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Major Transitions in Evolution

Major Transitions in Evolution

Taught By Multiple Professors
Course No.  1518
Course No.  1518
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

How and when did life on Earth get to be the way it is today?

  • Imagine a world without bees, butterflies, and flowering plants. That was Earth 125 million years ago.
  • Turn back the clock 400 million years, and there were no trees.
  • At 450 million years in the past, even the earliest insects had not yet developed.
  • And looking back 500 million years-a half-billion years before the present-the land was devoid of life, which at that time flourished in a profusion of strange forms in the oceans.

These and other major turning points are the amazing story of evolution, the most remarkable force in the history of Earth, the organizing principle throughout the biological sciences, and the most important mechanism scientists use to understand the varieties of life on our planet.

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How and when did life on Earth get to be the way it is today?

  • Imagine a world without bees, butterflies, and flowering plants. That was Earth 125 million years ago.
  • Turn back the clock 400 million years, and there were no trees.
  • At 450 million years in the past, even the earliest insects had not yet developed.
  • And looking back 500 million years-a half-billion years before the present-the land was devoid of life, which at that time flourished in a profusion of strange forms in the oceans.

These and other major turning points are the amazing story of evolution, the most remarkable force in the history of Earth, the organizing principle throughout the biological sciences, and the most important mechanism scientists use to understand the varieties of life on our planet.

To learn about these major transitions, each of which brought forth new possibilities for life, is to embark on an unforgettable look into the past. It's also a captivating opportunity to get a deeper understanding of how evolution works, to draw intricate connections between living things, and to think about life-not just yours but the lives of everything around you-in new ways.

Major Transitions in Evolution tells this science-detective story in 24 lavishly illustrated lectures that focus on the giant leaps that gave rise to nature's boundless diversity. In a course of breathtaking scope, you study the conditions that led to the first complex cells, flying insects, flowering plants, mammals, modern humans, and many other breakthroughs. And in the process of studying the past, you gain a powerful understanding of the present world.

Given the broad scope of the subject, this course is taught by two professors: Anthony Martin, a paleontologist and geologist at Emory University, and John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Each is an outstanding teacher in his field, adept at making the subject interesting and accessible no matter what your background in science. And in the final lecture, the two appear together for an absorbing conversation on common themes in the epic saga of life on Earth.

Giant Leaps that Brought Us to Today

Among the major transitions you cover are these:

  • From simple to complex cells: Life's first major evolutionary transition was the leap from basic prokaryotic to more complex eukaryotic cells, which contain a nucleus and other specialized structures. This was the crucial step that eventually led to plants and animals.
  • From fish to four legs: The iconic image of evolution is a fish emerging onto land. This transition might not have happened without shade provided by the newly developing forests, whose protective canopy gave the first fishapods protection from the sun.
  • Dinosaurs become birds: Dinosaurs didn't go completely extinct; they survive today as birds, whose distinctive wings, feathers, and other features are visible in transitional fossils such as Archaeopteryx, from about 150 million years ago.
  • Modern humans: The evolution of tree-dwelling primates to upright-walking apes later led to the evolution of modern humans-a species that invented agriculture, poetry, computers, and the techniques to trace its own lineage and that of all life.

