Weyrich, Associate Professor of Anthropology

state-college-shenanigans-61 Cropped

Quite simply, the only way we will make meaningful progress in solving “wicked problems” of today and tomorrow is to take a holistic approach, drawing upon both depth and breadth of expertise from multiple disciplines and recognizing the importance of diverse perspectives and experiences.

Jennifer Wagner – Assistant Professor of Law, Policy, and Engineering


One of the strongest evolutionary influences on humans has been largely invisible: microbes. Interdisciplinary approaches that incorporate evolution, microbiology, genetics, physiology, and more are necessary to reveal how we interact with microbes and how these trans-kingdom interactions affect both evolution and health.

Emily Davenport – Assistant Professor of Biology


Our history of conquest, colonization, and massive forced migration has created a profound and long-lasting social and cultural legacy, and these actions also left a genomic legacy. Transdisciplinary research is necessary to fully appreciate human diversity, to combat health inequity, and to advance wellbeing for everyone.

Zachary Szpiech – Assistant Professor of Biology

David Puts Headshot

"No factor is more fundamental to human variation than biological sex, and its importance to our health and well-being is becoming increasingly appreciated. A transdisciplinary approach rooted in evolutionary principles is the surest path to understanding the development of sex differences and how these processes contribute to human diversity and influence our lives."

David Puts – CHED Co-Director, Professor of Anthropology

Mark Shriver Headshot

"Our Center is important for two reasons: 1) There are many interesting questions yet to answer about human evolution and physical, behavioral, and genetic variation, and 2) There seems to be a continuing divide between what anthropologists know and how they think about human evolution and diversity and how the general public and academic colleagues in other fields think about these topics."

Mark Shriver – CHED Co-Director, Professor of Biological Anthropology

Nina Jablonski Headshot

"Human beings are products of rich and complex interactions between biology and culture that have developed over millions of years. Human evolutionary history informs our understanding of human behavior and culture, and vice versa. Examining only one side of this set of reciprocal interactions risks missing the plot entirely."

Nina Jablonski – Atherton Professor, Evan Pugh University Professor Emerita of Anthropology

Heather Toomey Zimmerman Headshot

“Bringing together multiple disciplines to understand how people learn and reason about complex topics such as human evolution is important for today’s schools, museums, and other educational settings. The Center offers multiple perspectives of how research in this area is conducted, which will enhance young people’s views of how scientific knowledge is developed and of human diversity.”

Heather Toomey Zimmerman – Associate Professor of Education

Peter Hatemi Headshot

"If we are to make any headway in fighting diseases, reducing inequalities and the internecine fighting that appears to emerge so endemically when resources are scarce, values differ, and political approaches conflict, we must utilize multiple approaches, methods, be transdisciplinary and take into account the nature of human diversity, at every level, from our genes to our social identifications."

Peter Hatemi – Professor of Political Science

Eric Plutzer Headshot

"For problems ranging from infectious disease to racial tensions in American cities, understanding that evolution matters but that genes are not deterministic and differ in their effects depending on social behavior and environment is a powerful way to better understand and solve many human challenges. Interdisciplinary research holds great promise for using our knowledge of evolution effectively to improve the human condition."

Eric Plutzer – Professor of Political Science

David Almeida Headshot

"A transdisciplinary study of human evolution and diversity not only helps us understand how and why we became who we are, it is necessary for determining how we function day-to-day. My research examines the effects of biological and self-reported indicators of daily stress on health. How we experience and respond to daily life challenges is intricately tied to the evolution of human diversity."

David Almeida – Professor of Human Development and Family Studies



CHED faculty member Dr. Jennifer Wagner awarded NIH grant to study ethical, social, and legal implications of emerging biomedical technologies.

