Human Reproductive Ecology BIO A 568 (Spring 2004)

Darryl J. Holman
235 Denny Hall

Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Final | Links


Human reproductive ecology is investigation of human fertility over cross-cultural and ecological contexts. This course takes a so-called "proximate determinants" approach to human reproductive ecology. The course is a mix of life history theory and anthropological demography, and covers both behavior and biology.

The major features of the human reproductive process will be considered using a combination of demographic, physiological and evolutionary approaches. The principal focus of the course will be so-called natural fertility, i.e. fertility in the absence of modern methods of birth control. Emphasis will be placed on accounting for the range of variation in natural fertility in the human species as a whole, and on assessing the roles of physiological, behavioral, and environmental factors in regulating reproductive output. Special attention will be given to the design of field studies of reproductive ecology in "anthropological settings" (i.e. outside of clinical settings, and usually among near-natural fertility populations). Finally, human reproduction will be examined in its larger ecological and evolutionary contexts.


Tuesday and Thursday, 01:30-02:50 p.m. in 305 Parrington.

Office hours

By appointment.

Textbooks and readings

There are two textbooks for this course. These should both be available via online used book sellers: (1) Wood, JW (1994), Dynamics of Human Reproduction: Biology, Biometry, Demography published by Aldine de Gruyter. The book is available in a hardcover edition (ISBN 0-202-01179-8) and a less expensive paperback edition (ISBN 0-202-01180-1). The second book is Ellison PT (ed.) (2001) Reproductive Ecology and Human Evolution, published by Aldine de Gruyter (ISBN 0-202-30657-7 cloth, ISBN 0-202-30658-5).

The organization for the first eight weeks of the course largely follows the Wood book. The last two weeks of the course will consist of student presentations of chapters out of the Ellison text.


Your course grade will be based on two problem sets (15% each) and two 30 minute presentations (25% each), and a short papers (6-10 pages, 20%).

Problem sets

The problem sets will include some analytical problems as well as short written answers. I encourage you to work in groups on the problems, and you are free to use books, readings, notes, and web pages to help you work on problems. In part, the problems will test your ability to do the work in a limited amount of time. Therefore, grades for late problem sets will depreciate by 10% per day, including any fraction of a day late. For example, if you would have gotten a 95% on the problem set, it depreciates to 85.5% for being one day late, 77% by for 2 days late, and so on. Problem sets are due by the beginning of the class period, one week after being handed out.


Each student will make two presentations out of the Ellison text. Each presentation will cover one chapter of the Ellison book. For the most part, you will be able to select the chapters of greatest interest to you. You should plan on incorporating newer material from the anthropological, demographic and biomedical literature into your presentation as well. The idea for the presentation is to (1) present a summary of the chapter, (2) fit the material into the bigger context of this course (i.e. address the big questions, measurement issues, etc.) and (3) provide a state-of-the-art update to the chapter using newer scientific literature.

Each presentation will be 30 minutes. Two student presentations will be done per class period.

Short paper

A short (6-10 page) paper is required on one of your topics. The goal, of course, is for you to immerse yourself into the more recent literature on reproductive ecology, biodemography, biological anthropology, biomedical sciences and other relevant fields. Papers are due on the last day of finals week by noon.

Topics and schedule

Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Final | Links

Week 1

  • Apr 2: Course Intro. Wood chapter 1.
  • Apr 4: Natural fertility. Wood chapter 2.
  • overheads

  • Week 2

  • Apr 9: Frameworks for analyzing fertility.
  • Apr 11: Ovarian cycles. Wood chapter 3 and 4.
  • overheads

  • Week 3

  • Apr 16: More ovarian cycles, Conception, implantation and pregnancy. Wood chapter 5.
  • Apr 18: Endocrine methods in reproductive ecology. Wood & Campbell appendix.
  • Problem set 1 distributed
  • overheads

  • Week 4

  • Apr 23: Pregnancy loss. Wood chapter 6.
  • Apr 25: Pregnancy loss II
  • overheads

  • Week 5

  • Apr 30: Fecundability. Wood chapter 7.
  • May 2: Fecundability and Pregnancy loss. Ellison Chapter 1.
  • overheads
  • more overheads
  • Even more overheads
  • Problem set #1 due Apr 30.

  • Week 6

  • May 5: Breastfeeding. Wood chapter 8
  • May 7: Postpartum infecundability. Wood chapter 8
  • overheads
  • more overheads
  • Problem set #2 distributed May 5.

  • Week 7

  • May 12: Menarche and menopause. Wood chapter 9.
  • May 14: More menopause and sterility. Wood chapter 10.
  • overheads

  • Week 8

  • May 19: Marriage and the male contribution. Wood chapter 11.
  • May 21: Extensions and elaborations. Wood chapter 12.
  • overheads
  • Problem set #2 is due May 21

  • Week 9

  • May 26, 28. Student Presentations 1, 2, 3, 4
  • overheads

  • Week 10

  • Jun 2, 4. Student Presentations 5, 6, 7, 8

  • Finals Week

  • Papers due Friday, Noon (Email your papers or turn them in at my mailbox

  • Other stuff

  • pdf version of the syllabus
  • Some other links