You also explore many other transitions that occurred between these milestones, and you take an intriguing look ahead to speculate about the future direction of evolution. From the deep past until today, evolution has been a story with countless subplots, false leads, and reversals of fortune. But it has had one overarching theme-that life is wondrous, resilient, and endlessly surprising.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Macroevolution and Major Transitions
    Professor Anthony Martin introduces the nearly 4-billion-year history of life by reviewing the basic concepts of macroevolution—the appearance of new forms of life from older forms of life. Learn how macroevolution leads to the major transitions covered in the course, such as the development of multicelled animals, flowering plants, and primates. x
  • 2
    Paleontology and Geologic Time
    Plunge into “deep time” by examining the two major types of evidence used in paleontology, which is the study of ancient life: namely, body fossils (shells, bones, molds, casts, eggs) and trace fossils (tracks, burrows, nests). Also, see how fossils are used together with radiometric dating to construct the geologic time scale. x
  • 3
    Single-Celled Life—Prokaryotes to Eukaryotes
    Complex life traces back to the Proterozoic eon, when simple one-celled organisms called prokaryotes evolved specialized structures and became new types of cells called eukaryotes. Investigate how this major transition took place, paving the way for the profusion of life forms explored in the rest of the course. x
  • 4
    Metazoans—The Earliest Multicellular Animals
    Make the leap from individual eukaryotic cells to organized groups of cells, called metazoans, which represent the first animals. Learn what distinguishes animals from plants, and how strange forms of animals flourished about 600 million years ago in shallow-marine environments devoid of predators. x
  • 5
    The Development of Skeletons
    Fossil beds such as the famous Burgess Shale in Canada show that life diversified quickly in the Cambrian period, about 500 million years ago. Discover that the reason relates to an “arms race” between predator and prey, which saw the development of skeletons and other mineralized parts. x
  • 6
    The Rise of Vertebrates
    Delve into a long-running paleontological mystery: conodonts survive only as tooth-like fossils, but paleontologists now know these were parts of eel-like creatures with primitive backbones. Such early vertebrates later diversified into fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. x
  • 7
    Colonization of the Land
    Venture out of the water and onto land to learn how life adapted to terrestrial environments in the early part of the Paleozoic era, 500 to 400 million years ago. Algae, fungi, plants, and animals all had to evolve to survive and thrive in what were originally forbidding, barren landscapes. x
  • 8
    Origins of Insects and of Powered Flight
    Travel to the Devonian period, roughly 400 million years ago, and look at the early evolution of insects and insect flight. This major transition gave rise to what are today the most diverse and evolutionarily successful group of animals. x
  • 9
    Seed Plants and the First Forests
    Landscapes without large trees were typical before the early Carboniferous period, about 400 million years ago. Survey the fossil record for clues to the evolution of the first seed plants, called pteridosperms (“seed ferns”). These and other plants formed early forests, now preserved in much of the world’s coal deposits. x
  • 10
    From Fish to 4-Limbed Animals
    The canopies provided by early forests gave vertebrates new opportunities to get out of the water and start moving around on land. Learn how all four-limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) owe their evolutionary origins to lobe-finned fish that started this transition about 380 million years ago. x
  • 11
    The Egg Came First—Early Reptile Evolution
    The chicken versus egg question has a thought-provoking answer from evolution. Explore the factors that led to the enclosed, amniotic egg, an adaptation that allowed primitive reptiles to spread into new environments on land, some 150 million years before reptiles branched into birds—and only much later into chickens. x
  • 12
    The Origins and Successes of the Dinosaurs
    Jump ahead to the Triassic period, about 250 to 200 million years ago, to investigate how small diapsid reptiles, whose living descendants include crocodiles and lizards, evolved into the most popular and iconic of all animals from the fossil record: the dinosaurs. x
  • 13
    Marine and Flying Reptiles
    Dinosaurs dominated the land from the Triassic to Cretaceous periods, about 230 to 65 million years ago, but evolution favored other reptiles to rule the seas and sky. Inspect these many “-saurs,” including ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, and pterosaurs. x
  • 14
    Birds—The Dinosaurs among Us
    “Dinosaur” has become a synonym for a failure to adapt to changing circumstances. But the dinosaur lineage survives today through birds. Starting with the remarkable transitional fossil Archaeopteryx, examine the evolutionary transition of theropod dinosaurs into graceful creatures of the air, which still retain some dinosaur-like characteristics. x
  • 15
    The First Flowers and Pollinator Coevolution
    Flowers are so widespread that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. Return to just such a setting in the early Cretaceous period, and follow the selection pressures that led to primitive flowering plants, which developed in concert with the evolution of bees and other pollinating creatures. x
  • 16
    Egg to Placenta—Early Mammal Evolution
    Discover how mammals evolved from reptiles around 230 million years ago and later underwent an evolutionary leap from egg-laying to giving live birth. Surviving the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, they took off in an astounding burst of adaptive radiation. x
  • 17
    From Land to Sea—The Evolution of Whales
    Among the transitions that took place about 50 million years ago was the move of some land-dwelling mammals to marine environments, leading to modern whales. Considering that some whales became the most massive animals in the history of Earth, explore the question, “Why so big?” x
  • 18
    Moving on Up—The First Primates
    Professor John Hawks takes over from Professor Martin in the first of his six lectures on the evolutionary steps from early primates to modern humans. Learn how the first primates were uniquely adapted to navigate the complex canopies of ancient forests about 60 million years ago. x
  • 19
    Apes—Swinging Down from the Trees
    Trace the evolution of some primates into monkeys and apes, culminating in “the age of apes” beginning around 25 million years ago. Within their great diversity of size, diet, social structure, and ways of moving, one ape lineage appeared in Africa different from the others, sharing many features with modern humans. x
  • 20
    From 4 Legs to 2—The Hominin Radiation
    Examine fossil clues to the first major transition of human evolution: the development of upright walking. Being a biped has many advantages but also some major drawbacks. What body changes allowed early hominins like Australopithecus (including the famous Lucy) to walk efficiently on two legs? x
  • 21
    First Humans—Toolmakers and Hunter-Gatherers
    The first stone tools, 2.6 million years old, mark a change to a human-like social and cognitive system. Probe the nature of such early implements, and the hunting and gathering culture they represent—a way of life that placed many demands on human brains. x
  • 22
    From Homo to sapiens—Talking and Thinking
    Follow modern humans from their African homeland, about 100,000 years ago, as they dispersed into the ancient populations of Europe and Asia, challenging the territory of earlier humans. These rivals include the Neandertals, who are now much better understood through the decoding of their genome. x
  • 23
    Our Accelerating Evolution
    Human evolution did not stop with the advent of modern people. Consider how humans today are the descendants of incredible survivors, with a legacy of new genes that continue to affect diet, disease, physical appearance, and features such as skull and brain size, which has actually decreased in the past 10,000 years. x
  • 24
    Reflections on Major Transitions
    Conclude the course by experiencing a fascinating discussion between Professors Martin and Hawks as they compare perspectives, probe common themes in the major evolutionary transitions over the past x

