Science of Self

Course No. 1592
Professor Lee M. Silver, Ph.D.
Princeton University
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Course No. 1592
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Course Overview

Some of the most profound secrets about what it means to be human are now being revealed, thanks to the amazing tools of biotechnology. The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, opened the book on the genetic instructions that go into making a human. Now other species are being studied at the same level of detail, providing astonishing insights into the whole range of life on Earth.

Armed with these and other findings, scientists are beginning to address age-old mysteries, including these:

  • What is the difference between living organisms and nonliving things?
  • How does DNA instruct a single-cell embryo to create a body with a brain that produces a self-conscious mind?
  • What makes us human? Our minds, genes, appearance, or something else?
  • Is the human species at the end of an evolutionary line, or will it evolve into something entirely different?

In 24 thought-provoking lectures designed for nonscientists, The Science of Self explores these and many other questions in today's exciting field of genomics, the study of the vast storehouse of information contained within chromosomes.

Your professor is Princeton University biologist Lee M. Silver, an acclaimed teacher, scientist, and author of popular books on biotechnology, genetics, and its impact on society. As a participant in the ongoing revolution in biology for the past three decades, Professor Silver has seen his field radically transformed. Even so, he says that he and his colleagues are astonished by the pace of discoveries in recent years and by how much has been learned about the human condition from studying the basic ingredients in genes. "We're teasing out all of the secrets," he marvels.

Enlivened by Dr. Silver's clear and enthusiastic presentation, The Science of Self is an unrivaled opportunity to investigate this dramatic new picture of our past, present, and future as a species.

DNA: Your Genetic "Hard Drive"

Professor Silver begins by surveying the history of ideas about life and inheritance, from Aristotle's remarkably prescient scientific model of life to Darwin's theory of natural selection, Mendel's laws of heredity, and Watson and Crick's discovery that the molecule DNA encodes genetic information in an elegantly simple way. In one of his many vivid analogies, Professor Silver compares genetic information to music files purchased over the Internet. The music is not a material substance; it's simply a string of numbers copied to the hard drive of a computer. Similarly, the only thing that survives through the generations of life is immaterial genetic information, copied to the cellular equivalent of a hard drive, the DNA in the chromosomes and their constituent genes inside the cell nucleus.

Cracking the Code

Equipped with this powerful understanding of heredity as information, you peer into the human genome to read its code, compare it with the genomes of other species, and trace how information is translated into individual humans with all of our rich diversity. In a riveting example of the details hidden in our genes, Dr. Silver recounts the results of genetic profiling recently done on his own DNA:

  • The analysis shows that Dr. Silver has a relatively common allele, or mutation, that leads to a dopamine deficiency in one part of the brain—a trait associated with risk taking, which may explain his love of travel.
  • His maternal line can be traced back 35,000 years to Spain and the original hunter-gatherers who invaded Europe and then retreated after the onset of the last ice age.
  • His paternal line emerged more recently, in the last 3,000 years, among members of a Jewish tribe in Israel that left the Middle East between 2,000 and 1,000 years ago.
  • Intriguingly, Dr. Silver has DNA markers that point to a Chinese ancestor about 300 to 500 years ago, who may have been one of the innumerable descendants of Genghis Khan!

The Biotech Tool Chest

Part of the fascinating story of The Science of Self involves the technological tool chest that allows scientists to decipher the intricacies of living things. These sophisticated procedures and devices are part of the biotech revolution, and Professor Silver introduces you to some of the tools in detail, so that you can understand through graphics and his descriptions how we have arrived at our current state of knowledge. For example, you investigate the following:

  • Gene sequencing: In the early 1970s a multiyear effort decoded an unprecedented 63-letter sequence of DNA. The invention of DNA sequencer machines in the 1980s allowed the decoding of the entire human genome of 3 billion letters by 2004. A few years from now, complete genomes for any individual will be sequenced as part of routine medical care.
  • FISH: Standing for Fluorescence In Situ Hybridization, this technique identifies major features on chromosomes. Among its many applications, FISH has been used to compare humans and chimpanzees, showing that the chromosomes of the two species are virtually indistinguishable—except for an intriguing difference.
  • DNA microarray: Built like a computer chip, this small but powerful device allows scientists to observe genes in action, something few experts thought would ever be possible. The technique can link particular genes to diseases that are quite complex, such as juvenile-onset diabetes.
  • Molecular clock: The known rate at which genetic mutations occur can be used as a clock to calculate how far apart two species are in terms of evolution. The technique shows that humans and Neanderthals share a common ancestor from about 700,000 years ago, while humans and mice trace their mutual ancestor to 75 million years ago.

