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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
54 Reviews
92% 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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Your professor

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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Reviews

A New History of Life is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 54.
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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much more than expected This comprehensive History of Life was a tremendous value! It included biology, physics, chemistry, and every other life-science in an easily understood format. Dr. Sutherland is an exceptional teacher, combining deep knowledge with humor and easy-to-follow commentary. It took me longer than I expected to work my way through all 36 lectures and I know I will return to some of them again to remind me of certain events and principles. I was also surprised at the limits of proven science...there are so many "truths" which have later been shown to be faulty. Fascinating look at life, past and present.
Date published: 2016-06-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Basic This is the most disappointing TGC course I have taken. I completed over half of it in a few hours. I can honestly say that I learnt nothing new. It was a repeat of the stuff I taught to 15-16 year olds. If you missed out on a school education - this is the course for you! Try the 'Transitions in Evolution' - it is far superior.
Date published: 2016-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Measured, comprehensive, and lucid In my past life as a practising sedimentary geologist (now retired) I knew much of the information presented here. I purchased the course because I was interested in any new information or theories which may have developed over the last two decades. Neither disappointed. I found Professor Sutherland's presentation altogether exemplary. If there was any gripe at all, it was the repetitive use of visuals, e.g., the same fish swimming over the same bit of reef. It is not as if there aren't thousands of reef sequences available. Of note for non-geologists, I would point to his use of the words 'Early', 'Middle', and 'Late', when referring to geological time periods. This is absolutely correct, as they refer to definite and precise time spans. The words 'Lower', Middle', and 'Upper', often used interchangeably is incorrect. These should only be used when referring to rock sequences. For example, a section of Upper Cretaceous sandstone will have only been laid down during some part of the Late Cretaceous. Don't worry about the Latin names he uses for species, it is the beast itself, and where it sits in the development of Life, that is important. An altogether excellent course, which is well worth taking along with 'Major Transitions in Evolution'..
Date published: 2016-03-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A New History of Life The course content and presentation is good, though somewhat light in its presentation of the basic science. If you like a challenging presentation of the science of life, this is not the best. Dr. Hazen's courses are outstanding for this, though they do not cover the full history of life's evolution. A real weakness is the Guidebook for those who listen to the audio course. It includes very few of the illustrations that are apparently on the DVD version, and many lectures depend on visuals - fossil photos, charts, etc. Given the capabilities of publication technology it is a mystery why Great Courses provides such primitive nearly-text-only Guidebooks for audio courses. Some of us use audio as our basic learning method, and the Guidebooks help very little.
Date published: 2016-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from New history of life Unfortunately most people today need more visuals and dont follow the lecture format.
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Peer review....sorta Video download...without graphics these lectures would be very hard to follow...you might hurt yourself by falling off that pesky treadmill. This review comes from a practicing geologist, somewhat older than Prof Sutherland, but one quite familiar with the overall tenets of basic geology and paleontology. He covers it all at a high level. The most difficult concept for us all is understanding Deep Time (and by that I mean the incredibly long periods of time that represents the history of the Planet Earth) since it explains how we got here, biologically (as well as physically) speaking. Paleontology is an aspect of geology that connects ancient (very, very ancient) life forms to physical geologic environments, or systems. Dr Sutherland aptly defines and describes this relationship but using four basic systems: biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere, and shows how they are inexorably connected. This explanation is college-level, first or second year, but it is not 'dumbed-down'. It is not possible to cover all aspects of the history of life on earth in 18 hours...I've been at it for more that 40 years, and still I learned quite a few new things from the good doctor. A basic knowledge of biology and chemistry (e.g. you might want to know the differences between worms and birds, or the composition of salt) is very helpful. The evolution of life is assumed, but not overly emphasized...paleontology shows the results of evolutionary changes through the examination and description of fossils, after the strata from which the fossil was found, when it is placed in the proper stratigraphic context. The relationships between these constantly varying contexts and vast amount of time is both mind-boggling and fascinating...but I'm a bit biased here. For those considering purchasing this course...and almost everybody should...consider it an investment in understanding how our planet, and all it's varying lifeforms, got here. It's not all about dinosaurs and cavemen...it's a lot more...covering basic physical and (pre)historical geology. The visuals are quite good and Dr Sutherland is well organized, clear-spoken and intellectually stimulating...plus he has that characteristic dry wit found in all geologists. It also helps if you are passionate about earth science, as Stuart and I are..... Highly recommended...I found it on sale (with a coupon), making it less than $1/lecture.
