Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts

Center forHuman Evolution and Diversity

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 – Associate 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 and 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 – CHED Co-Director and Evan Pugh University Professor 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

Recent News

Recent News

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. (2020). Teaching evolution in U.S. public schools: A continuing challenge. Evolution: Education and Outreach 13(1), 14.

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.”

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Gates hoping to inspire love of STEM through genealogy

By Jesse J. Holland
October 30, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. hopes to trigger a love for science, technology and math among American students by turning them on to searching for their family roots.

Gates, the Harvard University scholar and host of a genealogy show on PBS, and fellow researchers from Spelman College and Pennsylvania State University recently received a $355,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create a genealogy and genetics summer camp for middle school children, as well as a $304,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for college-level courses.

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

By The Root Staff
October 31, 2015

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.

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