Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The Evolution of Cooperation

Offered at: Pratt Logo

Course Description:

When we describe what propels evolution, “competition” and “exploitation” are the processes that first come to mind. However, cooperation within and between organisms has also played a prominent role in the evolution of the earth’s organisms. In this course, we will consider the various levels at which cooperation has emerged as the result of natural selection, starting with single-celled organisms and building up to human cultural systems. While the course has no prerequisites, the readings and assignments will be aimed at highly-motivated students; students will be expected to conduct significant independent inquiry.

Who Might Be Interested In This Course?

Do you ever wonder how organisms have managed to increase in complexity over the course of the earth’s evolutionary history? Do you ponder whether humans are inherently selfish or inherently altruistic? Do you have an over-active sense of fairness and justice? If so, you might be interested in this course, which charts the evolutionary history of cooperation from genes to modern humans and other “superorganisms”. You will emerge from the course with a better understanding of how the conflict between competition and cooperation plays out in the living world. This is one of my most demanding courses, aimed at students with strong backgrounds in biology and high motivation. You will be asked to participate consistently in class discussions, which are often led by students. You will also be responsible for making an in-class presentation of a key concept (see Key Concept Presentaton Guidelines posted below). The Evolution of Cooperation requires a large amount of reading (see the syllabus below for details), so you should be prepared to allocate at least six hours a week to reading for this course. If you are simply looking to fulfill your Math & Science requirement, I recommend easier courses such as MSCI-260 (Evolution) or MSCI-270 (Ecology); however, if you are looking for an in-depth course that empowers you to dig deeply into a critical issue in evolutionary biology, you will be rewarded for your effort in The Evolution of Cooperation.

What Background Should I Have Before I Take This Course?

This course assumes that you have a basic understanding of evolutionary biology and strong understanding of high school-level biology. It is advised (though not required) that you take MSCI-260 (Evolution) before taking this course.

Important Course Materials:

MSCI-463 (Evolution of Cooperation) Course Syllabus
MSCI-463 (Evolution of Cooperation) Course-at-a-Glance
MSCI-463 (Evolution of Cooperation) Key Concept Presentation Guidelines

You can check out exemplary Research Projects and Term Projects on the The Evolution of Cooperation student work page. Please note that the current version of this course does not require either of these projects.

Blog posts related to this course can be found here.

This course maintains an Open Information Environment.