Date published: 2015-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr Southerland was phenomenal Dr Sutherland's presentation of the earth evolution was phenomenal and exactly what I was looking for. His approach was to discuss this using a systems approach, which he referred to "Earth Systems Science". He explained the interactions of the earth's chemistry, biologic life forms, geology and astrophysics and their cumulative effects on the course of evloution in a way that is authoritative, understandable and enjoyable. In particular, I found his discussion of the mass extinction events superb. I would highly recommend this course for anyone looking for a thorough discussion of the earth’s evolutionary history.
Date published: 2015-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Great courses Professor Sutherland lectures to the listener in a personable manner and a dry sense of humor. Course content is perfect, examples add to the content, Definitely an award deserving teacher. Highly recommended for content and understandable and enjoyable presentation.
Date published: 2015-10-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Survey of Evolution I have recently heard Professor Christian's course "Big History". One of the Complexity thresholds that he discusses in some detail is the creation/emergence of life. I found this discussion fascinating and decided that I wanted to zoom in on this subject because, apparently, lots of headway had been made in this field of study with which I was not familiar. Particularly, Professor Christian talked about new theories in which the emergence of life is thought of in terms of natural selection between non-living organic compounds. The course was very satisfying, though I felt that some areas were covered better than others. Professor Sutherland dedicated quite a lot of time to laying down the rather extensive foundations of the evolutionary narrative discussion to follow. These included the origins of the chemical elements of our planet, the nonlinear feedbacks between the Earth systems (Atmosphere, Aquasphere, Lithosphere and Biosphere), Geological aspects that affect life's evolution (such as plate tectonics), and Methodologies in Paleontological research. I found these introductory lectures to be very well presented and the content profound and interesting. I was a little bit disappointed with the discussion on the early organic chemical evolution on Earth. This was the topic that got me interested in the course in the first place, and in the end it received only one lecture (Lecture 8 – The Early Chemical Evolution of Life). I did not find this lecture to be comprehensive enough, and I am hoping to hear a more in depth discussion in Professor Hazen's course "Origins of Life", which seems to be focused on the early phases of evolution. Having said that, the narrative of life's early forms that started from lecture nine to about lecture twenty two was wonderful. The narrative presentation was coherent and compelling – and absolutely fascinating. From lecture twenty two and onwards (after the Permian extinction), the course seemed to lose focus a little bit. It felt as if life forms had become so complex and there was such a huge variety of them, that it was simply harder to tell the story in one clear coherent thread. The stories of the dinosaurs, their evolution and extinction, and the way Paleontologists study them were still fascinating and well worth the effort… Regarding the humanoid evolution – I have heard other courses in the TGC that cover this area exclusively and are therefore much more in depth: Professor Hawk's "Rise of Humans" and Professor Fagan's "Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations". Professor Sutherland's presentation was good. His demeanor was modest, and the lectures were often punctuated with generous doses of nice humor. I felt that he made the material feel easily accessible although most of the discussion went far beyond basic. Overall I feel that I learned quite a lot and that taking the time to see the course was easily worth the time and effort.
Date published: 2015-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2015-06-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A New History of Life was thrilling to watch and learn. I love studying the geological history of life on Earth. It was a long, exhausting and eye opening look at our planet's amazing history. My favorite lecture was "Monsters of the Deep", which looks at the plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs and the mighty megaladon. Ancient sea creatures from that period fascinate me to no end. One aspect of the course I liked was hearing Professor Sutherland correctly pronouncing the names of the dinosaurs and other extent creatures with Latin names. Now I won't sound foolish trying to pronounce their names next time is see a dinosaur exhibit at a museum. It hope Professor Sutherland might do a future course on dinosaurs.
