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A New History of Life

A New History of Life

Professor Stuart Sutherland, Ph.D.
The University of British Columbia

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A New History of Life

Course No. 1520
Professor Stuart Sutherland, Ph.D.
The University of British Columbia
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4.8 out of 5
52 Reviews
94% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1520
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What Will You Learn?

  • Delve into biostratigraphy and see how it led to the geological time scale that revolutionized earth science.
  • Learn how the earth's oceans originated, where the oldest rocks on the planet are located, and more.
  • Investigate the missing link between fish and four-limbed vertebrates by studying Coelacanth and Tikataalik.
  • Discover clues that suggest an extraterrestrial impact caused a cascade of catastrophe 65.5 million years ago.

Course Overview

Life is stranger than fiction. Recent investigations hint at episodes in the history of life on Earth that rival the most imaginative movies. For example: Could our planet have been seeded with life from elsewhere? Did the development of life create conditions that threatened to poison the biosphere? How have natural forces conspired, over and over, to remove most traces of life from the planet? And how has life itself responded with determination to survive and thrive in a multitude of astonishing forms?

The story of our world and the different living things that have populated it is an amazing epic with millions of species both familiar and strange, exotic settings, planet-wide cataclysms, and surprising plot twists. Humans are only the latest characters in this long-running drama, which has always been utterly unpredictable, since periodic mass extinctions are inevitably followed by life rebounding in unexpected ways. Indeed, life and the planet have developed together, each driving the evolution of the other.

Equally intriguing are the details of how scientists know what they do about the past. It is a detective story as riveting as any forensic thriller, with paleontologists and geologists taking the most unassuming pieces of evidence—a bit of fossil bone, a sequence of layers in rock, a geochemical test—and reading a rich narrative of past events. And by drawing on tools from other disciplines, such as biology, meteorology, and astrophysics, the scenes they describe can be truly monumental in scope, encompassing the entire Earth and even phenomena beyond the planet.

This multidisciplinary effort to understand Earth as a whole, as a system composed of many interacting parts, is called Earth system science, and it has given us an unprecedented understanding of the planet and the unfolding panorama of life.

A New History of Life tells this all-embracing story of life on Earth—its origins, extinctions, and evolutions—in 36 lavishly illustrated lectures that assume no background in science. At half an hour per lecture, you cover the entire 4.54-billion-year history of Earth in 18 hours, averaging 70,000 years per second! Professor Stuart Sutherland of The University of British Columbia gives a gripping account, showing why he is an award-winning and nationally recognized teacher.

Cycles of Ruin and Renewal

Professor Sutherland notes that if the story of Earth is compared to the height of the Washington Monument, then all of human history is the thickness of a sheet of paper balanced at the top. He devotes most of A New History of Life to the incredible happenings beneath that piece of paper. The events before humans arrived on the scene include stirring episodes such as these:

  • Snowball Earth: More than half a billion years ago, Earth apparently plunged into a frozen state, with the world almost completely iced over. According to some theories, this snowball phase should have been permanent and life eventually extinguished. But something saved the planet.
  • Cambrian explosion: Before the start of the Cambrian period, life was mostly unicellular. Then complexity soared in an explosion of genetic diversification. The major new phyla and weird evolutionary dead-ends are recorded in the fossils of the renowned Burgess Shale in British Columbia.
  • Age of giant insects: During Earth’s coal-forming phase in the Carboniferous period, dragonflies had 30-inch wingspans and cockroaches reached 20 inches in length. What caused the big bugs? The storage of atmospheric carbon in what became coal deposits may have played a crucial role.
  • Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction: The dinosaurs and more than half of all other species were doomed after a six-mile-wide asteroid struck Earth 65.5 million years ago. The initial blast, shock wave, flying debris, fires, and tsunami were just the beginning, as the biosphere went into a cascade of failures.

By the time you reach the origin of humans in Lecture 35, you will appreciate our species in the widest possible context. The rapid burst of evolution in the Cambrian explosion, half a billion years ago, produced innovations that we share with other creatures, such as eyes, teeth, and skeletons. The first vertebrates—animals organized on a central backbone like ours—appeared tens of millions of years later, and the first humans only comparatively recently. With our distinctive bipedal posture, consciousness, and language ability, it may seem that our evolution represents a triumph over other complex vertebrates. But you may be surprised by our probable descent from hard-pressed primates driven into increasingly marginal ecological niches.