A Sense of Wonder

At Princeton University, Professor Silver is a member of both the Department of Molecular Biology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, straddling both the world of science and the public policy realm that is addressing the momentous implications of genomic research. Early in his career, he worked under the direction of Nobel laureate James D. Watson, a codiscoverer of the structure of DNA and later the first director of the Human Genome Project.

But beyond these impressive credentials, Professor Silver's most important qualification as a teacher is that he has never lost his sense of wonder. "I'm still amazed by the fact that a single cell, smaller than I can see, is all that it takes to create a complete human being with a human brain," he says at the outset of the course. Such cells are hardly different in size from the protozoa that have been swimming around the planet for more than 3 billion years, he points out. "And yet, somehow, in these cells there are DNA molecules that contain the complete genetic information required to give rise to a person who can think and who can present lectures, as I am doing."

Watching this very timely course, you will feel the same sense of awe as you probe deeply and wondrously into The Science of Self.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    A Scientific Approach to Understanding Life
    Scientists of a generation ago would be astonished by what we know today about the human condition based on the study of genes. Introducing this revolution in knowledge, Professor Silver examines the nature of science and how theories are systematically tested. x
  • 2
    What Is Life?
    Throughout history most people have assumed that living things are animated by an immaterial spirit or soul. Learn that more than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle came up with a remarkably prescient scientific model of life, which has been further refined by discoveries since the 18th century. x
  • 3
    What Is a Human Being?
    Examine what distinguishes humans from other living organisms by probing the insights of Aristotle and Charles Darwin, among others. Genetically, humans and chimpanzees are 99% identical. Also, conduct a thought experiment that illustrates the difficulty of using biological criteria to define a human being. x
  • 4
    Mendel's Theory of Genetic Inheritance
    Explore the laws of heredity that Gregor Mendel formulated in the 19th century, marking a huge advance over the existing understanding of genetics based on thousands of years of plant and animal breeding. Mendel's laws went unnoticed by other scientists until after his death. x
  • 5
    Why Identical Twins Are Not Identical
    Learn that most traits result from more complicated interactions than Mendel's simple laws and that nongenetic factors come into play in determining differences in appearance, physiology, and personality. These multiple influences explain why identical twins are not identical in every respect. x
  • 6
    Chromosomes and Sexual Reproduction
    Delving deep into the cell nucleus, investigate the chromosomes that are the material substance in which genes exist. A normal human cell contains 23 chromosome pairs. During sexual reproduction, each parent contributes one member of each pair, providing a physical manifestation of Mendel's laws. x
  • 7
    Digital DNA and the Secret of Inheritance
    How do chromosomes actually encode information? Learn how a famous 1953 paper by James D. Watson and Francis Crick described the elegantly simple structure of the DNA molecule, present in all chromosomes. Their work accounted for the chromosome's information storage capacity and also its mechanism of replication. x
  • 8
    From Genes to Cells
    Professor Silver shows how the digital code within DNA is transformed into an animated, analog form of life at the cellular level. The structure and function of living things emerge primarily from proteins, which are assembled according to the recipe in DNA through the intermediary of messenger RNA molecules. x
  • 9
    Tools of Genomics and Biotechnology
    How can scientists decipher processes inside cells? Learn about the powerful new tools of biotechnology, including DNA sequencing. This technique reads the "digital" code inherent in the DNA that comprises the genome, which is the complete set of genes present in an organism. x
  • 10
    The Landscape of the Human Genome
    The human genome is like a complicated landscape with intricate details revealed wherever one zooms in for a closer look. Professor Silver tours several features on the genome, including chromosome 11, which codes for hemoglobin, the critical oxygen-transport molecule. x
