Sex and Evolution

Overview: Sexual reproduction is so pervasive in plants and animals that most people accept it as a basic necessity. Yet when twentieth century Evolutionary Biologists took a long, hard, quantitative look at sex, something did not compute: sex is expensive and males did not make sense, stirring a kind of neo-Darwinian crisis. After half a century of research and debate, numerous potential advantages of sex have been conjectured and tested. Sex and Evolution explores the evolutionary origins and consequences of sexual reproduction. Why do different mating types evolve? Why are there usually two (female and male) mating types? Having separate sexes drives the evolution of distinctive morphology and mating strategies in many taxa, leading to some of the nature’s most beautiful, most terrible and most absurd features. The course explores sex allocation, sexual selection and sexual conflict among multifarious other themes using, as much as possible, observations of organisms native to the spectacular Pacific Northwest. We might then dub the course “Sex on the Beach” or Sex on the Rocks”!

Research Skills: Sex and Evolution will have two main research foci. First is literature-based research and scientific writing. The course will have regular tutorial sessions for which students will contribute short written reviews and presentations. All focal material in tutorial will be less than 12 months old and drawn from the primary literature. Second, we will develop small research projects based upon readily available and local marine or terrestrial flora and fauna. These research projects will develop naturally from our field trips, lectures, discussions, and readings.

Prerequisites: A full-year introductory Biology course & third year or above standing. Background in Evolutionary Biology and Genetics is recommended.

Physical Requirements: This course does not include any physical exertion or challenge beyond that expected in any of BMSC’s field courses.

Boat Use: You will be given the opportunity to drive boats if you choose to do so. Boat driving is recommended but not required for Sex and Evolution. Students who wish to drive boats at BMSC must hold a PCOC and valid first aid certificate and will participate in an introductory boat check-out on the first day of orientation

Textbook: No text. Primary literature supplemented with selected readings from reviews, books, blogs, magazines, and so on will constitute the reference materials for the course.


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In Sex and Evolution, I aim to engage you in the study of the evolution of reproduction. Being set at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, with a small class size of 20 or fewer students, affords the opportunity to embed the course in local biota: on land, in the sea and in the air to expand the learning experience. And this will also allow individual students to focus in on the reproductive biology of a particular species, or group of species, via a hands-on project and project write up.

As other major goals of the course, we hope to promote critical thinking about scientific endeavours and improve your comprehension of scientific literature and your own writing skills. To these ends the course uses a mixture of lectures, interactive tutorials, and written projects. In particular, we ask you to translate scientific research from original published papers into lay terms as a presentation and a broadly-readable grant proposal.

By the end of the course, you should have:

  • A solid understanding of evolutionary principles that can be applied broadly to the biotic world.
  • An understanding of the paradoxical nature of sexual reproduction and the potential benefits of sex.
  • An appreciation of the extraordinary diversity of reproductive systems and how they influence organismal behaviour.
  • Improved research, writing and presentation skills.
  • A ridiculous number of weird biology factoids to relate to friends and family members.
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