Major Transitions in Evolution

Course No. 1518
Taught By Multiple Professors
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4.3 out of 5
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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
 |  Average 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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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 128-page printed course guidebook
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What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 128-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Cladograms
  • Suggested readings

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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 62.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good but would be better with more visuals The course was interesting and well delivered. However it is available only on DVD, and so we expected it to have plenty of pictures, fossils or artists impressions. There were some, but for the most part we watched just a professor. I am afraid the modern audience, raised on PowerPoint-s and "animal Planet", is spoiled and likes visuals.
Date published: 2011-07-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Information dump This course is a mixed bag. The basic subject should make for a very good course, but I'm not sure the professors pulled it off. Dr. Martin speaks (i.e., reads the teleprompter) very fast, and puts way too much information in each lecture. So his lectures amount to an 'information dump." I found that to really follow him, I had to keep stopping the DVD to review. Dr. Hawks presented things at a more comfortable pace. But, neither professor organized the content of his lectures very well, adding to the "information dump" appearance, and making it seem that the subject is just a collection of facts without much theory holding it together (which I'm sure is not true.) In short, there is a LOT of good information in the course, it's just not presented very well. I would suggest that the professors rewrite their lectures and redo them, preferably in front of a live audience, and come out with a second edition. Finally, as others have also pointed out, the timeline graphics are miserable. The professors frequently use a chart of the geological eras, but, very surprisingly, it is not included in the course book.
Date published: 2011-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional!! LIke the gentleman from Connecticut, I had taken Big History which helped a great deal. Big History was a wonderful introduction. It also dealt with the solar system, et al which this course does not. When it comes strictly to planet earth, Major Transitions was the real deal. Each segment within the course was just one eye-opener after another. As the course moved forward and back, it was astonishing to think of how well planned, sensible and astonishing the evolutionary process was and continues to be. Spiritually, the course does not prove by any means that there is a God, and I am not a religious person, but it certainly caused me to question why any scientist would deem him or herself an atheist. When you come to understand all the multitude of things covered in this course, which was but a small snapshot of the total picture, and realize why and how each one occurred, it is both overwhelming and flabbergasting. Which then lead me to ask, what is the purpose behind all of this? Why did all of this happen and where is it all heading? Especially when you consider that some of the findings addressed were as recent as 2010 and they are confident there is far more yet to uncover. I assure you that whatever you come away with from this course will be far more than you ever will have without having sat through it. Major Transitions provides a whole new understanding and perspective about man and everything that surrounds us presented in a wonderful way by two exceptionally talented professors. This includes the inner-connections, the interdependencies, and the symbiotic relationships that exist throughout the world. In one word, what this course offers beyond any Teaching Company Course I have ever taken, and I have taken many, is enlightenment. Buy it, watch it and digest it. You won't ever look or think about things in quite the same way again.
Date published: 2011-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent job This is one of the very best science courses I have seen from the teaching company. Maybe part of my enthusiasm is due to my personal interest in this subject. The professors are very different: Dr Martin is a very petite man with a corny sense of humor; Dr Hawks has a great speaking voice (sounds like the actor Tom Selleck), Both are excellent! I strongly recommend this course to those with an interest in evolution, and ancient life. For those of only passing interest, this course may be more than you want, even dry.
Date published: 2011-04-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A mixed bag First some complaints: 1) I don't like the grandiose stage provided for this course - the intimate little classroom of previous courses is much nicer and 2) somebody did a TERRIBLE job of matching graphics with the course materials. Other than that, the course was well presented and the material was fascinating. However, it really left me thirsting for more lectures by Professor Hawks, who offered some fascinating insights on hominid evolution but who presented only three or four of the lectures in this course. I would love to see an entire course by him!
Date published: 2011-03-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Fascinating Presentation What proved to be a major distraction for me as I kept waiting for "the next shoe to drop" was Dr. Martins continual presentaion of both metric and english units. Most students of this course should either be familiar with metric units or at least be willing to make the effort to translate centimeters, meters, etc., into english equivalents.
Date published: 2011-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening video and read This course really opened my eyes in my frequent walks in a one to four hundred million year old spore habitat of the Olympic National Park but then taught me so much more about my being a human. I learned the various sources of my eyes, teeth, skeleton and hips and what was required to bring my distant ancestors onto land. The course was full of fresh ideas.