A Story Full of Surprises …

A New History of Life gives you the conceptual tools to follow the ever-shifting plot in the story of life on Earth. You cover in detail the following fundamental ideas and much more:

  • Fossils: Fossils are the petrified remains and traces of former living things. Without them, we would be clueless about the immense variety of life in the past. Fortunately, fossils are abundant—from single-celled organisms to animals weighing many tons. However, their record is biased toward creatures with hard parts.
  • Stratigraphy: Major episodes in Earth’s history are visible in the layers, or strata, of sedimentary and volcanic rock laid down through time. In the early 19th century, geologist William Smith established the basis for reading sequences of rock strata. Biostratigraphy is the use of distinctive fossils to date rock formations.
  • Cladistics: One of the recent revolutions in paleontology is cladistics, a rigorous approach to drawing the tree of life. By focusing on the shared characteristics between organisms, scientists can more accurately determine who is related to whom, and where the branching points were in the evolution of different species.
  • Plate tectonics: Earth’s ceaselessly moving crustal plates play a crucial role in the character of the biosphere. During periods when the continents are widely dispersed, such as today, biodiversity is high. Intervals when the continents collect into a supercontinent see a massive drop in global biodiversity.

… and Bold and Exciting Theories

Since its beginnings, paleontology has been renowned for bold theories, exciting analysis, and sweeping revisions of old ideas. In A New History of Life, you experience the thrill of scientists searching for answers to questions such as these:

  • Why does the Earth have continents? A feature of the biosphere that we take for granted is not easily explained. Probe the tectonic forces that first produced islands and then cobbled them together into continents.
  • What causes periodic mass extinctions? Mass extinctions appear to occur about every 26 million years. Scientists speculate that comet swarms, the rotation of the galaxy, or some other extraterrestrial effect is the cause.
  • How did animals move from water to land? The search for the missing link between aquatic and land-dwelling animals recently turned up a lobe-finned fossil fish called Tiktaalik, which has many of the features of a four-footed animal.
  • What are the oldest fossils? Fossils of blue-green algae colonies 3.5 billion years old have been found in Australia. Some researchers believe that a meteorite from Mars may also contain ancient bacteria-like microfossils.

An intriguing feature of this course is that it ventures into forgotten and often neglected areas of paleontology. One of these branches is microfossils, a wondrous realm that happens to be Professor Sutherland’s specialty. Another is invertebrates, which represent more than 90% of all creatures, past and present.

Illustrated by thousands of illuminating, entertaining, and often otherworldly images, A New History of Life is a visual feast, with pictures reinforcing every milestone in the 4.54-billion-year journey from a nascent planet to now. Professor Sutherland notes that he was first drawn to paleontology because, of all the sciences, it is the most narrative. The rock strata with their fossils really are like the pages of a book, he says, “holding the secret to ancient Earths long since vanished.”

