Cropped photograph of a guinea pig

I'm a mammal, you're a mammal: but what is a mammal?

At a glance:

  • Evening Class
  • Wednesdays 18:00 - 20:00
  • 9 weeks: October to December
  • 2 hours taught time per week
  • Tutor: Liam Drew
  • Fees from £95 to £178
  • Location: Imperial College, South Kensington Campus

On this course we will be taken on an illuminating and enjoyable journey centred on a seemingly simple question - what is a mammal?

As mammals ourselves, we might think we know all about our own class of animals. But this course might lead us to some surprising discoveries. We will look at how mammals are defined, how they evolved and the similarities between different mammal species as well as their crucial differences. We will discover the evolution of milk, warm bloodedness and the burgeoning mammalian brain, and examine the emergence of sophisticated teeth, exquisite ears, and an elaborate reproductive biology, plus a host of other mammalian innovations. Entwined in all of this will be tales of zoological peculiarities and personal reflections on how being a mammal has shaped the tutor’s life. 

The course offered is aimed at complete beginners, and so no previous knowledge or experience of biology, zoology or any other science subject is necessary to join this class. The class aims to be an enlightening, fun and sometimes irreverent investigation into our own animal family.

Course Information

Course Programme

Week 1 – A brief history of life. 

A potted history of life on earth looking at the major transitions that occurred between life’s origins and the emergence of our first mammalian ancestors, then what’s happened since.

Week 2 – Mammalian Taxonomy and the Platypus

A history of attempts to classify mammals – starting in the 1750s with Carl Linnaeus and moving through to the present day, with a special discussion of how the discovery of the duck-billed platypus in 1799 threw taxonomy into chaos.

Week 2 – Reproduction - Mammal Style 

A survey of how mammals breed and reproduce, which highlights a number of mammals’ most defining characteristics.

Week 4 –Sex and genes: from Y chromosomes to the Placenta

This week we focus on genetics, examining how it explains the origins of the Y chromosome – and the genetic basis the mammalian sexes – plus how paternal and maternal genetics play a critical role in shaping the evolution of the placenta.

Week 5 – Linking the Generations – Milk and Other Parental Investments

Mammals are named for their having mammary glands – this week we explore the evolution of these structures and the remarkable baby food they make. Milk is a fundamental link between generations of mammals – and the bonds it created between mothers and offspring also fostered many other intergenerational exchanges. 

Week 6 – Mammals big brains and the sense that feed them.

The folded grey matter that coats a human brain is an emblem of intelligence – but human brains aren’t structurally that unique. That grey matter – the cerebral cortex is a mammalian invention; we’ll look at where it may have come from as well a looking at the sensory worlds of mammals.

Week 7 – Warm Blood

Although birds are warm blooded too, endothermy – to give warm-bloodedness its more accurate name – is fundamental to mammalian life. However, scientists still aren’t sure how and why endothermy evolved. This week we’ll look at the various theories.

Week 8 – What is a mammal? 

This week we’ll think big and ask what then is a mammal?  How do all the pieces we’ve discussed this term fit together?  Is it possible to successfully define a mammal without just saying “an animal with fur and warm blood that grows up drinking milk”?

Week 9 – What the future holds

Biologists agree that we are now living through a mass extinction event – our species, Homo sapiens, is killing other species at an alarming rate.  In this final session we will look at the data underpinning this claim and discuss our moral obligation to the natural world and what the future might hold for mammals and all other life forms. 

Additional Reading and Credit Information

There is no compulsory reading required for this course, and there is no set course text.

No academic credits are available for this course. An attendance certificate is issued only to those who attend at least 80% of the taught sessions.

About Your Tutor

Photograph of Liam DrewLiam Drew is a science writer and former neurobiologist.  He writes regularly for Nature and has also written for The Guardian, Slate, New Scientist, Aeon, and BBC Wildlife. I, Mammal: The Story of What Makes Us Mammals (Bloomsbury) is his first book. His academic career was spent researching brains at UCL and Columbia University, New York.

