Evolutionary Psychology Spring 2017 (85-352)


When: Tuesday-Thursday 1:30 p.m-2:50 pm          Where: Baker Hall 336B





Dr. David Rakison


Office: Baker Hall 354N

Phone: 268-3477      


Office hrs: Tuesday. 11-12, Thursday, 11-12 or by appointment

Email: rakison@andrew.cmu.edu

Class web page: http://www.psy.cmu.edu/~rakison/epseminar.htm





    This class is intended to acquaint students with the emerging field of evolutionary psychology. Concepts and principles of human evolution will be developed in the context of classic and contemporary issues in cognitive, developmental, personality, and social psychology. The instructor will introduce the key concepts, issues, and lines of research, but in each case students are expected to take an active role in discussing and developing idea about the topic under consideration. We will examine the relevance of evolutionary thinking to a range of psychological phenomena including problems of survival, long-term mating strategies, short-term sexual strategies, parenting, kinship, cooperative alliances, aggression and warfare, conflict between the sexes, and prestige, status, and social dominance. We will also examine more briefly evolutionary approaches to development, cognition, and language.


Required textbooks:         David M. Buss (2014). Evolutionary Psychology: The new science of the mind. Fifth edition. Pearson.  


Each chapter in the Buss book presents an overview of a particular area of evolutionary psychology as it relates to humans that we will discuss each week in class. You will be required to read one chapter (occasionally, where relevant, two chapters) from the book each week. Each week there will also be a required additional reading that will provide an alternative view or supplementary detail to that presented in the book chapters. The additional readings will be available as PDFs through the class website.

Course Objectives

The purpose of this course is for you to learn about the fundamentals and specifics of evolutionary psychology. Specifically, the goals of the course are for you to learn about the following areas and to develop skills in the following areas:

(1) An understanding of the basic principles, theories, and experimental findings of scientific research in evolutionary psychology and how they are applied to the study of the mind and behavior in humans and animals

(2) Communicate an area of research to others in the class

(3) The ability to lead a class discussion

(4) A consideration of ethical issues associated with research in evolutionary psychology

(5) The ability to use the library and other resources to find out what is known about a research topic

(6) The skills to conduct an empirical project on evolutionary psychology

(7) An in-depth knowledge of a specific area of evolutionary psychology based on your research of the literature.

(8) The ability to think critically about the existing theories and empirical studies in the field


Students will prepare one review paper on a topic related to the course and a research proposal designed to investigate an unresolved issue in some aspect of evolutionary psychology. These papers must be on different topic areas. Each student is required to present their research paper to the class toward the end of the semester. Students will also take a mid-term and a final exam covering the material presented in readings and class discussion. Details regarding these requirements will be presented in class.


Review Paper


Research Proposal


Presentation of Proposal


Mid-term exam


Final Exam


Class leader


Class participation








Participation and attendance:

There is a “four strikes and you’re out” policy: If you miss more than three classes during the semester, you will be assigned a zero for the attendance component of the course. If students miss a class for a valid reason (e.g., illness) that is documented, that missed class will not count against them.


The “class participation” component will be judged across your discussion throughout the semester as well as posting of weekly questions. All I ask is that you engage in discussion as much as possible - an enjoyable and constructive seminar tends to result from the whole class (and not just one or two students) participating in the dialogue. Constructive contributions derive from coming to class well prepared, with questions and suggestions based on the readings. There is a CMU Evolutionary Psychology Facebook page for the class where you are required to post a question/idea/hypothesis/comment for each topic. These postings are important because they provide the foundation for the discussion that we will have in class. For posting, a “three strikes and you’re out” policy is in effect; that is, if you fail to post three times you automatically receive a 0 for the class participation component of the class. Posting for each discussion topic must be completed by 11.59 p.m. on the day before the class. Any postings after that time will be considered “late” and will count as a strike against you.


Because grading is not based on a curve it is theoretically possible for everyone to receive an A (or an F). The grading system for the course is as follows (Note: I reserve the right to adjust slightly this grading system at a later time):



= 90- 100


= 80 – 89


= 70 – 79


= 60 – 69


= below 60



Late Work:  Assigned work will lose 5% for each day late.  No extensions will be granted for the two written papers under any circumstances: you have over two months to complete each one and must plan your time accordingly.

Students who miss the examination without making prior arrangements will be given a zero. If you are ill, you must inform me - by phone, email, or in person – before the exam to be exempt from taking it. There are no exceptions to this rule. Any students who miss the exam, having made prior arrangements with me, will take it as soon as possible after the original test date. No matter how good your excuse, a written and fully justified explanation from a physician will be necessary for a student to miss the exam because of illness (a note that says you visited the health center is insufficient).

Cheating and Plagiarism:  Cheating and plagiarism are defined in the CMU Student Handbook, and include (1) submitting work that is not your own for papers, assignments, or exams; (2) copying ideas, words, or graphics from a published or unpublished source without appropriate citation; (3) submitting or using falsified data; and (4) submitting the same work for credit in two courses without prior consent of both instructors. Any student who is found cheating or plagiarizing on any work for this course will receive a failing grade for that work.  Further action may be taken if necessary. 


Other points:


Office hours are provided for assistance in understanding the readings, questions about exams or papers, and for general problems with the course. You do not need to book an appointment, just turn up and drop in. Try to formulate your questions before arriving so that the largest number of students can use the office hour productively. If you would like to make an appointment please contact me to arrange a time suitable to both of us. Almost without exception, the best way to contact me is via email.


Please turn up to class on time. It is distracting to me and to the other students if you arrive late (or try to leave early). If you do arrive late then please try to enter as quietly as possible. Students who arrive on time may be privy to information about the exam/papers that will not be repeated at a later date. Material discussed in class will not always be covered in the text, and material in the text will not always be covered in the class. If you miss a class, please find out from a classmate what went on in class, including the content of the discussion, handouts, assignments, and announcements.



How to do well in this class:


Completing the assigned reading and thinking about the content of the text is essential to doing well in this class. You will get more out of the class if you put in approximately 4 to 6 hours of reading (and thinking) a week. I actively encourage you to engage in discussion during the class; the more discussion we have, the more enjoyable the course will be, and the more we will all learn.


The review paper will require you to search for and read a reasonable amount of the literature in a particular area, and to think about that area in depth. The research proposal will require you to be creative and design a study to examine a novel and (hopefully) interesting area of study in the field. Both of these components will require you to write in a clear, concise, and interesting manner. A good writing style is important. The exam will be a test of your understanding of the material - not simply how much information you can remember. If you are not clear about something covered in the text or in class, ask me in office hours or bring up the topic during class hours.


Some of the material will be difficult, and we shall endeavor, as a class, to work through such material together. If you are finding the course hard to cope with, come to see me and we can discuss how to make thinks easier for you (for example, changing your study habits, note taking, working in groups).


If you are looking for extra material to read:




Psychinfo at the library


Evolution and Human Behavior Society (http://www.hbes.com/)


Behavioral and Brain Sciences (http://www.bbsonline.org/)


Other good stuff


Evolutionary Psychology journal (with free articles to read): http://journals.sagepub.com/home/evp


Rob Kurzban’s broad evolutionary psychology blog (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mind-design)


Evolutionary psychology facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/52551573343/