  • 11
    Why Your Liver Is Not Your Heart
    Analyze how gene regulation produces a whole human being with an intricate system of specialized tissues and organs, each expressing different portions of the genome. Many diseases, such as cancer, are caused by an aberration in gene regulation. x
  • 12
    Natural Selection and Species Evolution
    Where does complexity in living things come from? Investigate how Darwin presented the first comprehensive scientific theory to explain both the diversity of life on Earth and a rationale for the form and function of every individual organism. x
  • 13
    Individual Human Variation
    Darwin would be amazed at our ability today to pinpoint the exact biochemical mechanisms of evolution and of individual variations. Learn how some people, including James D. Watson, have had their own genomes mapped, allowing detailed comparisons of the slight differences in human DNA sequences. x
  • 14
    Evolution of the Human Genome
    Use the findings of gene technology to explore the past history of life on Earth and the DNA changes that ultimately gave rise to humans. The recovery and sequencing of Neanderthal DNA provides a revealing comparison with human DNA. x
  • 15
    Hidden Whispers from Past Lives
    Focusing on the last 50,000 years, chart how different populations of humans migrated across the world, as revealed by the genetic divergence among the present descendants of these groups. Also explore other secrets hidden in our genomes. x
  • 16
    Family Pedigrees and Simple Disease Traits
    Professor Silver explains how pedigree analysis is used to map genes and diseases to each other. He starts with the innocuous trait of blue eyes before moving to the mutations that produce cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, and some forms of breast cancer. x
  • 17
    Global Human Genetics
    All 6 billion people on Earth can be looked at as members of a single extended family. Learn that by studying large numbers of people, scientists have discovered DNA variants that predispose individuals to a variety of diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, cancer susceptibility, heart disease, and mental illness. x
  • 18
    Genetic Divergence in Human Populations
    After humans migrated out of Africa, they encountered new environments that promoted adaptive evolutionary changes. Investigate several such cases, including the adaptation of lighter skin color at higher latitudes, and adult lactose tolerance in response to the innovation of cattle domestication for milk production. x
  • 19
    The Genetic Foundation for Human Morality
    Explore the revolutionary concept of the selfish gene, which may explain the altruistic behavior of an individual who sacrifices for the benefit of close relatives or other members of the species. Seen from the gene's point of view, such behavior enhances survival, rather than diminishes it. x
  • 20
    A Recipe for Constructing the Brain
    Examine the various model systems that scientists use to study brain function. Also consider how the human brain evolved from less neurologically complex brains and how signals are transmitted across the synapses between neurons. x
  • 21
    Brain Chemistry and Personality
    This lecture looks at individual genetic differences that influence synapse function in the brain, sometimes with dramatic effects on personality and behavior. In some cases, aberrant neurotransmitter signaling across synapses can lead to diseases such as anxiety, aggression, depression, and Parkinson's disease. x
  • 22
    The Genetics of Mental Disease
    Learn about the genetics of bipolar disease and schizophrenia. The underlying genetic variants behind them may be beneficial to other individuals when present at a subthreshold level. The beneficial traits are not yet known but may include a balanced mood and increased creativity. x
  • 23
    The Paradigm-Shifting Impact of Genetics
    Take a tour of the current state of genetics and its increasing ability to explain both human disease and normal human behavior. Given the rapid advances of the past decade, the developments of the next 10 years and beyond promise to be exciting and unpredictable. x
  • 24
    The Future of the Human Species
    Professor Silver closes by asking: What does the future hold for our species? Will it go extinct like nearly all others that have ever existed? Will it survive in essentially the same form as today? Or will human descendants evolve into something completely different? x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 104-page printed course guidebook

