Skip to content

ACE2474 Implications for Evolution: Your Ancestry and You (on campus only)

Started 6 Feb 2024

Sorry! The enrolment period is currently closed. Please check back soon.

Full course description


Course Overview:

This six-week short course on implications of our evolution will explore the mind awake and asleep, the body, sociality, diet & drink, how these were adapted, with emphasis on health and welfare. It is unique as while evolution is widely taught and accepted, the implications are not.


Course Practicalities:

Classes will be delivered on Tuesdays, 7:00-9:00pm for six weeks 6th of February to 12th of March 2024, with one guided half-day fieldtrip to Fota Wildtrip Park (date tbc).

Venue: Western Gateway Building, Room G04, UCC


Closing date for applications: Monday 29th of January 2024



Course Content:

Our world is the result of evolution. And we dominate that world. Humans are the ultimate ecosystem engineers, facilitating us and descendants.

But we no longer see Darwinism as code for life being nasty, brutish and short. Rather we are seen as domesticated, intensely social and apes.

For example, physical illnesses are in effect often efforts at getting well, fevers for example are an attempt to slow down the pathogens using raised body temperatures. Mental illnesses are often a result of trying to adapt and escape, the effects of societies’ hierarchy and domination.

We evolved in a variety of habitats with different adaptations among our groups. This variation needs to be nurtured and cherished. Ones’ favoured time for sleep, personality, and physical abilities, are all variable.

As hunter-gatherers,  humans lived in small mobile groups, for 300,000 years. The adaptations which allowed us to do this are beginning to be understood. They are sometimes surprising, and unexpected.

Such archaeology should be taught, as our hunter-gatherer past has much to teach us.

Our bodies are those not of a savage beast, but of a nimble, fast, domesticated, deeply social primates. Our minds are deeply biased towards dark things, preoccupied by hierarchy, rank and status, and adding to, acquiring, yet we retain an ability for calm, good, and immense curiosity. 

We also effectively out bred and eliminated all our sibling’s species, and slaughtered as we dispersed a large part of the world’s megafauna, especially in places like Madagascar, Australia New Zealand and America.

Like many domesticates we bred with local species and sometimes gained genetic adaptations.

We are animals that became apes. Our forebearers were fruit eating, bipedal animals, which left forest habitat. We are, swift, domesticated, apes, with heads adapted by diet, society and large brains. Our bodies adapted to running, cooked diets and milk and then water.

Conflict shapes us and our world.  How do other primates especially the two species of chimpanzee cope with conflict. Types of violence; proactive and reactive. We are prone to the latter. As Richard Wrangham puts it ‘we love our children, quarrel over lovers, worry about gossip, look for allies, jockey for power, trade information, fear strangers, plan parties, embrace ritual, and rarely very rarely get into fights’. Why ?

While our bodies are naked and weak, we lack big teeth and claws, but we make up for this in smartness and weapons. Diet and feeding habits that reflect this.

 Life is complex, often difficult and hard to understand. One way of aiding our understanding is to accept that we evolved. That we are creatures created by natural and sexual selection. You cannot do anything to change the past, but we can try to understand it.

Week 1:Introducing Evolution and Human Evolution

We and all animals, plants, indeed life, are products of natural selection. Such natural selection leads to evolution. It is a two-stage test, first is survival and the second is to breed successfully. Selection sometimes favours animals that domesticate themselves and make their environment better for their species. We arose in East Africa from a period of great change, survived due to our ecological flexibility and are the ultimate ecological engineers. We broke out of Africa with advantages socially and in health, and interbred with other humans, to conquer the world. The wipe out of other species and megafauna is part of this ecosystem engineering.

Week 2:The Evolved Mind Awake and Asleep

We do not understand the mind, but being aware it evolved is useful, and especially useful as a tool for avoiding conflict and helping social life. Its primary function is to prevent us being prey and then to help provide food, drink and shelter – and fit in. It seems odd that almost half our lives are spent in sleep, immobile and vulnerable, but for us, like all animals, sleep provides vital but as yet not fully understood services. Its provision at a ‘home site’ was a key process in our evolution.

Week 3:The Evolved Body: Selection, and Shape.

We are an almost naked, upright, bi-pedal animal, an ape. The idea that we are an animal is central to the evolutionary idea, and the relationship with monkeys was what bothered the Victorians and especially Darwin who realised how badly this would go down among his peers. As we live in groups and have a fixed site a ‘home-site’ we are at risk from many parasites that would thrive when in crowds of humans. Any adaptation that lessens parasites and the diseases they carry would have been selected. Hence nakedness. We are also designed to run, throw projectiles, and constantly communicate. 

Week 4: The Intensely Social Ape

Evolution requires survival and reproduction, best achieved in a group. Indeed, small groups of people under 50 individuals would have problems surviving, especially given the competitor predators in Africa. Fire but above all large numbers saved us from such predators and no doubt allowed us to eliminate the opposition. Living in groups also has costs. The requirements of communities and of sex have encouraged domestication and lowering levels of violence.

Week 5: Our Diet and Drink

Our origins are in fruit consuming primates, and then meat, probably mostly scavenged. But fire and the cooking it provided allowed us shorter guts and more time for stuff other than hunting and gathering, but at the very heart of our diets is opportunistic foraging and constant need for water. Equally important is the absence of eating.

Week 6: Applying the Implications

The variation found needs to be accepted. Applying evolutionary ideas to disciplines such as medicine, veterinary and social sciences has proved useful and will continue to be so. There are ways in which the study of evolution can be applied to individuals and groups.


Saturday Fieldtrip to Fota Wildlife Park. A half-day fieldtrip to Fota is included in the course. The trip date will be decided once the group meets in class. The aim to the fieldtrip is to principally but not entirely to see other primates and their morphology and behaviour. The trip will be lead by Dr Sleeman. 


Course Lecturer:

Dr Paddy Sleeman was an undergraduate student when E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene and Elaine Morgan’s Descent of Woman appeared, which had a major impact at that time. He read these and other relevant literature, and tried to ascertain what are the implications for us, for our families our friends, and social life. The more recent work of Daniel Lieberman and Richard Wrangham has turbo charged our understanding in a way that can now lead us to draw some better informed implications.

He has worked on the colonisation of Ireland since his PhD in the 1980s.The puzzles of this complex topic that crosses expertise in archaeology, zoology, plant science and ecology.

As a student he came across the second Mesolithic archaeological  site at Mountsandel near Coleraine, in Northern Ireland. This was, at that time, the first evidence of human colonisation of Ireland by hunter gatherers.

His subsequent friendship with Professor Peter Woodman who excavated Mountsandel has resulted in them editing three volumes on the colonisation of Ireland.

He also wrote with Pat Smiddy Irish Wild Mammals, a guide to the literature 3rd edition (2011) and Irish Wild Mammals, a guide to the literature 4th edition (2016), as well as many scientific papers and notes. He studied badgers and bovine tuberculosis for many years, and facilitated the development of BCG as a vaccine for badgers. In particular the use of island populations in research on the vaccine.

Paddy has a masters from University College, Dublin and a Ph.D. from University College Cork. Awarded the Mammal Society Gold Medal in 2015 for his research contribution. He has worked in New Zealand, Tanzania, Madagascar and South Africa. He has worked at University College Cork for many years in teaching and research.


Entry Requirements:

Applicants must be at least 18 years old at course commencement.

Contact Details for Further Information


Please note our refund policy as follows
100% refund  if student cancels before course commencement
100% refund if student's course is cancelled due to insufficient numbers. 
If the student cancels after the first week of the course - full refund minus €50 processing fee