Date published: 2011-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from knock your socks off science! Man, what a fascinating trek through macroevolution time. With only 24 lectures, I wish it had been longer at 36 to 48. It’s worth mentioning that I first watched Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity and then Major Transitions in Evolution afterward. This sequence helped to give me a better foundation for the course and was especially helpful considering the steeper learning curve this one came with (for me anyway). There’s a lot to grapple with in the way of organisms, animals, and time periods. If you have minimal knowledge of macroevolution, you may find it overwhelming at times. Here are some tips for getting the most out of the lectures: Before pressing play, you need to get time periods under control. The timeline graphics, being tiny and sometimes quick to disappear from the screen, aren’t terribly helpful unless you have eagle eyes. It’s also a good idea to keep handy the two Cladograms in the Guidebook to reference the lineages of various life forms. I also had to read the Course Guidebook before and after each lecture. At first some of the lectures seemed like a library listing of dead organisms and animals from a bygone era, but it all comes together nicely by the end of each lecture and you get a number of a-ha moments. Maybe it would have indeed been better if there was an easier way to refer to various life forms without resorting to their Latin names, but without the existence of household names, I don’t see an alternative. Professors Martin’s and Hawks’ encyclopedic knowledge is notable and they do a fine job of connecting the dots. They’re definitely a credit to their academic community. They present in the new studio and have pretty much mastered the art of walking and talking (however, I still think TGC needs to slow down on the walking, and just wait a little longer until topics change or graphics pop up). Also, their presentation of fossils and skulls in the studio adds another dimension to the lectures and came off as a productive show-n-tell. My favorite lectures? Surprisingly, bugs and insects. I’d definitely jump at the chance at a longer bug/insect course now knowing just how awesome and complex they are. Unsurprisingly, the lectures on dinosaurs (come on, who doesn’t like dinosaurs?), whales, and humans stand out. I thought Lecture 24 was really well done and valuable. Both professors came together for a chat, with Professor Hawks being the lead discussant. I see others generally didn’t care for it, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the course and encourage more of it in future courses. Now for constructive criticism: My only complaint is how the graphics were put together. Sometimes pictures/slides went up too early and for too long; the picture-in-picture lectures were sometimes oddly placed or not timed right; the use of yellow text on a yellowish background isn’t such a hot idea; in one slide, the background/picture was smaller than the screen and you end up with about a 2 inch border of moving studio; finally, the “flash” transition used in a couple of John Hawk’s lectures was inconsistent and out of place. Therefore, I’d go back to the post-production room, quickly edit these fumbles, and reprint the course so it’s perfect. All in all, a fantastic and very enjoyable course, one I’ll repeat and talk about with friends.
Date published: 2011-02-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Introduction to the Big Steps in Evolution I thoroughly enjoyed this course and ended up watching all 24 lectures in about 6 sittings. The material is crisply delivered by both professors. I liked Professor Hawks delivery a bit better probably because I'm more interested in human evolution. The course presented genuinely interesting answers to some of my long festering "How do they know that" questions. The discussion of crayfish and how they help to support continental drift was just one of the many tidbits that show how rigorous science answers questions from many different angles. The course is very up to date in that it includes a detailed discussion of Ardipithecus and a mention of the sequencing of Neandertal DNA in 2010. It's fascinating that we humans have had some divergent evolution and that we are as much as 4% Neandertal! I look forward to future TTC curses that will make the explosive field of evolutionary genetics even more accessible to obligate bipeds like me.
Date published: 2011-01-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating Descriptions; Minimal Theory This is a wonderful course at the purely descriptive level of the many fascinating transitions in the history of evolution. The pictures of living and imaginative reconstructions of extinct organisms are almost worth the price of admission in themselves. The two professors are both excellent - enthusiastic, articulate, knowledgable, and organized. However - the course is almost all description, with some brief and basic discussion of the reasons for the various transitions, and almost no treatment of evolutionary theory. The professors are a geologist/paleontologist and an anthropologist, and are certainly in their elements here. (But, Teaching Company, I am still hoping for a course on the theory of evolution itself. What part of "evolutionary biologist" don't you understand??? Your current courses on evolution, other than this one, are by two historians of science, one of whom is also a lawyer, and another anthropologist. Evolutionary theory is a fascinating area which no doubt would sell well...) Some minor negatives are unnecessary overuse of latin species names and repeated unhelpful use of a cluttered, difficult to read, and unexplained chart of the eras, periods, and epochs of the earth's history. And the final lecture, featuring the two profs together in an apparently unscripted conversation, is a nice idea, but isn't worth the time. This course is excellent for what it is, however, and is highly recommended as a narrative overview of the 'what' of evolution, as long as you don't expect the 'why' or 'how.'