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Your professor

Lee M. Silver

About Your Professor

Lee M. Silver, Ph.D.
Princeton University
Dr. Lee M. Silver is Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is a member of both the Department of Molecular Biology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, with joint appointments in Princeton's Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy; the Center for Health and Wellbeing; the Princeton Environmental Institute; and the Center for Law and Public...
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Science of Self is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 38.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This is a very good overview of genetics and evolution. I think even a beginner could follow most of it. The presenter's style is on the dryt side, but his content is very clear.
Date published: 2014-12-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I disagree Many strong reviews on this course. I don't see it. At least half of the course is basic biology. If you have much background there you will not find much new. Dr. Silver is good, but not one of the uber profs of TGC. Course is pretty general, but maybe that is a plus for those new to subject. Others may consider other options.
Date published: 2013-10-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from What Genes tell us about ourselves This course gives a good overview on how genes affect our human condition with respect to our traits, disease risk, behavioral traits, etc. The "science" in Science of Self is strictly biological, not psychological, philosophical, or anything else. Dr. Silver does a very good job of presenting human genome data, often from genetic tests of his own genome, to show various genotype to phenotype correlations. The animations he uses to illustrate his points are outstanding, among the best I have seen in any of The Great Courses. His course guidebook is the thinnest I have seen to date, but it is among the most effective. He gives an actual outline of each lecture (not cut and paste snippets of lecture notes), includes a glossary, an annotated bibliography, and biographical notes. Dr. Silver's presentation style is OK, but not great. He stands behind a podium and waves his left arm frequently with nearly an identical motion no matter the point. He is clearly knowledgeable in his field and backs his conclusions with data. The section on biotechnology and genome sequencing techniques was very informative and relatively up to date, though in the 4 years since this course was recorded much progress has occurred in this area. He makes a compelling case for evolution and natural selection including how our genes confirm these. The lecture on human ancestry/migrations was interesting though relatively basic. The lectures dealing with behaviors/mental disorders and genetic correlations (or not) are quite interesting with a focus on just a few examples. Anyone who has had themselves genetically tested with a service like 23andme (as Dr. Silver has) will gain insights into how the tests were done and how to interpret the results. I would recommend this course to anyone wanted to know some basics about how genetics and molecular biology determine their biological self.
Date published: 2013-09-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good on DNA, out of his depth on everything else Silver's descriptions and illustrations of how chromosomes, alleles and DNA are organized were quite good and clear. I learned a lot from those lectures. It is the introductory three lectures and the last two lectures where Silver is way out of his depth. His expertise really is confined to the laboratory, and when he starts to wax on about the human soul and how that raises us above chimps, it is pretty painful blather. The same is true re: the future genetic makeup of humans. What can be done in the lab is interesting, but it is the 7 billion people spread over the planet having more babies, and the natural selective pressure of drug-resistant diseases that will determine the human future more than the esoteric gene therapies for the 1-2 children rich he dwells on. I was surprised to see no mention of cancer in this lecture series given the close connection between cancer and genes. The role of the environment in the expression of genes also is not addressed at all. This is my 6th? lecture course, and some have been superb. I did learn quite a bit from the middle lectures but the whole subject could have been handled in 12 lectures without the very weak philosophizing.
Date published: 2013-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Get your DNA Analyzed This field will make a better world and should help drive us out of our us versus them mentality. Its just us and always has been.
Date published: 2013-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best science courses DVD REVIEW: This is a solid science course on human genetics... easy to recommend. However, you do not need previous knowledge of biology, evolution or genetics in order to follow the lectures which were recorded in 2009 so the talks are pretty much up-to-date. Be aware that the course does NOT cover any psychological or emotional aspects of "Self"; it is purely science, starting with definitions of living and non-living organisms, introduction of the periodic table, and explanation of genetics... the latter becomes quite detailed & complex! The course would more accurately be entitled "Science of the Body" or "Science of the Human Body". The lectures are straightforward; Professor Silver has a friendly, tidy, natty appearance, and a well-paced speaking style which can recommend him to all audiences (rather too many "ums/ahs/ers" though). The graphics are extremely helpful, as are the videos ~ and many photographs, most taken by the professor himself. The course is well-structured and planned, as one lecture flows into the next smoothly and logically. It's obvious that the professor is "an old hand" at his subject; it's a pleasure to hear such a confident, authoritative lecturer, and one who speaks with charasmatic humility! I'm happy to recommend this course whole-heartedly; I think everyone from high school students up can benefit, learning what we share with other animals and how we differ dramatically.
Date published: 2013-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Genetics Overview Excellent introduction and overview of genetics. The course was well organized, and Dr. Silver's delivery concise and clear. The only thing I would change is the name of the course: "The Science of Self." Based on that title I thought it was about consciousness - which it wasn't. But what the heck, I learned a lot about an interesting subject and am now hungry for more.