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36 lectures
 |  29 minutes each
  • 1
    The Interconnected Earth
    Begin the story of life on Earth with an overview of the unifying idea that will govern your exploration. Called Earth system science, this approach views Earth as an integrated network comprising the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. Sample the complex interactions between these realms. x
  • 2
    The Vast Depths of Earth Time
    How was the great antiquity of Earth discovered? Survey the observations that led to the concept of deep time and, in the process, developed the tools that can read the story in rocks. End with a striking analogy that puts human time into perspective x
  • 3
    Fossil Clocks
    Delve into biostratigraphy, the study of fossil sequences in rock strata. The discovery that different layers of rock are characterized by distinctive fossils solved the problem of correlating sedimentary strata from different regions. This led to the geological time scale, initiating a revolution in Earth science. x
  • 4
    Paleontologists as Detectives
    Learn how paleontologists interpret fossils to reconstruct the traits and environments of extinct life forms. Examine some of the pitfalls of the field, including cultural biases that can lead to doubtful conclusions, such as that Tyrannosaurus rex was as terrible as depicted in the movies. x
  • 5
    The Shifting Surface of Planet Earth
    The history of science is marked by ideas that were before their time. One of the most important was Alfred Wegener’s concept of continental drift, which was revived in the theory of plate tectonics. Explore the role that fossils played in this original grand unifying theory of geology. x
  • 6
    Earliest Origins—Formation of the Planet
    Turn back the clock to Earth’s earliest epoch, focusing on these questions: How did the solar system form and why do we live on a layered, differentiated planet? What do these events and the formation of the moon have to do with the evolution and development of life on Earth? x
  • 7
    Origins of Land, Ocean, and Air
    Investigate the origin of Earth’s ocean. Then track down the oldest rocks on the planet, which shed light on the first continents. Also explore the nature of Earth’s primordial atmosphere and why we are surrounded by a thick blanket of air despite periodic blasts of charged particles from the sun. x
  • 8
    The Early Chemical Evolution of Life
    Probe possible scenarios for the origin of life, from the “warm little pond” filled with organic compounds that Charles Darwin envisioned, to deep ocean environments energized by volcanic vents. Sharpen the search by defining the properties that the earliest life must have had. x
  • 9
    Hints of the First Life Forms
    Did Martian meteorites seed the young Earth with simple life forms? Investigate this intriguing hypothesis. Then embark on a quest for Earth’s oldest fossils, exploring their connection to organisms still found on the planet today, some of them hidden deep within the crust. x
  • 10
    How Life Transformed the Early Earth
    Trace the perils of life on the early Earth. Having survived a seething period of volcanism and a withering bombardment by asteroids, bacteria-like organisms flourished and began to transform the planet. Learn how their success was almost their undoing. x
  • 11
    Snowball Earth—Another Crisis
    Follow the clues that suggest Earth went through a snowball phase around 635 million years ago, nearly ending life’s story. How did it happen? How was it reversed? And above all, how did photosynthetic life survive if it was trapped beneath the ice for millions of years? x
  • 12
    Metazoans—Life Grows Up
    Make the transition to multicellular life, which grew in complexity as oxygen levels increased in the atmosphere, supporting creatures with more intricate metabolisms. This portion of the fossil record long eluded paleontologists, partly because few expected to find signs of life in ancient Precambrian rock. x
  • 13
    Incredible Variety—The Cambrian Explosion
    The Cambrian period is notable for its immense variety of animals with many different body plans. In an explosion of diversification, shells, teeth, eyes, and other innovations emerged as creatures competed in an evolutionary arms race. Investigate the key factors driving this transformation. x
  • 14
    Window to a Lost World—The Burgess Shale
    In1909, paleontologist Charles Walcott chanced on one of the most remarkable fossil finds in history: the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies. Tour some of this quarry’s astonishing specimens, which brought the world of the Cambrian explosion to vivid life. x
  • 15
    The Forgotten Fossils in Earth’s Story
    Survey fossils that are often neglected in popular accounts of the history of life. Begin with corals and the reefs they build, which were teeming with invertebrates hundreds of millions of years ago. Then turn to micropaleontology, which is one of Professor Sutherland’s research areas. x
  • 16
    Introduction to the Great Mass Extinctions
    Earth’s fossil record is punctuated with episodes when large fractions of all species abruptly disappeared. Examine the distinction between background extinction and mass extinction. Then look for factors that lead to these periodic catastrophes, and search beyond Earth for a possible explanation. x
  • 17
    The Collapse of Earth’s First Eden
    Five mass extinctions have occurred in the last 500 million years. Focus on the first of these, which extinguished the tropical paradise that flourished in the Ordovician period. Did plate tectonics initiate this radical transformation? Or could the cause have been extraterrestrial? x
  • 18
    Making the Break for Land
    Consider the adaptations needed to make the transition from the buoyant, nourishing realm of water onto the perilous dry land, with its temperature extremes and relentless pull of gravity. Plants and animals each evolved unique adaptations to make this daring leap. x
  • 19
    Getting a Backbone—The Story of Vertebrates
    Search for the earliest vertebrates, which arose from chordates—animals with a rod-shaped notochord. Also probe the mystery of an extinct chordate called the conodont, which is valuable in oil exploration. Finally, discover why we have calcium phosphate skeletons. x
  • 20
    The Evolution of Jaws
    The first vertebrates were easy targets for killer arthropods and other marine predators. What eventually gave them the upper hand? Trace the circuitous evolution of jaws and the rapid development of fish that followed. Also crucial was the internal skeleton, which has some surprising advantages. x
  • 21
    These Limbs Were Made for Walking?
    How did vertebrates make the leap from water to land? Follow the quest for evolutionary transitional forms for land-dwelling vertebrates, focusing on the competing theories of gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. The answer to the puzzle may lie in a transitional environment between water and land. x
  • 22
    Tiktaalik—The Search for a Fishapod
    Hunt for the fishapod—the missing link between fish and four-limbed vertebrates, or tetrapods. Begin by investigating some “living fossils,” including the celebrated Coelacanth. Then join the expedition led by paleontologist Neil Shubin that discovered Tiktaalik, a fossil fishapod that made worldwide headlines. x
  • 23
    Carboniferous Giants and Coal
    Most of the world’s coal deposits were laid down in the Carboniferous period, about 300 million years ago. Tour the global environment that created this unique formation and spawned many evolutionary innovations, including the amniotic egg. Also, discover why insects were much larger then than today. x
  • 24
    Amniotes—The Shape of Things to Come
    Search for the origin of amniotes, which are egg-laying tetrapods, such as reptiles. Delve into the history of classification systems for life. The Linnaean system is based on resemblances between organisms. Learn why the more recent cladistic system, based on shared characteristics, implies that there is no such thing as a reptile. x
  • 25
    Permian Extinction—Life’s Worst Catastrophe
    Examine the full extent of the cataclysm that swept Earth 251 million years ago. Called the End-Permian extinction, the event left a chilling fossil record. Survey the clues that show land and ocean ecosystems collapsing, wiping out 95% of all plants and animal species. x
  • 26
    Finding the Killer—The Greenhouse Earth
    Track down the smoking gun for the End-Permian extinction. Whatever was behind it plunged Earth into an intense greenhouse effect, turning the land into desert and throwing marine ecosystems into a death spiral. Probe a diverse range of theories before settling on the probable cause. x
  • 27
    The Dinosaurs Take Over
    From the reptile populations that struggled through the End-Permian extinction, the dinosaurs ultimately emerged. What conditions promoted their evolution and eventual domination of the biosphere? And what other living things shared the planet with these paleontological celebrities? x
  • 28
    Letting the Dinosaurs Speak—Paleobehavior
    How accurate are portrayals of dinosaurs in today’s media? Learn what the fossil record says about how dinosaurs actually looked and lived. Also, probe the theory that dinosaurs were warm- rather than cold-blooded, which has important implications for their behavior. x
  • 29
    Conquering the Air—The Evolution of Flight
    Take to the air to discover how creatures evolved the ability to fly. Insects made the leap first, aided by their small size. Feathered dinosaurs are thought to be the progenitors of birds. Unravel the avian link to dinosaur species such as Archaeopteryx and Microraptor. x
  • 30
    Monsters of the Deep—Mesozoic Oceans
    Plunge into the oceans of the Mesozoic era, 251–65.5 million years ago, discovering that some creatures look familiar, while others are incredibly alien. The descendants of one monster of the Mesozoic, the plesiosaur, supposedly survive today in Scotland’s Loch Ness. Weigh the evidence for and against these reports. x
  • 31
    The Cretaceous Earth—A Tropical Planet
    Conditions in the mid- to late-Cretaceous were unusually tropical worldwide, with very high sea levels. As a test case in modeling ancient climates, study factors that may explain this remarkable episode in Earth’s history. Also explore what it meant for life to exist in a global hothouse. x
  • 32
    The Sky Is Falling—End of the Dinosaurs
    Study the most famous mass extinction of all: the disappearance of more than half of all species, including the dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65.5 million years ago. Follow the clues that suggest an extraterrestrial impact caused a cascade of catastrophes. x
  • 33
    The Collision of North and South America
    By the extinction of the dinosaurs, the continents were closing in on the configuration they have today—except North and South America had not yet joined. Tour the distinct flora and fauna of South America before its isolation ended with the land bridge to the north. x
  • 34
    The Rise of Mammals and the Last Ice Age
    Mammals evolved at the same time as the dinosaurs but did not come into their own until well after their much larger competitors went extinct. Trace the rise of mammals and their domination through a series of glacial cycles, including the present interglacial period. x
  • 35
    The Humble Origins of Human Beings
    Bearing in mind that humans are a transitional species, not the climax of creation, chart our humble origins and the source of our most distinctive feature: a large brain. Study the fossil record to learn which came first: a big brain or bipedal posture. x
  • 36
    The Conscious Earth
    Close your exploration of the history of life on Earth by charting the evolution of consciousness. When did our progenitors first become self-aware, and what were the implications for the success of humans as a species? Finally, what are our prospects for spreading the biosphere beyond Earth itself? x

