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Lesson summary for:
What does it mean to be human?


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In this set of advanced lessons, students use different types of data to infer/interpret phylogenies among domains, within the vertebrates, and within primates while reflecting on how they answer the question “What do you think it means to be human?” and choose a characteristic that changed substantially in the human family tree to develop a scientific argument based on evidence for when the character evolved.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Grade level:

8 50-minute class periods

Teaching tips:
These lessons were designed for AP biology, but would work for college students as well. A condensed lesson sequence is available.

Correspondence to the Next Generation Science Standards is indicated in parentheses after each relevant concept. See our conceptual framework for details.

  • Biological evolution accounts for diversity over long periods of time.

  • Through billions of years of evolution, life forms have continued to diversify in a branching pattern, from single-celled ancestors to the diversity of life on Earth today.

  • Present-day species evolved from earlier species; the relatedness of organisms is the result of common ancestry.

  • Similarities among existing organisms (including morphological, developmental, and molecular similarities) reflect common ancestry and provide evidence for evolution.

  • Science focuses on natural phenomena and processes.

  • A hallmark of science is exposing ideas to testing.

  • Scientists can test ideas about events and processes long past, very distant, and not directly observable.

  • Our understanding of life through time is based upon multiple lines of evidence.

  • Scientists use multiple lines of evidence (including morphological, developmental, and molecular evidence) to infer the relatedness of taxa.

  • Evolutionary trees (i.e., phylogenies or cladograms) portray hypotheses about evolutionary relationships.

  • Evolutionary trees (i.e., phylogenies or cladograms) are built from multiple lines of evidence.

Teacher background:

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