What is Evolutionary Biology?

Evolutionary biology is one of the hottest topics in science. It’s got everything you want: sex, drugs, food and so much more!

In a nutshell, it’s the study of the process of evolution. It’s concerned with the origins of life, and the diversification of life forms, both plants and animals, over time.

For example, over many generations ostriches and emus evolved to have larger bodies and feet made for running on land, which left them without the ability (or need) to fly. The same goes for penguins, who traded typical wings for swim-friendly flippers over many thousands of generations.

An example of plant evolutionary biology is that onions make us cry due to the Lachrymatory factor, which evolved as a defense mechanism. It protects onions against microbes and animals like us. Damaging an onion basically causes it to ramp up its defenses: as cells break, the chemical reaction is unlocked.

While the evolution and diversification of animals and plants is no doubt interesting, the juicy stuff really happens when we look at human evolutionary biology.

Most of us know that humans and apes both developed from the same apelike ancestor, and that we have a lot in common. If you look at our vestigial organs, like our tailbone and wisdom teeth you’ll get a stark reminder of our evolutionary past. But what you might not realise is that a lot of our behaviour is also rooted in our past.

Some of our most puzzling questions about human behaviour can be answered by studying evolutionary biology. Why are some people fat and others thin? Why are certain physical features deemed beautiful and others aren’t? Why do we have chemistry with some people and not with others?

These are the types of questions that evolutionary biologists like Rob Brooks have dedicated their career to answering. Rob is a professor of Evolution at the University of New south Wales, where he mostly writes about the evolution of mate choice, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death.

At UNSW he also runs research group, the Sex Lab, where he and his collaborators explore the evolutionary and ecological consequences of sexual reproduction. He is also especially interested in the interactions between evolution and economics, the evolution of human life histories, the reasons for sex differences in aging and longevity, the unfolding obesity crisis, the relationship between evolution and equity feminism, the evolution of human bodies, the purpose of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and what we can and cannot infer about morality from studying the natural world.

In 2011, New South Books published his first book Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World, in which Rob ilustrates how evolution stands alongside economics, anthropology, psychology and political science in shaping our world.

In his second book, Artificial Intimacy: Virtual friends, digital lovers and algorithmic matchmakers, Rob answers questions about what our future may hold when our evolutionary past crosses paths with new technologies such as AI and sex dollbots.

Steven Pinker had this comment about the book:

“In this fascinating exploration of the past, present and future of sexuality, Rob Brooks shows how new technologies can expose ancient features of human nature."

Interested in these topics? Let’s be real, who isn’t. Sign up for Sex, Genes & Rock ’N’ Roll: How Evolution Shaped the Modern World, a four-week live and online course that will get you up to speed on all things evolutionary biology. Taught by Rob Brooks.