Major Transitions in Evolution

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

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
 |  30 minutes each
  • 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

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  • 128-page printed course guidebook
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Your professors

Anthony Martin John Hawks

Professor 1 of 2

Anthony Martin, Ph.D.
Emory University

Professor 2 of 2

John Hawks, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
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...
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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....
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Major Transitions in Evolution is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 55.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from OK Too much "lingo" i.e., big scientific names; actually kind of boring; evolutionary chart on screen is too small and is not reproduced in book (which would be helpful so one could study it more carefully....maybe make more sense of what is being said).
Date published: 2018-05-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from very detailed. Unfortunately too detailed Wanted to learn more about evolution. The first teacher is very knowledgeable and covered everything but the recent past. Gave a timeline which I appreciated. Unfortunately, the bulk of the time was spent naming the different animals and plants that evolved. I was hoping to learn more about how and why different features evolved not the names of the animals and plants. I was also hoping to learn more about the different periods of mass destruction, particularly the theories on why they occurred. I have not listened to all the lectures. So I can't comment on the second professor.
Date published: 2017-10-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worthwhile Introduction Evolution can be a hotly contested topic and I wanted to learn something about it before I felt the heat. This course was excellent as a foundation for the subject. Dr. Martin and Dr. Hawks (who gave just a few of the lectures toward the end) are straight-forward, respectful of their students, and clear communicators. There is no air of superiority about any of the lectures, there is just a joy of knowledge. Dr. Martin emphasized that this course is about the evolution of life, not the creation of life. To that end, he started with single-celled life and showed how, after time, other more complex forms of life appeared in the fossil history. He discussed the scientific basis for the conclusions he presented, which is generally scientific analysis of evidence found although he did refer to a few control experiments. As can be seen by the Table of Contents, the lectures follow the standard chronological sequence from single-celled life to multicellular animals to vertebrates to plant and animal life on land and eventually slowing down to cover primates in more detail. The visual aids are useful but the course would still be beneficial if one only listened to the audio. This course would be good for anyone who is looking for an introduction into evolution. To that end, it should be taken in conjunction with Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy. This course would be particularly beneficial for those on either side of the debate of evolution vs. religion.
Date published: 2017-08-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Excellent, except...... Professor John Hawks presents one of the most concise and clear expositions on the evolution of the human species that I've ever come across: his presentation is, hands down, a five-star performance. Unfortunately, Professor Hawks' portion of the course consists only of lectures 18 thru 23. Without going into detail, the other 18 lectures are of a quality that overall, in my opinion, reduces the course grade to only a 3-star.
Date published: 2017-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course If you have an interest in evolutionary biology or paleontology, get this course. The speakers offer a lively, in-depth synopsis of the last 600 million years of life on earth. Dobzhansky said that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". This course gives you the tools to develop that understanding and to see our fellow species in a whole new perspective.
Date published: 2017-05-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview Particularly enjoyed Professor Hawkes presentation The first 18 lectures were a bit tedious at times, but overall very informative
Date published: 2017-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deep time...deep thoughts DVD version This was my second time through these lectures...the first being a little over four years ago. Since then I have spent time with Drs. Sutherland, Hazen, Wysession and others who have dealt with the natural world, trying to answer the age-old question(s) of how and why we are where and how we are (that makes sense, trust me). No one set of lectures can address these questions, but taken together they can shed light on not only these questions, but the manner in which we should try to understand, not only the answers, but the questions themselves (you can never get to the right answer, if you don't ask the right question). What I mean here is that, for those trying to decide whether or not to fork-out a chunk of change for this lecture set, or a lecture set on the Ancient History of Egypt (also an excellent lectures series), you should know that, like most natural, and earth, history courses one is never enough. Any topic dealing with earth's history and the natural progression of the inhabitants therein, has to be taken in context with other courses (physical geology, biology, natural philosophy and logic). Any and all of these sciences require an understanding of deep time...the hardly imaginable amount of time that the earth has existed...and an appreciation of the unimaginable numbers of organisms that lived their lives out in all sorts of ever-changing environments. These lectures attempt to examine...from a survey-course level...some of the natural transitions that have occurred based on a close examination of the rock record, i.e. fossil...and modern technology. For the course to be as effective as I believe it is, one must have a grasp of the basic concept of earth's processes, and an understanding of the concept of uniformitarianism (basically, what happened in the past is happening in the same manner today). Dr Martin lays the ground work for these very-long-ago transitions from no-cell to single-cell to very complex organisms that exploded 'round about 538 MILLION years ago. He further explains, using the fossil record, the transitions within species (speciation) and then into the evolution into an entirely different specie...each transition carefully documented from the fossil record. The case presented is very convincing. Then, enter Dr Hawks with his discussions of the ascent of homo sapiens over the last 4 - 7 MILLION years. His lectures outline the careful studies of the evolution of man using both the fossil record as well as the burgeoning field of genetics and DNA mapping. His concluding remarks in lecture 23, as well as the ending discussion between the two lectures requires thought...sometimes deep thought...about who the heck we are and how we got here...and where we might be headed. Now isn't that why you're reading this? Very much recommended, but don't expect the lectures to answer all your questions. Wait for a sale...I got the DVD for just a hair over $1/lecture...less that a cup of Joe at you neighborhood Starbucks.
Date published: 2016-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Evolution Revision. An excellent and informative course. Well taught and presented. Good graphics. The discussion at the end was entertaining and illuminating. Well recommended.
Date published: 2015-10-06
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