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Headliners: December Edition

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Tells Us about Modern Life


Who: Dr. Marlene Zuk, professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota

When: Thursday, December 4, 7 p.m.

WhereContinuing Education and Conference Center, St. Paul campus, University of Minnesota

: $15 


Have human beings in modern society stopped evolving? Are our bodies and brains at odds with contemporary life? In other words, have we somehow freed ourselves from evolution?

Today, it seems everyone is fond of paleofantasies, stories about how humans lived eons ago, and we use them to explain why many elements of our lives, from the food we eat to the way we raise our children, seem distant from what nature intended. One need only look at the self-help industry’s output of books predicated on the notion that our behavior and bodies evolved under a certain set of circumstances—circumstances from which we deviate at our peril. Implicit in this idea is the assumption that we are no longer evolving, or at the very least, that evolution requires so much time that we can’t expect to have adapted to our current circumstances.

But popular theories about how our ancestors lived—and why we should emulate them—are often based on speculation, not scientific evidence, and they reflect a basic misunderstanding about how evolution works. "In fact," says biologist Dr. Marlene Zuk, "there was never a time when everything about us—our bodies, our minds, and our behavior—was perfectly in synch with the environment."

While her own research is dedicated to evolution and behavior in insects, not people, Zuk states that recent discoveries in evolutionary biology indicate it’s time we rethink how evolution has affected human life and that this is something a basic grounding in evolutionary reasoning can help us do.

"My work on crickets showed me that evolution can happen extraordinarily quickly in the wild, something that has implications for other living things, including people. I am perpetually asked if a certain behavior (eating meat or being attracted to members of the same sex, for example) is ‘natural.’ Answering those questions requires an understanding of how we view our past."

Join Dr. Zuk on December 4, when she will lead a discussion about some of the recent discoveries in evolutionary biology that can help us rethink how evolution has affected human life.

Dr. Marlene Zuk, is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, where teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on a diversity of topics, including the popular seminar “What’s the Alternative to Alternative Medicine?” Zuk’s research uses insects as subjects, and focuses on animal behavior and evolution. She is interested in the ways that people use animal behavior to think about human behavior (and vice versa), as well as in the public’s understanding of evolution. A biologist and author, she has written numerous scientific articles for periodicals such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle for Higher Education, and Natural History magazine. In addition, she has published four books for a general audience, including Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals (University of California Press, 2002); Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are (Harvest Book, 2008); Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), which received a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” citation; and most recently Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and the Way We Live (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).

Expert discussions on timely topics.
Hear it here, as it happens.

Headliners, the University of Minnesota's popular current events series, is your chance to meet, once a month, with University and community experts as they share firsthand knowledge of today's newsworthy topics. From medical breakthroughs and culture clashes to social trends and foreign affairs, you'll discuss what's making the headlines.

Join us, for the 2014–15 season, from October through May (no event in January) to dive into timely topics and ask questions in a moderated Q&A. 

Dates: October 9, November 6, December 4, February 5, March 5, April 2, May 7
Time: 7 p.m.
WhereContinuing Education and Conference Center, St. Paul campus
Cost: $15     

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