Satellite view of Barcelona, Spain


Throughout the course, we will post readings mentioned in class or those that we think are aligned with our scientific interests. NOTE: Though many of our links will be to the original source literature, I will also draw liberally from the tremendous work of science journalists such as David Quammen, Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong. I have followed all of them closely and when they write about areas I am close to, they almost always have it right, though of course they express a point of view.


Week 1

  • This Has Been the Best Year Ever by Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times. (2019) Required Reading: Each year Nicholas Kristof ends the year with his assessment of how we are doing. His articles are an interesting reminder of the different sides of the ledger seat on humans, their impacts and their own well being.

  • SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) By The Numbers by Yinon M. Bar-On, Avi Flamholz, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo. (2020) Required Reading: This snapshot gives a one-page reference for important numbers related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Our goal in this course is to generate a similar document to summarize the human impact on the planet.

  • The Gapminder Test by The Gapminder Team (2018) Required Reading: Take this quiz before you do anything else. Don’t google anything, don’t talk to anyone - when you see this posting, go to the website and spend the 5 minutes to take the test. Record your answers, we will discuss this in class.

  • Bill Gates tweeted out a chart and sparked a huge debate about global poverty by Dylan Matthews at Vox (2019) Required Reading: This article gives an indication of the difficulty of our topic. Even questions about facts spawn indignation. We will try to be cognizant of the ways in which political vision insinuates itself into discussions of facts.

  • Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Self-Serving Optimists Like Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker by Roland Paulsen at In These Times (2019) Required Reading: This is a second example of the extremely polarizing views that emerge in discussing the state of the world.

  • Supplementary Information for “SnapShot: Basic Numbers For Cell Biology” by Yinon Bar-On, Ron Milo, and Rob Phillips. (2010) Required Reading: This is a model for how I want us to assemble our data on all the key numbers we examine in the context of human impacts. We should have a HIID (Human Impact Identification Number), an explanation of the value, how it was measured, quote the original source where the number was reported and if possible, comment decisively on the uncertainty.

  • The Biomass Distribution on Earth by Yinon Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo. (2018) Required Reading: This paper takes a deep dive into quantifying the biomass of our planet. To reach our conclusions, we carefully reviewed myriad data sets related to the flora and fauna of the planet and were dilligent with assessing their accuracy.

  • More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas by Caspar A. Hallmann, Martin Sorg, Eelke Jongejans, Henk Siepel, Nick Hofland, Heinz Schwan, Werner Stenmans, Andreas Müller, Hubert Sumser, Thomas Hörren, Dave Goulson, Hans de Kroon (2017)

  • Alien species pathways to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador by M. Verónica Toral-Granda, Charlotte E. Causton, Heinke Jäger, Mandy Trueman, Juan Carlos Izurieta, Eddy Araujo, Marilyn Cruz, Kerstin K. Zander, Arturo Izurieta, Stephen T. Garnett (2017) Recommended Reading

  • Sequential megafaunal collapse in the North Pacific Ocean: An ongoing legacy of industrial whaling by A. M. Springer, J. A. Estes, G. B. van Vliet, T. M. Williams, D. F. Doak, E. M. Danner, K. A. Forney, and B. Pfister (2003) Recommended Reading

  • How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world by Jan Willem Erisman, Mark A. Sutton, James Galloway, Zbigniew Klimont & Wilfried Winiwarter (2008) Recommended Reading

  • Global trends in emerging infectious diseases by Kate E. Jones, Nikkita G. Patel, Marc A. Levy, Adam Storeygard, Deborah Balk, John L. Gittleman & Peter Daszak (2008) Recommended Reading

Week 2

  • The Origin of Dogs: When, Where, and How Many Times Were They Domesticated? by Ed Yong at The Atlantic. (2016) Required Reading: The domestication of dogs was the first real example of human domestication of either plants or animals. There is a vast and wonderful literature on this subject that draws from archaeology and modern DNA science.  The story of Greger Larson will be one of our main touch points and this article by Ed Yong puts the latest research in perspective.