Date published: 2013-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course in applied genetics Although titled "Science of Self," that really just means that the example used explain the techniques is humans. This was one of the best courses I have taken. I have a strong layman interest in all of the sciences, but this course was just packed with excellent explanations of things that I was familiar with. In many cases, I might have had a general idea, but after this course have a much stronger understanding. The explanation of genetics and examples were very well done. How the genes actually accomplish the miracle of life and the myriad ways they interact to produce the result which is us is amazing. Equally fascinating is how fast the technology is progressing that allows us to have increased insight into how the genes work and interact.
Date published: 2011-09-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Better than Expected!!!! I've just watched the last lecture in The Science of the Self, and wow, I enjoyed all of it! The professor presented the material in clear language, defining terms as he went, illustrating concepts well, and explained everything in wonderful detail. I really like the way the course is organized, starting with genetics and building on those concepts. He clarified concepts I was confused about, and I learned a lot of great new information. Very well done, and I'm extremely satisfied with this course!
Date published: 2011-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and Beautifully Done This is a wonderful, fascinating, extremely well done, remarkably comprehensive, and entirely accessible overview of the genetics, molecular biology, and evolution of humans. Even if you have no background at all in these areas, you will have little difficulty following this course. Some lectures may require re-viewing (and just ignore the technical notations on many of the visuals, which were taken from actual experiments.) But Prof. Silver is such an outstanding and articulate guide that all of the essential concepts come through clearly. Conversely - and, for what it's worth, I have degrees in biochemistry and medicine - those with substantial background will love the course as well. Much of the material will be familiar, but the course provides such a broad and up-to-date review that much will also likely be new, and all of it is presented in a thoroughly fascinating and engaging manner. (Keep in mind though that this is a survey, and provides breadth, not depth.) Prof. Silver speaks eloquently, and with unfailing clarity. My only significant complaint is his repeated failure to appropriately credit or even mention Rosalind Franklin's essential contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA, without which Watson and Crick's work would have been impossible. Otherwise, I could find nothing to complain about, other than a few tiny errors of fact. (Surprisingly, Prof. Silver does not seem to know that birds are descended from dinosaurs, and he twice states that the sun will burn out in 1 billion years, when the actual figure is closer to 5 billion.) Also, I strongly agree with the point made in Alvi's excellent review, that the course title is misleading and far too broad. This is, as noted, primarily a course in human genetics and its applications. It does not cover in any significant way (other than some quite interesting discussion of the possible biological underpinnings of mental processes and diseases) the aspects of self which many of us might consider most essential: our psychological complexities, including our capacities for both positive and hurtful relationships, caring and indifference, love and hate, selfishness and self-sacrifice, curiosity and boredom, self-awareness and self-reflection. (I do think that Alvi's argument against the selfish gene model, a model supported by Prof. Silver, is incorrect, but this would take us too far afield . . .) So - "The Science of Self" has my highest possible recommendation for anyone, regardless of prior knowledge, with an interest in human biology. And, it is a perfect companion to TGC's other outstanding but more general course in the biological sciences, "Biology: The Science of Life," taught By Professor Stephen Nowicki.
Date published: 2011-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from MIND BLOWING AND MAKES YOU EAGAR FOR MORE When you see the picture of the pig growing a human arm or learn of the possibility of resurrecting Neanderthals, you know this lecture series is not going to be anything like watching the DNA arguments during TV presentations of court trials. It's also a little unsettling to learn we're just one chromosome away from swinging in the trees with our first cousin chimpanzees. Dr Silver, in a remarkable twenty-four lectures, leads one who has no scientific background into some of the cutting edge stuff in molecular biology. He does it in a way that is understandable, barely, for a lay person. The first twelve lectures lay the groundwork for the fireworks in the last twelve. He concludes with some thoughts about the future of mankind that are provoking. During the course of these lectures we learn about the resurrection of Mendel's theory about genetics, and receive, at least for me, a clear explanation of Darwin's role in outlining the thoughts about evolution. There is considerable information about the brain and how science is studying it. There's an awful lot about rats, but one has to be resigned to their presence in almost any scientific discussion about living things. Dr Silver enlivens his lectures with frequent personal illustrations from his own genome sample. There are many helpful charts and other illustrations to make a complicated subject more comprehensible. He describes the potential power of DNA in attacking both serious diseases and mental suffering. This message was most encouraging. I found this series of lectures deeply informative and hopeful. It's an excellent introduction to current activities in his specialty. There is just one question still hanging. Where does the good doctor get those remarkable ties?
Date published: 2011-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brings you up to date on latest and greatest I took a few genetics courses in high school and college, but a lot has happened in the field since then, and this course brought me up to date on what has happened in the field in the last 20 years. The first 8 lectures are fairly remedial but helpful if you have not had a basic intro to genetics before. So no one need feel scared off because genetics is an advanced topic -- the course starts at the very beginning. An aspect that I felt was very helpful was his explanation of gene microarrays and other tools that have risen in prominence in recent years. Prof Silver takes you beyond the standard blue/brown eyes examples of genetics to look at genetics' effects on personality, complex diseases, and mental health.