Date published: 2011-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I've found what I've expected Course material are well designed and satisfactory. Professors know their subjects and presents their knowledge successfully. Mostly I am satisfied with the course. But I also had a few issues. First one is I couldn't find the transition of reproduction in the course material. I was particularly interested at this topic since it has to occur syncronously on different members of the species and the mechanism is quite complex. I cannot explain myself how can this happen with small steps as Darwin proposes. Secondly, I found my lack of knowledge on related topics, such as techniques to analyze fossils, geology etc. limiting my undestanding of course materials. You can simply jump to conclusions without paying much attention to details but I like to understand how to reach that conclusion. Instructors handles that issue well, thus my overall understanding was not impaired. But I want to note that the course materials require such previous knowledge to understand the subject well. Overall I found the course satisfactory, and I learned most of the topics I've wanted to learn.
Date published: 2011-01-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I've long wanted a course that would venture into 'historical' geology and paleontology, and the TC has come up with a wonderful way to compress a vast subject into a series of 24 lectures: look at the points of major changes in the forms of life. The course starts with the origins of life and culminates in three lectures on the evolution of our species and our immediate ancestors. This course is a great introduction to the history of life as well a good review for people (like myself) who have studied evolution for some time. It's a great complement to the other 'geology' course from the TC: "How the Earth Works," which deals with the Earth today. I'm sure I will listen to this course many times!
Date published: 2010-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Indeed, my best purchase ever! I am a big fan of evolution, both as a fact -- as we witness it unfold on many instances in our lifetime; and, a theory -- as we employ educated ways of explaining life changes that have happened over and across 'deep time'. This DVD surely captures all that is relevant and efficacious in the art and science of teaching. The professors, visuals, and examples were all great. I would strongly recommend this DVD to a friend. Thank you, The Teaching Company!
Date published: 2010-11-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'm Greedy-- I want more ! In that movie the man said "Greed is Good". Even though this course limits itself to the major transitions in evolution, it should be longer to do justice. However, I am grateful for the 24 lectures. They are splendid. Another reviewer asked for equal time, as it were, for creation science. This seems most fair. In fact our friends at the Teaching Company have been more than fair, some might say lop-sided. They have provided SEVERAL DOZEN such courses. These are listed under the general heading of 'Religion & Theology'. I commend these courses to all TC devotees.
Date published: 2010-11-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Grand View of Evolution in Practice This course takes an overview of the major evolutionary events from the 35,000 ft aspect. It has to, considering it covers nearly all of the natural history of the earth from 4 billions years ago to the present. The professors make sure to describe and evaluate the major evolutionary events in earth's history but the course really gets interesting at the end when the subject of the evolution of primates and hominids are discussed. Fleshed out to be a 48 lecture course, it could serve (and may very well already be) as an undergraduate survey course in evolutionary events. One point I'd like to make regarding the production set: This is the first course I've taken where the professors appear to be teaching from a large production stage, with little or no props used in previous courses, such as a speakers podium, book cases, and a studio audience. As a long time Teaching Company user, I found this initially to be disconcerting, because the instructors wind up doing a lot of walking from camera point to camera point. But I digress.....a great course that I will certain watch again.
Date published: 2010-10-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid Presentation This was the first course that I reviewed that contained the new Teaching Company format and for the most part was favorably impressed. The course itself was extremely interesting and contained a lot of information. The practice of having two instructors was innovative and provided excellent perspectives from different scientific outlooks on evolution. Professor Martin provided the depth of the course taking us from the earliest beginnings of life until the present and Professor Hawks concentrated on primate evolution and the rise of the Human species. Dr Martin's use of fossil evidence to outline the major transitions in evolution was instructional and greatly aided in understanding how evolution progressed over time. In turn, Dr Hawk's use of genetic analysis substantially aided his lectures on human development. The only portion of the course I found a little distracting was the last lecture where the two professors chatted together on the meanings of the transitions outlined in the course. I sensed that much of this lecture was a tendency for each professor to pat each other on the back. I would have liked the lecture to be a little more structured. All in all, I found the course very interesting and intellectually stimulating. I recommend the course highly.
Date published: 2010-10-29
Rated 3 out of 5 by from How about creation science? It's a good course, but it should have been emphasized that evolution is just a theory. To be fair and objective, the lecturers should have spent at least as much time introducing the theories, concepts and approaches of creationist science.
Date published: 2010-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Best Courses I loved this course! There are two professors teaching this course, and the material is divided into each of their areas of expertise. I enjoyed the lecture style of both professors. As one would expect, the material is up to date. For example, the two lecturers explain how advances in genetics and the molecular clock can illuminate our evolutionary past. Overall, a great course that delivers what is promised in the course description!
Date published: 2010-10-13
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