Date published: 2015-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is a wonderful mix of enthusiastic lecturer and illustrations, covering fascinating material well. I sought out more Great Courses about Earth sciences after watching this one.
Date published: 2015-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course but Hold the Music Overall the course wove the physical changes of the earth and the evolution of life together in an enlightening way. Professor Sutherland unraveled the history as well as explaining how that history was determined. However, the last two chapters on the Origins of Humans could have had more explanation. My real complaint is the orchestral music that on occasion accompanied a slide. It was, to be kind, distracting. Not the professor's fault, but something the Teaching Co. needs to rein in!
Date published: 2015-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2015-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course I really enjoyed this course. Aside from my learning a tremendous amount, the professor held my attention seemingly without effort. I felt he did a very good job teaching the history of our planet and the life found on it. His accent does take a little getting used to but, in general, was not a problem. The one word he kept using that confused me was shoal, as in a shoal of fish. At first, I thought he was saying school and his accent was getting in the way. But then he said school a few times. So, I looked it up. Sure enough, a shoal of fish and a school of fish are different things. (An onscreen definition might have helped on this one but I'm not so sure I'd remember it so clearly had I not looked it up myself.) I do have three significant complaints about this course that I believe are the fault of The Great Courses rather than the fault of the professor. 1. It is nice to see all the photographs, video clips, and graphics included on the DVD. But some of them were used too many times and, in fact, sometimes without any obvious relationship to what Sutherland was discussing. If I saw the cloudy beach scene one more time, I might have yelled at the screen... er, ok, maybe I did a few times. Graphics, photos, and videos are great tools but, like anything else, more is not always better. 2. Whose idea was it to play music when a photo or video was being shown while the professor was talking? I found this to be quite distracting and sometimes had to rewind in order to clearly hear what was said. I've noticed this in some of the other new courses and I feel this falls into the category of bad ideas. After all, if you're not hearing music when the camera is on the professor, why should you hear music when a photo is being shown? This isn't a cinematic film and it doesn't need a soundtrack. (The whoosh that is often heard when graphics disappear is tolerable. The music which plays for the duration the item is shown is over the top.) 3. This course is full of "speakos". That is, the professor says 135 instead of 35 and it isn't corrected by overdubbing the sound track. I know that overdubbing has been done on lots of other courses and it was done a bit on this course, but more is needed. While it was usually pretty obvious when it happened, it's pretty distracting. So, I downgraded the presentation due to the above which is perhaps unfair to the professor but I didn't know where else to apply the lower grade. Note that this is not a course on evolution. It's more about what forms of life were extant at the various times during the history of the earth. I'd call it equal parts a sampling of life and a history of the planet and how these two topics relate. Sutherland was easy to understand and I very much looked forward to watching each lecture.
Date published: 2015-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course is in my Top 2 I will be watching this course over and over. A lot to learn but Professor Sutherland makes it entertaining and fun and it seems to be very current!
Date published: 2015-01-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the BEST Courses I have! This course shares the top spot with The Origin and Evolution of Earth. I will re-watch these many times. They are both recent so they are up to date with the science and both professors Stuart Sutherland and Robert M. Hazen make the subjects come alive. Wonderful!