  • The Evolution of Animal Domestication by Greger Larson and Dorian Q. Fuller (2014) Recommended Reading: This excellent article gives a fuller picture of animal domestication. I especially love figure 2 which gives a timeline of animal domestication.

  • Great Transitions: The Origin of Humans by the HHMI. (2014) Required Viewing: This video from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute gives a brief but great account of the origins of modern humans.

  • Ancient DNA tells tales of humans’ migrant history by the HHMI via ScienceDaily (2018) Recommended Reading: Fueled by advances in analyzing DNA from the bones of ancient humans, scientists have dramatically expanded the number of samples studied – revealing vast and surprising migrations and genetic mixing of populations in our prehistoric past.

  • The discovery of fire by humans: a long and convoluted process by J. A. J. Gowlett. (2016) Required Reading: This article traces our understanding of the use of fire by our ancestors, with very solid evidence going back some 400,000 years and plausible arguments going as far back as 2 million years. One of the most interesting things I learned from this article was about the use of fire without really being able to control when and where it would start.

  • Divided by DNA: The uneasy relationship between archaeology and ancient genomics by Ewen Callaway for Nature. (2018) Required Reading: This article provides a very interesting view of the tensions between archaeologists and DNA scientists as they try to understand the trajectory of humans to become the stewards of the modern earth.

  • A Molecular Time Scale For Human Evolution by A. C. WIlson and V. M. Sarich (1969) Recommended Reading

  • The Molecular Genetics of Crop Domestication by John F. Doebley, Drandon S. Gaut, and Bruce D. Smith. (2006) Recommended Reading

  • Humans As The World’s Greatest Evolutionary Force by Stephen Palumbi. (2000) Recommended Reading

  • Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth by James A. Estes, John Terborgh, Justin S. Brashares, Mary E. Power, Joel Berger, William J. BOnd, Stephen R. Carpenter, Timothy E. Essington, Robert D. Holt, Jeremy B. C. Jackson, Rober J. Marquis, Lauri Oksanen, Tarja Oksanen, Robert T. Paines, Ellen K. Pikitch, William J. Ripple, Stuart A. Sandein, Marten Scheffer, THomas W. Schoener, Jonathan B. Shurin, Anthony R. E. Sinclair, Michael E. Soulé, Risto Virtanen, and David A. Wardle. (2011) Recommended Reading

Week 3

  • Prediction, Prevention and Remediation of Soil Degradation by Water Erosion by Joel B. Gruver. (2013) Required Reading: This website gives an overview of some of the issues surrounding soil degradation and agriculture. One of the claims made here that I have now heard more than once this week talking to the professionals in the field is that humans have become a great agent moving around earth: “Natural erosional processes occur most intensively in mountainous regions (Figure 2) and generate approximately 20 gigatons of sediment annually (Wilkinson and McElroy 2006). In comparison, human geomorphic activities, principally agriculture, construction and mining mostly occur at lower elevations and annually move more than 100 gigatons of earth materials (Hooke 2000). Humanity has surpassed the timeless contest between uplift and erosion as the dominant agent of geomorphic change.”

  • Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdents of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States by Gidon Eshel, Alon Shepon, Tamar Makov, and Ron Milo. (2014) This great paper gives a deep and thorough analysis (see the SI as well) about the resources needed to fulfill our animal-based diets. Required Reading

  • The impact of humans on continental erosion and sedimentation. by Bruce H. Wilkinson and Brandon J. McElroy. (2007) This paper is one of the key sources on humans and erosion. Required Reading

  • Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability by David R. Montgomery (2007) This paper is one of our key sources for thinking about soil and agriculture. Required Reading

  • Global Fishery prospects under contrasting management regimes by Christopher Costello, Daniel Ovando, Tyler Clavelle, C. Kent STruass, Ray HIlborn, Michael C. Melnychuk, Terevor A. Branch, Steven D. Gaines, Cody S. Szuwalski, Reniel B. Cabral, Douglas N. Rader, and Amanda Leland. (2016) This paper gives an overview of the status of our fisheries. Required Reading

Week 4 - Big Picture

  • Global warming debates - a guided reading course by Eli Galanti (2019) This course has many interesting topics for your consideration. I highly recommend you watch the introductory videos (and try to be in a receptive mood just to learn about the range of views out there). In general, this course acknowledges the difference between ignorance and skepticism and as I told you at the beginning, our first order of business is to try and get our facts as straight as we can without coming to those facts with an agenda. Then, it would be great to start noting the different hypotheses set forth to explain the facts that have been settled.

