Dr. Frances White, professor of Anthropology 173

Dr. Frances White, professor of Anthropology 173 and department head of Anthropology, in the Primate Osteology Lab at the University of Oregon. (Dana Sparks/Emerald)

Winter registration opens this week and with that comes another opportunity to sign up for Anthropology 173 — the Evolution of Human Sexuality.

While it is often affectionately referred to as “the sex class” by past students, the course explores the evolution of human sexuality beginning with a dated hypothesis.

“The hypothesis is very simple,” says Dr. Frances White, professor of ANTH 173 at the University of Oregon. “It says that humans evolved as a monogamous species because of the high degree of investment needed for infants. What’s often called ‘love,’ evolved in humans to keep the male’s presence and investment in that offspring.”

Dr. White started working at UO in 2001 and has since taught ANTH 173 for 15 years. She is a biological anthropologist and behavioral ecologist, as well as the Anthropology department head.

Over the term, she, a few GEs and over 500 students in class evaluate this hypothesis through an evolutionary framework. If this sounds like a lot of science already, that’s because it is. In order to properly dissect the monogamy hypothesis, a great portion of the class is spent studying non-human primates. Students seem to get thrown off by so much of the class being devoted to primates’ sexuality as opposed to humans’.

“It’s an introductory, science credit class,” said Dr. White. “Remember that introductory doesn’t mean easy. In fact, taking something new can be really challenging. We’re trying to help students to think like scientists.”

The prospect of thinking like a scientist might be daunting to those who aren’t science majors and are simply looking to fulfill requirements. However, Dr. White’s head GE Colin Brand tells non-science majors not to worry — there is something for everyone, regardless of what aspect of human sexuality one might feel drawn to studying.

Brand has assisted or taught the class online and in-person ten times over the past four years. He is a trained biologist and anthropologist with an emphasis in primatology. Like Dr. White and ANTH 173, much of his work is centered around bonobos, a primate.

While the class does not dive into contemporary sexuality like a psychology or women and gender studies course might, the course still sheds light on the sexual behaviors that happen around us everyday.

“A lot of students are expecting to talk about what sex looks like in the U.S., but, actually, we go back in time; we look at other species and we look at other groups of people,” said Brand. “This allows for a better appreciation for the fact that humans are built to be super adaptive. It also opens people’s eyes to the world — beyond monogamy in the United States.”

Because the class focuses on different evolved sexual behaviors in humans around the world, it also counts as multicultural credits.

Despite geographic location, the evolution of human sexuality seems to have produced undeniably interesting mechanisms and behavioral occurrences. One example is the hypothesis of concealed ovulation in humans.

This suggests that males can’t sense ovulation in females, which serves the larger purpose of ensuring male investment, a necessity to offspring survival. The idea is based on the idea that ovulation without overt physical indicators inspires more male investment in their offspring because it is essentially more costly in time and effort to achieve conception when a male can’t time sex around peak fertility.

Physical displays of ovulation in other species often are accompanied by less male investment. Typically speaking, males would mate more widely with multiple females displaying their fertility. Because there is more investment over a longer span of time in concealed ovulation, it becomes more important for a male to assist in assuring his offspring’s survival.

However, the hypothesis of concealed ovulation in humans is highly debated. In ANTH 173, students explore arguments against it that suggest that human males can sense ovulation — even if only subconsciously.

“I jokingly tell my students, ‘You guys have superpowers that you may not be aware of,’” said Brand. “Humans are amazing for a number of reasons. In terms of variety in our abilities, we are like almost no other species.”

In order to study human sexuality, it is necessary for students to step outside of themselves. This begins to explain why non-human primates are studied so extensively and why bonobos are so important to this research.

“People approach human sexuality with the assumption that it’s unique, and therefore hard to explain from an evolutionary perspective,” said Dr. White. “This is because you don’t have situations where it’s evolved under other circumstances.”

Studying primates assists in building a framework to understand the circumstances that led to the evolved sexuality that humans have today. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to isolate these circumstances to humans alone since humans have adapted nearly everywhere on the planet.

The class is roughly broken up into three parts. The first few weeks are spent adapting to scientific thinking — this will serve as the foundation for the rest of the class. Then the curriculum will move on to studying a variety of non-human primates and their behaviors.

While learning about non-humans, students are gaining the needed perspective to look at humans — the third and final portion of the class. After dissecting the monogamy hypothesis, students will begin to build up the remaining data with help from Dr. White and GEs like Brand, to propose a new hypothesis: that humans are not inherently monogamous.

“An incentive to take the class is that you’re going to learn something about yourself,” said Brand.

Photojournalist and Sex and Relationships columnist

Dana is a photojournalist specializing in long-format storytelling — particularly regarding gender and social justice topics. She is the Daily Emerald Sex and Relationships columnist. This is her third year at the Emerald.


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