Date published: 2014-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A new angle, a super course, easy to recommend ! Ee-by-gum! Quite a change to hear a lecturer born in Manchester in the north of England! I hope my North American friends don't have any problem with his accent. Dr Sutherland's enunciation is very sharp (perhaps a bit harsh) & clear, and he speaks at a well-moderated pace. ("Ee-by-gum" btw is a northern English expression, very mild, somewhat like "I'll be darned", and the lecturer doesn't use it in this course, sorry!) This is an up-to-date, fascinating, vauable series of lectures with a wealth of information: may be taken as a full feast, a chronological flow-on course (over time of course), or in nibbles, hopping around the lectures as you wish. The title "A New History of Life" is perfect. The Guidebook would benefit from a glossary, considering the very many terms used in the course. The in-studio artefacts, superb & entertaining on-screen graphics and clips are very helpful. The course has wide appeal, I feel, including to young teenagers. I'm very happy to recommend it without hesitation, and will most probably run it again next year. It's a marvellous series of absorbing lectures, whether viewed by a serious student or out of casual interest. Everyone can learn from these talks. Each lecture is like a mini-adventure, exciting! The end credits run four and a half minutes -- lotta stuff in this course! A couple of little beefs, if I may: our professor overuses "basically"... a small tic, yes, but it can become an irritant (e.g. 3 times in one minute); also, he falls victim to the misuse of "unique", saying "quite unique" and "very unique" (both in lecture 30). It is particularly important for a professor to use the word "unique" correctly. It means existing as the only one or as the sole example, solitary in type or characteristics. "Unique" cannot be qualified by "quite" or "very": there are no degrees of uniqueness; one thing cannot be "more unique" than another. Please, Great Courses, remind all your lecturers of this, thank you. My bottom line? Buy the course -- you'll enjoy it!
Date published: 2014-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Wonderful Life Loved it! I have purchased and watched/listened to dozens of Great Courses but this is my favorite over all. The information is very current and the depth and bredth of the subject far exceed that of the typical overview nature of the subjects of many courses. For some, the lecturer's accent might be a bit of a challenge but it was not an impediment to enjoying the course and, in fact, increased my attentiveness to the course.
Date published: 2014-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Sweeping Tour of Earth’s Geology and Biology As a history buff, I had become concerned about how relatively little I knew of our planet’s history before the Neolithic age and the dawn of civilization. I was aware of the Great Courses “Big History” series that so impressed Bill Gates that he sought to adapt it into the nationwide high school curriculum. However, that course starts with the Big Bang and moves fairly quickly to the human era, apparently by-passing the first few billion years of earth’s existence and evolution, which is the essence of the present course, and thus for my purposes the better choice. As with any course, there was an initial adjustment to the professor’s lecturing style, in this case, Dr. Sutherland’s high-pitched (but not displeasing) voice and Manchester accent which has survived his many years in Canada. Almost the first half of the course concerns the evolution of life at sea, with amazing amounts of information on long-extinct species gleaned from the fossil record. The visuals in this course are outstanding, comprising a wide array of photographs, brief video clips, models, drawings and graphics, which are an enormous aid in understanding the complex substance of the material presented. The viewer can be overwhelmed with an endless barrage of Greek and Latin names for scores of species of flora and fauna, much of it from the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras of hundreds of millions of years ago. That few of these names will be recalled by most viewers does not detract from the value of the course. As a matter of great general interest (and perhaps the highlight of the course), Professor Sutherland devotes much attention to mass extinctions and succeeding transitional periods, particularly the catastrophic Permian/Triassic extinction of 251 million years ago and the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction of 65 million years ago. The former resulted not from an extraterrestrial source, but from massive climate change and volcanic activity, destroying 90 percent of aquatic life and 70 percent of terrestrial life, while the latter was caused by an asteroid impact in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico that wiped out the dinosaurs and at least half of the earth’s species. This event permitted the rise of mammals and the evolutionary process of the Cenozoic era leading to today’s life on earth. Also during these periods, continental drift caused by plate tectonics transformed the single continent of Pangaea into the continental configuration we have today, a reality suspected by a few non-conventional thinkers, but not confirmed by science until the late 20th century. The second half of this course is likely to be of greater interest to general audiences, as it encompasses the latest half billion years of earth existence and monumental change, as related by Professor Sutherland in often dramatic fashion. The emergence of modern humans is treated only in the 35th lecture of this entertaining, informative and memorable 36-lecture course.