Week 4 - Sea Level Rise

Week 4 - Freshwater Use

  • Freshwater Withdrawals in the United States by USGS (2020) This site from the USGS provides a very interesting view of our freshwater use. As I have pointed out, my hope is always to have estimated the numbers before looking at the data and this is the kind of data that we will appeal to in light of our order-of-magnitude thinking.

Week 5

  • California’s Methane Super-Emitters by Riley M. Duren, Andrew K. Thorpe, Kelsey T. Foster, Talha Rafiq, Francesca M. Hopkins, Vineet Yadav, Brian D. Bue, David R. Thomson, Stephen Conley, Nadia K. Colombi, Christian Frankenberg, Ian B. McCubbin, Michael. L. Eastwood, Matthias Falk, Jorn D. Herner, Bart E. Croes, Robert O. Green, and Charles E. Miller. () One of the topics we will consider this week is the trace gases in the atmosphere such as CO2 and methane. This extremely interesting paper describes measurements over California of individual point sources of methane such as landfill, natural gas tanks and dairy manure management posts.

Week 6

Week 7


Week 2

  • DNA Evidence of Dog Domestication by Greger Larson. (2016). Recommended Viewing: Greger Larson is one of the principal figures thinking about the domestication of dogs. This excellent podcast explains the special relationship humans have with their canine partners. One of the most interesting hypotheses described here is that wolves self-domesticated.

  • Dog Tales Follow the epic journey of dog domestication and see what science says about dogs’ love. by NOVA (2020). Recommended Viewing: A superb NPR video on the domestication of dogs. One of the most amazing parts of this video is when they travel the long running (60 year) experiment on domesticating foxes and high artificial selection on behavior had the unintended side effect of producing foxes with white chests, floppy ears and wagging, curled tails.

  • Unlocking Evolution by Allan Wilson (2015). Recommended Viewing: Allan Wilson will be one of the main heroes in this week’s discussion and this excellent set of two videos give a clear impression of this great man and his achievements. Highly recommended.

  • Stones, Bones, and Genes: The Origins of Modern Humans by Tim White (2012). Recommended Viewing

  • Your Inner Fish, Episode 3: Your Inner Monkey by Neil Shubin and PBS. (2014). Recommended Viewing. A point relative to our lecture this week begins at 21:00.

Week 7

Useful links

  • Our World in Data This is one of the most important questions we will address in this course is how to judge different data sources, whether about the number of proteins in a bacterium or the number of sharks killed each year to make shark fin soup. This website will serve as a jumping off point for some of our studies.

  • Media Bias Fact Check This website claims to check the veracity of the posts on websites as well as to rate whether that data is presented from the standpoint of a political agenda.

  • The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme This website is another provocative source of data on human impacts that we will try to draw from and examine critically.

  • The Bionumbers Database This website is a database for numbers of interest for biology. Our aim is to generate an analogous website for human impacts.

  • Cell Biology by the Numbers This is an online version of a textbook dissecting biological phenomena in the same spirit as we will dissect human impacts.

  • How many photons does it take to make a cyanobacterium? Here is one example of a vignette from “Cell Biology by the Numbers” which presents a question, a succinct bit of background, and an estimate. We hope to see your vignettes be made in the same style, though submitted as a PDF.

  • How many virions result from a single viral infection? A timely vignette from “Cell Biology by the Numbers” where a simple estimate of a viral burst size is made.