Lecture Titles

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Your professors

2 Professors
Anthony Martin John Hawks
Ph.D. Anthony Martin
Emory University

Dr. Anthony Martin is Professor of Practice in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University, where he has taught courses in geology, paleontology, environmental science, and evolutionary biology since 1990. He earned his B.S. in Geobiology from St. Joseph's College (Indiana), M.S. in Geology from Miami University (Ohio), and Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Georgia. At Emory, he has been recognized with both university- and student-sponsored teaching awards, including the Emory Center for Teaching and Curriculum's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dr. Martin's research focuses on ichnology, the study of modern and fossil traces, such as tracks, trails, burrows, nests, and other signs of behavior. Among his notable achievements is his co-discovery of the only known burrowing dinosaur. Dr. Martin has authored more than 30 peer-reviewed publications, as well as three books, including Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs.

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Ph.D. John Hawks
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Dr. John Hawks is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of WisconsinñMadison, where he has taught courses ranging from biological anthropology to brain evolution since 2002. He earned his B.S. in Anthropology from Kansas State University and M.S. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan. Early in his career, Dr. Hawks focused on fossil and archaeological evidence for human evolution. But as the Human Genome Project was completed, he became one of the first paleoanthropologists to use both genetic and fossil information to test hypotheses about human prehistory. More recently, his work on Neandertals has broken new ground, and his prediction that humans and Neandertals likely interbred has been confirmed by the analysis of Neandertal DNA. He is the author of groundbreaking research papers, and he has a devoted following on his science blog, where readers can follow the latest news in paleoanthropology.
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Reviews

Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 41 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Major Transitions in Evolution I found this course to be a major disappointment compared to the other geology courses available. The concept of major transitions is good, but Professor Martin's presentations are confusing and jump from one concept to another without completing his thought. I find it very painful to watch. It compares poorly to Professor Sutherland's A new History of Life... I have not watched the section on primate evolution, which I hope will be better. February 13, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by perfect for advanced high school biology I purchased this with the intent to use (in part) as a second year of high school biology for my homeschooled daughter, and this will fit the bill nicely. "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" Dobzhansky. If you do not agree or are not willing to entertain this notion, don't waste your money buying this program, but for those of us who wish to experience the unfolding story of life and is marvelous variety, this is a wonderful walk through time. The second presenter is far more comfortable in this format than the first, who is awkward. Can't give five start as the presentation itself suffers at time, but overall, I am quite pleased. August 31, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by A great introduction to evolution and many of its Overall a great introduction to evolution and many of its interdisciplinary subfields. I particularly enjoyed seeing the perspective of a geologist/paleontologist to start things off and then the tag-team to cover human evolution from primates. I especially loved the philosophical conceptualization of "deep time" (in analogy with "deep space") particularly as one considers the even broader idea of "Big History". Though the professors here don't delve into Big History directly, they're covering a large portion of the cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary studies which underpin a large portion of the field. More specifically taking the general viewpoint of "transitions" in evolution underlines this conceptualization. Though the transitional viewpoint seems to be a very natural and highly illustrative one to take, I would be curious in seeing alternate presentations of evolution from a pedagogical standpoint. It was nice to hear a bit of alternate discussion in the final lecture as well as discussion of where things might "go from here." I do wish that there were additional follow-on lectures that covered additional material in more depth. It would also have been nice to have included a handful of lectures from a microbiologist's viewpoint and background to give some additional rounding out of the material and this could have been done either in the early parts of the material or certainly around the discussions of primate evolution. Overall all though, these are wonderfully self-contained and don't require a huge prior background in material to understand well. It's always great to see lecturers who truly love their fields and have the ability to relate that through their lectures and infect their students. From a purely technical standpoint, I'm glad to see that The Teaching Company only offers a video version of (as opposed to their usual additional offering of audio-only) as having pictures of the fossils and organisms under discussion and their relative physiological structures was very helpful. Additionally having the recurring timecharts of the portions of geological time under discussion was very useful and generally reinforcing of the chronology. Somewhat monotonous from a visual perspective was the almost programmatic back and forth pacing between two cameras during the lectures which at times became distracting in and of itself. Certainly including a third camera would have added some variety as would having had camera operators to zoom in or move the camera around while the lecturers stand relatively stationary. (Though the production value here is exceptionally high, small details like this over the span of several hours of watching become important. As an example of better execution, I prefer Glenn Holland's "Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean" as a model - though there wasn't as much additional visual material there, the lectures were simply more "watchable" because of the camera work.) July 1, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Very good course but one-sided I really enjoyed this course all along. Professors presented their lectures in a clear tone at a good pace. The lectures are very well illustrated which kept my attention on high. The only problem with this series is it is full of speculative ideas. The course is littered with phrases like 'it may have been', 'it seems to be'. The professors talked as if they were present when macroevolution took place from one species to the next. There is no mention of frauds done to prove evolution like Piltdown man, Lysenko affair, Paul Krammerer's toad evolution etc. They offered a lot of examples of microevolution and then jumped into fanciful ideas like how birds evolved from dinosaurs. Also some controversies among evolutionists are not presented. Every statement is made as if there is unanimous acceptance among all evolutionists regarding fossils. For example, Donald Johansson, the man who found the Lucy fossil which he declared to be the mother of all mankind, is challenged by evolutionist Richard Leaky III, who, looking at the same fossil, declared it to be the fossil of a monkey. Two evolutionists looking at the exact same evidence came to entirely different conclusions; that's not scientific evidence, it is opinionated conjecture based on their own personal belief systems. The professors also ignored to mention that challenges to Cambrian Explosion. Well respected scientist Stephen Meyer just pre-released his new book, Darwin's Doubt concentrating on Cambrian Explosion. How come all major phyla suddenly appeared at once in Cambrian Explosion? Did they have a conference to take a uniform jump? Oh, ya, Stephen Jay Gould told us about punctuated equilibrium but there is no scientific mechanisms with the potential to bring on such orchestrated jumps in fossil strata. The professors also did not mention the biggest transformation of the homo sapiens, uniqueness of conscience. Evolutionists like Thomas Nagel challenged the view that Darwinism could ever explain the nature of conscience (read his book Mind & Cosmos for the full treatment of this problem). This is exactly the problem with the logical conclusions of Darwinian thinking. Human beings have no free will, they are at the mercy of the 'dancing of DNA' to use Richard Dawkins words. I look forward to a course from Teaching Company in which great scientists like Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe would challenge the idea of evolution. We should listen to both sides of the debate because it is hard to believe that Einsteins and Newtons could come from rocks and ponds no matter what processes acted upon the rocks and ponds. May 22, 2013
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