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Stuart Sutherland

About Your Professor

Stuart Sutherland, Ph.D.
The University of British Columbia
Dr. Stuart Sutherland is a Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia (UBC). Raised in the United Kingdom, he earned an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of Plymouth and a Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from the University of Leicester for his studies on Silurian microfossils called chitinozoa. Professor Sutherland discovered his passion for...
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A New History of Life is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 51.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best Great Courses Programs This is probably one of the best courses offered. The lecturer has a unique ability to insert 'British Humor' into a topic which may be dry to some but fascinating to others. This is a course that may induce anyone to take a interest in the biologic systems of the past.
Date published: 2017-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great courses We very much enjoyed the course. The Professor has an amiable presentation style.
Date published: 2017-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A new history of life. Wonderful lectures I watch and listen on my iPhone while working out on a stationary bike or the elliptical and I have a smile on my face the whole time. Professor is great! He loves his subject and it is bringing the evolution of our world into clearer focus. Great course!
Date published: 2017-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course! It's very descriptive and clear. I appreciate every moment of it.
Date published: 2017-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2016-12-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2016-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A New History of Life This course is absolutely fascinating, I really enjoyed it but don't think it should be sold as a CD audio course. I ended up purchasing it a second time for the visual content.
Date published: 2016-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview of the history of life on earth This is an altogether excellent course presented by an excellent instructor. It presents a complete and thorough overview of the history and development of life on earth, including some of the recent discoveries and hypotheses. It brings in information and background from many different areas of the world of science. I would highly recommend the course for anyone who is looking for a comprehensive overview of the many complexities that we call Life on Earth.
Date published: 2016-08-04
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