December 2023

The two year project, lead by Dr. Wagner and Dr. Sara Gerke, has been awarded $441,100 from the NIH Office of the Director and Natioanl Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Project summary: Efforts to transform medicine from a reactionary, trial-and-error endeavor to an anticipatory, evidence-based endeavor referred to as “precision medicine” have been underway for several years. Concurrently, efforts also were undertaken to promote patient-centered “learning healthcare systems” (in which scientific research informs the delivery of healthcare and healthcare influences research) and to modernize the applicable ethical, legal, and regulatory frameworks in order to accelerate biomedical innovations. Novel biomedical technologies (including AI-driven robotic surgical technologies, bionic technologies such as the artificial pancreas systems for type 1 diabetes, and bioprinting of organs such as hearts) are advancing rapidly. Yet there are a wide range of ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) that remain under-examined and call into question whether existing laws, regulations, and ethical guidelines are adequate for ensuring that these technologies are safe, effective, equitable, and privacy-preserving (while not unethically or unlawfully obstructing patient access to their own health information or hampering the research, development, and realization of the full potential of “mix and match” biomedical technologies tailored to each individual’s needs and preferences). In this exploratory project, we seek to examine the data practices, data privacy, data access, and data justice issues (Aim 1); examine regulatory pathways and identify regulatory gaps (Aim 2); and examine liability risks (Aim 3) related to the development and use of three technologies in healthcare: robotics, bionics, and bioprinting. To do so, we will rely upon an innovative combination of bioethical, legal, and anthropological approaches involving key informant interviews with scientists/engineers and lawyers, internet research of technology developers’ website disclosures, normative bioethics and comparative legal research (comparing the US and EU regulatory frameworks), and legal research of emerging case law in four areas: products liability, medical malpractice liability, organizational liability, and intellectual property infringement. This approach could identify similarities and differences among the three technologies and also identify gaps in perceived and actual liability risks. The successful completion of this project would provide important insights that would not only lay a solid empirical foundation for subsequent empirical and normative ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) research regarding robotics, bionics, and bioprinting but also provide important insights to inform the development, and refinement of educational materials, engineering standards, research and clinical practice guidance, and institutional and public policies and procedures to help ensure the technologies’ ethical and responsible use in precision medicine.

Children’s book It’s Just Skin, Silly!, co-authored by Nina Jablonski, released

August 29, 2023

Penn State professor Nina Jablonski spent the last three years bringing the evolution of skin to life — in the form of a children’s book.

After working with University of Cincinnati professor Holly McGee and illustrator Karen Vermeulen, Jablonski published “It’s Just Skin, Silly!” in August. The book describes the evolution of human skin color.

In the book, the character Epi Dermis used “simple science and interactive activities” to show “why skin is the hardest working organ in the body business” to combat misinformation on races, according to CatalystPress.

Read more


Makova awarded Masatoshi Nei Innovation Prize in Biology

September 28, 2022

Kateryna Makova, Verne M. Willaman Chair in the Life Sciences and professor of biology at Penn State, has been awarded the Masatoshi Nei Innovation Prize in Biology. The award was established through a generous gift from Masatoshi Nei, emeritus professor of biology at Penn State and Laura Carnell Professor of Biology at Temple University, and his wife Nobuko Nei. The prize is intended to recognize a pre-eminent scientist who is on the faculty at Penn State, is an innovator in their field, and has achieved outstanding scientific research and leadership in the biological sciences.

Read more

Podcast explores the tension of teaching evolutionary science in public schools

September 8, 2022

In the season two opener of the Tracking Traits podcast, Penn State Professor of Political Science and Sociology Eric Plutzer shares some of what he has learned over a period of 15 years researching the teaching of evolutionary science in U.S. public schools. Since 2007, Plutzer and his colleagues have been conducting the only national-level surveys focused on this subject.

According to Plutzer, in public schools across the United States, teaching the science of evolution and climate change remains a fraught and divisive undertaking. Some teachers feel pressure from parents and citizens in their local school districts to “water down” the science, or present it as debatable opinion rather than fact. Others personally disagree with the science altogether, and refuse to teach according to National Academies standards, said Plutzer.

Read more

Jablonski to give HOT (Human Origins Today) Topic presentation

May 16, 2022

Nina Jablonski will present “The Evolution of Skin Tones: A Reflection of Human Adaptation and Health” in a virtual lecture for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s HOT Topic series. Moderated by Briana Pobiner, the virtual event will take place on Thursday May 19, 2022 from 11:30AM – 12:30PM EDT.

Registration is required and available here.