Date published: 2010-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course It was evident from the beginning that Professor Silver is a disciple of two disciplines---Genetics and Ethics. This fact permeated the entire course. The field of Genetics is undergoing dynamic growth with the advent of genome analysis. I was especially interested in the ability of this analysis to pinpoint and perhaps correct deficiencies that result in disease or illness. Dr Silver covered this area and outlined current initiatives that could greatly expand treatments in this vital region. Along with the identification and manipulation of the genome Dr Silver expressed some concern as to where this avenue of research could ultimately lead. The growth of human organs in domesticated animals and manipulation of DNA to affect the traits of future offspring are just two of the eithical questions now under review. If I had one fault with the course it would be the beginning where Dr Sliver spent far too much time going over the history of scientific method and the historical genesis of Genetics. I felt this time could have better been spent covering recent advances in the field. I felt that he approached the beginning with the premise that the person taking the course had no science background. I presonally feel that most people taking this course would be familiar wiht scientific mythology. Saying that----the course as a whole was amazing, highly informative and provocative. Dr Silver's presentation was professionally accomplished and you could see that he was enthused by the subject matter..This was simply a great course.
Date published: 2010-09-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating and useful, but reductionistic The first half of this course by Lee Silver (whose qualifications are impressive) presents basic principles of population genetics and especially molecular genetics, with emphasis on humans. If this material is new to you, you may find it interesting, and you do need it for the second half of the course. If you’re already familiar with this material, you may find it to be a somewhat elementary and boring review, as was the case for me. The second half of the course is where things get more interesting, and often quite cutting edge – I learned plenty, even though I took an advanced university genetics course less than a decade ago. Here, Silver describes how the latest research and developments in biotechnology and bioinformatics, centered on molecular genetics, provide useful insights into a variety of human characteristics, such as our evolutionary history, variation among individuals and populations (and the geography of this variation), personality traits, mental disorders, and our potential collective future. To give a taste of these insights, here are some examples I personally found noteworthy: - Human development is partly affected by random noise (ie, neither inheritance nor environmental effects), as clearly revealed by twin studies. - Because DNA sequences represent a digital code, much of biology can be usefully viewed from a somewhat abstract informational perspective. - The majority of the human genome is involved in regulation of gene expression rather than coding for proteins. - The idea of a species is a human construct, since biological variation is often continuous across history and geography. - The human genome is about 99% identical with the chimpanzee genome. The genomes of any two humans are about 99.95% identical. - The most common type of mutation is a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), and the human genome contains about a million SNPs. Individuals are distinguished from each other mainly by their particular combinations of SNPs, which tend to be inherited in small groups via blocks of DNA called haplogroups. - Presence and expression of particular SNPs can be observed using DNA microarrays. Genome-wide association studies involve evaluating the microarrays of a large number of people relative to observed traits, thus enabling correlations between particular SNPs and those traits to be discerned (a NY Times headline article just came out yesterday, 6/13/10, which describes how these biotechnologies have produced an explosion of scientific information, but with hardly any clinical benefit so far). - The common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals lived about 700,000 years ago. Neanderthals probably had language (which presumably indicates that the human line has had language at least that long). - The common male ancestor of today’s humans lived about 150,000 years ago, and the common female ancestor lived about 250,000 years ago. - Many phenotypes have both positive and negative adaptive effects, so balancing selection is often involved, resulting in heterozygotes being most common. - Many mental diseases express themselves across a continuum, rather than being all or nothing. - Biotechnology and bioinformatics have huge potential implications for our human/post-human future (and I think that Silver may underestimate the risks in this regard). One area where I strongly disagree with Silver is in his endorsement of the selfish gene concept. From this course itself, it’s clearly evident that evolution can’t act on individual genes, since it’s entire genomes which are transmitted and then expressed as interacting hierarchical systems within whole organisms. By contrast, individual genes are generally neither transmitted, expressed, nor selected for in isolation. The other main issue I have with the course is that, by viewing humans strictly from a biological/materialistic/informational perspective, and thus implicitly discounting other perspectives in which mind, consciousness, and self aren’t viewed in these terms, the course is reductionistic to an extent which borders on scientism. And for that matter, the course title also overpromises in the sense that, even if a strictly scientific perspective is to be adopted, Silver looks only at the biomedical perspective and hardly even acknowledges the existence of psychology and the social sciences. A more honest course title would be something like “what the latest developments in molecular genetics tell us about human individuals and populations, including their ancestry and their potential future.” For these reasons, I’m dropping my rating to 4 stars, but I still found much of this course to be fascinating and useful, so I can certainly recommend it to people who are interested in this subject matter. I liked it enough that I hope TTC will bring Silver back to produce another course.
Date published: 2010-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Execellent Overview I found this the best lecture series I have heard thus far. It was a good update on genetics for those of us who haven't studied genetics in several decades but need to know the field for current work. Some others have commented negatively on the professor's rather mobile left arm. I found his gesticulation actually helped me pay attention to his presentation! I would heartily recommend this series to anyone who is trying to stay up-to-date in the rapidly developing field of genetics. I felt he was easy to listen to and his lectures were definitely well organized.