Date published: 2014-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rock solid course on Earth systems This was an especially great course for me in all respects. The content, media, and presentation all shined. Certainly it was educational; in fact, it built on other science courses I’ve already seen (this did give me a little head start in regards to some of the content). In short, it’s easily one of my favorite TGC courses. It’s got science, history, weather, the beach, deep sea, mountains and forests, desert, dinosaurs, and danger—with wonderful storytelling. At first I was a little confused because I didn’t know exactly where the course was going, given its title and individual lectures. Is it going to be predominately Earth Science or Biology? It’s not long before you find out that Dr Sutherland is building a rock solid foundation before he gets to the meat of the course. I suggest reading the lecture summaries in the Guidebook before watching each lecture. Also, refer to that handy timeline on page 249. You’ll often need it to keep track of eons, eras, and periods. The extensive graphics were a huge bonus for me. These included tons of pictures, animations, videos, realia presented for show-n-tell, and so on. I don’t know how many times I pressed pause to just stare at all the fossils and conceptual art—but it was often. If you’re looking for that one course in the TGC catalog that inspires sheer awe and amazement, this may very well be the one. Not only does it showcase an abundance of life that came before, but it also clearly illustrates the scientific methods involved. And it was explained easily. Professor Sutherland did an outstanding job. He’s a fairly skilled presenter who isn’t chained to a teleprompter. He mastered the walk-n-talk part and gestured appropriately. I enjoyed his sense of humor and brief anecdotes about Manchester and his youth. Some people might say that levity has no place in an academic lecture, but in my case it magnifies Stu’s personality and individuality. Worth every penny and more! Speaking of more, how about Stu and dinosaurs? That would make my day.
Date published: 2014-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 5 stars indeed I think that in general course reviewers overrate the Great Courses . Can 80+% of all courses really be four almost five stars. I think not. However, this one is a no doubter. Excellent material, great presentation. Must buy if you have slightest interest in the subject.
Date published: 2014-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive and Intellectually Stimulating I have to admit listening and watching this course took longer than most I take from the Teaching Company. The material was fascinating and required substantial thought in order to properly grasp the life cycles outlined by Professor Sutherland. This is the third course presented by the Teaching Company on evolutionary theory that I have watched and I consider it the best so far. I was especially enamored by the outline that was used. Additionally, Dr Sutherland made what could have been a dull recitation of long lost facts into a living history. Yes, vocabulary was difficult to master, but it was presented in the context of the historical period and as such, made its assimilation easier to grasp and master. I was especially grateful for the melding of geological and biological concepts into one conscious stream of information. Yes much was glossed over; to cover the billions of years of life on earth in 36 short chapters is quite a challenge. In my humble opinion, Dr. Sutherland mastered both the outline and presented the essential elements of the factual material in order to make the story coherent. I loved the course, was stimulated by it and highly recommend it to others who seek to understand how life originated, flourished, was almost destroyed but ended up like we see it today. A magnificent presentation. Bravo!
Date published: 2014-04-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Delightful and substantial This course was just plain fun to go through on a once-over basis, with plenty of good graphics to justify buying it as a DVD. Just that much gave me a much better overview of the whole development of life on Earth. It's a nice exploration of the interactions of what are usually studied as separate fields. There is also plenty of depth for repeat viewing and study. Even on a first viewing, I played some sections more than once, and referred fairly often to the accompanying summary book. The recommended reading also looks like a good idea. To truly absorb all of what is presented (as a semester's college course) isn't magic, it does take some study and review. But if you don't want to invest that time, you can still enjoy this course.
Date published: 2014-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A New History of Life Professor Sutherland is an excellent teacher. He make the history of life clear and straightforward, not an easy thing to do in 36 lectures. For the first time, I have all those geologic time periods straight! I highly recommend this course and await new courses by Professor Sutherland.
Date published: 2014-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from this course pulls together the progress of a lot of widespread disciplines over the past decades. fascinatingly blends this diversity of information into a cohesive presentation that is informative and provocative. Professor Sutherland is engaging and adds sparks of humor that enliven his lectures. Time well spent.
Date published: 2014-03-18
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