What should be taught about evolution, and who should decide? Results of a new poll

February 7, 2022

A whopping 90 percent of Americans think that schools should teach about the scientific evidence for the evolution of human beings, but almost half (44 percent) think that biblical perspectives on creation should also be taught, while 10 percent think that only biblical perspectives should be taught, according to a new Mood of the Nation Poll from Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

Read more

Half of Americans don’t think schools should teach about racism’s impact today

February 7, 2022

The public is divided on whether schools have a responsibility to ensure that all students learn about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism, a new national survey shows.

And as debates over how children learn about sensitive subjects bubble up across the country, Americans are also split on whether parents or teachers should have “a great deal of” influence over what is taught in schools, the survey shows. Republicans tend to defer to parents of schoolchildren, while Democrats tend to think teachers should get to decide how to teach about certain issues.

Read more

Teaching evolution in U.S. public middle schools

June 1, 2021

A new study from researchers at the National Center for Science Education and Penn State University is the first systematic attempt to investigate middle school evolution education through a representative survey of science teachers.

The survey found that middle school science teachers who teach evolution reported devoting a substantial amount of classroom time to the topic: 14.6 class hours, or about three weeks of classes, on average. In comparison, high school biology teachers who teach evolution reported devoting 18.6 hours, or about four weeks of classes, to the topic on average.

Read more

Branch, G., Reid, A., & Plutzer, E. (2021). Teaching evolution in U.S. public middle schools: Results of the first national survey. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 14(1), 8. doi:10.1186/s12052-021-00145-z

Evolution of the Y chromosome in great apes deciphered

October 6, 2020

New analysis of the DNA sequence of the male-specific Y chromosomes from all living species of the great ape family helps to clarify our understanding of how this enigmatic chromosome evolved. A clearer picture of the evolution of the Y chromosome is important for studying male fertility in humans as well as our understanding of reproduction patterns and the ability to track male lineages in the great apes, which can help with conservation efforts for these endangered species.

A team of biologists and computer scientists at Penn State sequenced and assembled the Y chromosome from orangutan and bonobo and compared those sequences to the existing human, chimpanzee, and gorilla Y sequences. From the comparison, the team were able to clarify patterns of evolution that seem to fit with behavioral differences between the species and reconstruct a model of what the Y chromosome might have looked like in the ancestor of all great apes.

Read more

Cechova, M., Vegesna, R., Tomaszkiewicz, M., Harris, R. S., Chen, D., Rangavittal, S., Medvedev, P., Makova, K. D. (2020). Dynamic evolution of great ape Y chromosomes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(42), 26273-26280. doi:10.1073/pnas.2001749117

A new NCSE/Penn State survey finds impressive gains in evolution education

June 9, 2020

Public high school biology teachers today are more likely to teach evolution — the conceptual core and organizing principle of the life sciences — as settled science than they were twelve years ago, according to a new rigorous national survey from NCSE and Penn State.

Conducted in 2019 among 752 public high school biology teachers by Eric Plutzer, a political scientist and polling expert at Penn State, the survey was designed to replicate a similar national survey that Plutzer and his colleagues conducted in 2007.

Read more

Plutzer, E., Branch, G. & Reid, A. Teaching evolution in U.S. public schools: a continuing challenge. Evo Edu Outreach 13, 14 (2020).

Nose form was shaped by climate

By A’ndrea Elyse Messer

March 16, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Big, small, broad, narrow, long or short, turned up, pug, hooked, bulbous or prominent, humans inherit their nose shape from their parents, but ultimately, the shape of someone’s nose and that of their parents was formed by a long process of adaptation to our local climate, according to an international team of researchers.

“We are interested in recent human evolution and what explains the evident variation in things like skin color, hair color and the face itself,” said Mark D. Shriver, professor of anthropology, Penn State. “We focused on nose traits that differ across populations and looked at geographical variation with respect to temperature and humidity.”

The researchers noted today (Mar. 17) in PLOS Genetics that “An important function of the nose and nasal cavity is to condition inspired air before it reaches the lower respiratory tract.”

Read more

Gates hoping to inspire love of STEM through genealogy

By Jesse J. Holland

Finding Your Roots curriculum receives $659,000 in grants; PBS series returns in Jan.

A new curriculum based on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s popular PBS documentary series, Finding Your Roots, received two grants this week: one for $355,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to create Genetics and Genealogy Summer Camps for Middle School-Aged Youth; and one for $304,000 from the National Science Foundation to establish a college program, according to a news release.

Read More