Date published: 2010-04-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course After watching Prof Sadava's course "Understanding Genetics" I was motivated to learn more. Prof Sadava's course was a whirl wind tour focussing on applications. Prof Silver went into much more detail at the DNA level and a mutations. Prof Silver delivered the material well, he was clear and concise with just enough repetition to help understanding and memory. His diagrams and animations were excellent and also the content of each lecture linked in with the next lecture. Prof Silver is an excellent teacher and lecturer, perhaps the only thing that he could improve, as other reviewers have mentioned, are his arm movements. They are a little distracting but not a big deal. Overall, a well presented and informative course which I highly recommend. I would recommend watching this course first then Prof Sadava's.
Date published: 2010-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best courses I have bought yet! This is the science of “me!” The first thing I have to say is how up to date the material is in this course, given the rapid changes that occur in this field. Dr. Silver’s course is excellent especially if you are looking for an understanding of how evolution would explain how you and I came to be, billions of years after the first cell life. This course filled in the evolutionary loose ends for me. I have quite a few scientific courses from the Teaching Company and I love them all, but I do have to say that this was the first course where I never picked up my DVD’s remote control to see how much time was left until a lesson was over; they were all amazing. Starting with a survey of the ideas about life and inheritance, Professor Silver shows how Darwin’s theory of natural selection fits in with evolution and not just once, but many times throughout the course. There were many implications of Darwin's theories that I had never thought about until this course. The revelations were important indeed. His explanation of how the DNA molecule encodes genetic information in an elegantly simple way as discovered by Watson and Crick is just amazing. He uses many reachable analogies throughout the course, such as genetic information being very similar to music files purchased over the internet—a string of numbers copied to the hard drive of a computer. I found it interesting to see that humans and chimpanzees are not that far apart, genetically speaking; or how techniques have been devised that can link particular genes to diseases. We are introduced to the molecular clock. When carbon dating or archaeological methods are not available or useable, the known rate at which genetic mutations occur can be used as a clock to calculate how far apart two species are in evolutionary time. Just as Professor Silver says at the beginning of the course, “I’m still amazed by the fact that a single cell … is all that it takes to create a complete human being with a human brain.” This course is not meant to be a course in genetics so I won’t compare it to David Sadava’s “Understanding Genetics” course. (Read my evaluation on that course if you wish.) If nothing else, these courses are complementary. This is a course about you and me. I found it nice how the professor explained this course, not only in scientific terms, but also the implications with relation to our society as a whole, our philosophies and with many of his own personal insights. He gave us resources in the guidebook that we could use to trace our maternal and paternal ancestral lines through the comparison of DNA markers of people around the world. While this will not tell me who my ancestors were, it will tell me what path they had travelled through the countries of this world. Additionally, some resources would also be able to reveal to us any genetic predisposition to a variety of illnesses or traits, with the use of the DNA microarray. I look forward to investing in these technologies. I love the variety of his themed ties, a snappy dresser. If he could just keep his left arm from moving around so much as he explains the material. I did find it to be distracting at times, but then who am I to say…maybe it was a genetic predisposition?
Date published: 2010-02-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Simply a Must-View Course, No Question Dark Energy, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, Superstring Theory, these are the current topics of some of the best Teaching Company courses on state of the art science in their fields. Yet the course entitled The Science of the Self, given by Less Silver, is truly a level above them all. I will also throw into that former group, other recent courses addressing the scales of the universe in time and space as well. So how can any single course be superior to other, such compelling topics? The title gives away the answer. The Science of the Self is a course that also documents a "standard model," yet not that of cosmology, particle physics, theoretical particle physics, radioactive dating, eons, epochs, eras, or periods, but of us. That is, this course is the standard model of homo sapiens, which has a certain extra appeal for anyone who contemplates it, because, well, its about yourself, your family, your country, and your fellow human population on the planet. This is the science of the very species that created all these compelling topics to begin with. It trumps them all because a universe without intelligence to contemplate it, is simply not nearly as interesting at one which can. Since we're the sole species we know of so far, that can do this, it's just that much more compelling a topic. I guess we just like to talk about ourselves! Actually the story presented here, which leads up to the state of the art science being done in genetics, or molecular biology, is really no more amazing than those of the other courses I listed. For they too have made such incredible recent strides, that continual updating with new courses is warranted. However, this is our story, of humans, and Lee Silver presents findings that are especially seductive, because they appeal to anyone also interested in history, anthropology, primatology, medicine, evolution, philosophy, morality, how the brain works, the human condition, it seems like an endless list. This is the case here, because the topic of human genetics really touches on such a vast range of topics, and so many of them are mentioned in the course. Now it's about time I mention Lee Silver, who is an obvious authority in the field. More importantly for the viewers of course, is his presentation. Your average scientist will generally not be an ideal lecturer, unless you like sitting though seminars on somewhat dry subjects. However, Less Silver is just as human as the subject on which he lectures, so he is better than average I would say. I liked how he seemed to tell a story that unraveled, where he was learning right along with us, instead of always being pedagogical. For example, he openly shares his own genetic information in many courses. Since it's now possible for us as viewers to do the same thing, and he lists several of their websites, this makes it seem like we can also achieve this on his level as well. So perhaps his level of knowledge isn't so unattainable after all then? Another recent course on genetics was released with David