Course Fees and Rate Categories

HoursWeeksStandard RateInternal RateAssociate Rate
18  9  £178    (Early Bird rate: £162*) £104    (Early Bird rate: £95*)
£137    (Early Bird rate: £126*) 
* The Early Bird rate is available for enrolments made before the end of  30 September for courses starting in October   |   All fee rates quoted are for the whole course.
Term dates 1

Fee Categories and Discounts

Standard Rate

  • Applicable to all except those who fall under the Internal Rate or Associate Rate category, respectively.

Internal Rate

  • Applies to current Imperial College students and staff (incl. Imperial NHS Trust, Imperial Innovations, ancillary & service staff employed on long-term contracts at Imperial College by third-party contractors).
  • Current Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (CLCC) staff, current CLCC PhD students, Science Communication (Sci Comm) postgraduate students, and students enrolled on an Imperial College 'Language for Science' degree programme should email evening before completing the online enrolment form.

Associate Rate

  • Students (non-Imperial College)
  • Alumni of Imperial College and predecessor colleges and institutes
  • City & Guilds College Association members
  • Members of the Friends of Imperial College
  • Francis Crick Institute staff, researchers and students
  • Friends of the South London Botanical Institute
  • Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
  • Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council staff
  • Harrods staff
  • Historic Royal Palaces staff
  • Natural History Museum staff
  • Science Museum staff
  • Victoria and Albert Museum staff
  • Royal Geographical Society staff
  • Royal College of Art and Royal College of Music tutors and other staff
  • Santander Bank staff (Imperial College Walkway branch only)
  • Austrian Cultural Forum staff
  • Staff of Exhibition Road Cultural Group (Discover South Kensington) organisations
  • Lycee Charles de Gaulle staff
  • Tutors and other staff of other universities and higher education institutions
  • Tutors and other staff of institution members of the Association of Colleges
  • Residents of postcodes SW3, SW5, SW7, SW10 and W8
  • Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
  • Members of the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI)

Late enrolment

It is possible to enrol on many CLCC Evening Class and Lunchtime Learning programmes after the course has started. For non-language courses this is subject entirely to agreement by the tutor. For language courses it is subject to agreement by the language Coordinator conducting level assessment. If you want to join a course late do bear in mind there might be work you will need to catch up on, particularly in language courses.

Applicable terms & conditions

Please read the  before enrolling on any course.

Term Dates

HoursWeeksAutumn termSpring termSummer term
 18  9 14 Oct - 12 Dec 2019 (9 weeks) n/a n/a

Enrolment Process

Web enrolment starts 1 August

Enrolment & payment are through the Imperial College eStore. Please use above booking link noting below instructions:

  • Our rate categories are explained on this page and your applicable category must be selected on the eStore
  • First-time eStore users please create an account by entering an email address and password. These credentials should also be used for future bookings. Imperial College users please note the eStore is not a single-signon College system
  • The booking process involves entering payment details before your course choice and applicant details are queried on an in-built questionnnaire which completes the process
  • The following email notifications will be sent
What is sentWhen is it sentWhat does it contain
1. Payment confirmation Instantaneously following submission of your online application
  • Confirms your payment, date of payment and order number
  • Should not be treated as a course-enrolment receipt and therefore does not show your course however these details are sent to us via the system
2. Enrolment confirmation Sent in due course but likely not before the end of September. Please treat your payment confirmation as confirmation that your applicant details and payment have been received
  • Confirms your course choice
  • Shows the programme your course is part of as well as the term dates
  • Confirms your course' day of the week & time
3. Programme information Usually sent Friday late afternoon the week before term starts
  • Contains further course details incl. classroom location and teacher contact information
  • Provides further general programme details
If you need further help with the above information please ring 020 7594 8756

Certificate of Attendance

Our adult education evening and daytime classes do not offer academic credits, but we do offer an attendance certificate to those learners who attend at least 80% (7) of the taught classroom sessions. Eligible learners receive their certificate by email after the end of the course.

Any Questions?

Questions regarding the content and teaching of this course should be sent to the course tutor, Liam Drew at

If you have enjoyed this course, why not look at other arts and humanities evening class courses at Imperial College. This includes courses on the history of western art from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century, Understanding Modern and Design, the history of film and cinema and Greek and Roman mythology in art. We also run practical courses in art and photography and creative writing classes, and a growing programme of science based evening classes.