Sadava, and I had finished half of it last year. I suppose that fact alone is enough to compare these two courses. I mean that I literally could not stop watching The Science of Self, and finished the entire 24 lectures in just several days. I simply don't remember that happening since I was introduced to the Teaching Company by watching Robert Greenberg's well-known course, How to Listen to and Understanding Great Music. So this course is like the proverbial book one simply cannot put down, it's on that sort of level. This is a good segue into the course material itself, being in such a state of flux and advancement. Lee uses a great example from his own book, which years ago predicted when the human genome would be completed, which came true in our present day, long before he estimated would. Again, this brings him down to our level a bit, so we can better share with him the feeling of nothing less than pure astonishment at the pace of discovery in the field. Of course this means that even the Science of the Self may not be so up to date for very long. I would heartily endorse any follow-up course by Lee Silver in that case. Now all of the concepts and information presented here, would not be nearly as effective, had there not been a large number of graphics included. I think the real value of this is most realized when Lee is talking about complex aspects, yet doesn't have a plot on the screen. That seems to be the exception, again, since there are so many in each lecture, and that is a key reason for the success of the course. It's hard to imagine listening to this course by audio, without the aid of these graphics, so perhaps this is not the best course for the commute. An accurate way to sum up the course, might be to mention its balance. It has the right amount of intrigue, yet balanced with a cold, hard, reality check. That is, there are stunning findings presented here relating to human history, granted, some more speculative than others, yet that is balanced with the real-world applications in the field as far as genetic diseases. So I think that applies in many other instances to this course, including the fact that our own genetics themselves are perhaps best when balanced between the extremes of bi-polar, schizophrenia, and the like.
Date published: 2010-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good overview of what's new The thing I found most interesting about this course is what and how we can know what we know about genetics. The rate that we are progressing in understanding life is growing exponentially. Dr. Silver shows us what you can know about your own genome from a simple saliva test from 23andme. He shows us what his own genome tells him. For example, he is fairly certain that he is a descendant of Genghis Khan. If you want to understand molecular biology then watch The Teaching Company's course "Biology: The Science of Life." If you want to be amazed about all the latest developments in genomics research then watch this course.
Date published: 2010-01-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good Overview, Poorly Delivered Lee Silver present a comprehensive overview of the field of genomics. I found the second half of the course more interesting, particularly those lectures on Evolution and Dispersal of Human Species, Genetics and Disease, and Genetics and the Human Mind. The graphics were particularly informative and supported the text and themes of the course material. The major problem in this product was the lecturer's presentation style, which included repeated gesticulations of Dr. Silver's left arm. In many lectures, I found myself concentrating on his arm movements rather than what he was saying. If viewers can ignore these distractions, they can find value in this course. For this reason I have downgraded the course to an average rating.
Date published: 2009-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from mind-blowing stuff The strength of this course is the currency and outright "coolness" of its topics in popular genetics, presented by a scientist obviously living on the cutting edge, Lee Sllver. After a somewhat slow introduction to genetics in the first 10 lectures, the lectures seemed to become progressively more mind-blowing. My previous exposure to genomics suggested the topic was interesting. Silver's special talent is to bring the full implications of this amazing science to light, and not merely in scientific, but also in social, philosophical, and, so often, personal terms. Sitting here in late 2009, I'd expect this course to feel dated by 2012...which I take as a good thing. For example, Silver describes today's state of the art in gene therapy, but significant advances are certain to be made in the near future that could not be omitted from a lecture made in 2012. Again, I take the time-sensitive nature of this material as a positive, and hope that TTC intends to update this exciting course in the future. The introduction to genetics at the beginning of this course, while short by necessity, nonetheless could have been better. My personal interest in genetics led me to purchase David Sadava's "Understanding Genetics", which I found a superior introduction and which deepened my appreciation for the real meat of Silver's "Science of Self".
Date published: 2009-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from DNA & YOU! This course is very well presented. A gifted teacher presents the latest advances in genetics, coupled with personal insights that bring the subject to life. Professor Silver has a clear sharp focused style that enlightens the subject and the student with effortless interesting facts drawn from common experiences of everyday life. Yet, you come away with an understanding of the advances of the last 50 years and the last 50 days! The advances that will come will never surprise you. He is a sharp dresser, unlike some professors who wear the same suit for 24 lectures! The philosophy presented is reasonable, non biasedl and necessary for any discussion of this subject. I recommend this course to scientist and non scientist.....You will come away with a new appreciation of life's history!
Date published: 2009-09-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and Provocative The course description includes a variety of fascinating questions that this course is supposed to address. Ultimately, Professor Silver's course focuses less on those answers than on presenting an incredibly clear and up-to-date introduction to what we are learning about the human genome. The course is somewhat uneven, as it includes a fairly general and elementary explanation of Mendel's and Darwin's contributions, then jumps into human genetics at a fairly deep level. The information covered is very new, and perhaps because of that, I find it difficult to sum up succinctly what the goals of this course might have been. Nevertheless, the material is interesting, Professor Silver's presentation is clear and concise, and the graphics are extremely helpful.
Date published: 2009-09-15
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