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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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 104-page printed course guidebook

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  • 104-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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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 5 out of 5 by from All Courses. Courses have both audio and visual presentation of material. Great for learning.
Date published: 2019-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative Just what I've been looking for to gain foundational information on genetics.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very good Of the approximately 60 great courses that I have watched this one and it's presenter Professor Silver are far and away the best. Prof. Silver is an excellent teacher and had my full attention for the entire 24 lecture series.
Date published: 2019-03-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Out of date, narrow views, anti-religion 3 December 2018 Great Courses: The Science of Self Lee Silver # 1592 Very disappointing. Out of date in 2018 – published in 20019 Is a brief presenting of one man’s narrow views of current microbiology. Is really a poorly presented rambling of anti “soul”, anti-God, etc. He does not realize that there are many different realms – the material realm of physical things where the rules of math & the scientific method are very useful. Many other realms : include emotion, feeling, ethics, spiritual, love, beauty, etc. We have no good tools to investigate most of these other realms e.g. we do not say that this red rose is 3.6 % more beautiful than that prink tulip. We each know that we have feelings of love or dislike, but we do not use numbers to talk about these realms. On what is life chapter 2 he fails to define life, also ignores the many different attempts to define life. His “scientific” definition of life is “Just” a collection of molecules that get energy, process information & repeat ! He makes a side note that reproduction, self-awareness, growth, etc. maybe apart of life. No discussion of emergent properties. Very narrow view. Does he love his wife? He says that DNA is just a digital string of information – but is also a lot of chemical items. Talks about the “theory of mind” with no explanation. Most of the charts are poorly done. No labelling of the X & Y axis’s. Makes comments about a chart when what he says does not match what I see on the chart. Confusing. Poor & limited discussions about many topics, like micro arrays. No real help here. He claims that life is just information ! , carried by the genes. This is like saying that music by Mozart is just information on paper. When you hear the music played, there really is something new – we “feel” it. Another realm. Has maps showing how some people are more risk taking than others. Very far stretch . One map shows Orientals (like Japanese) are risk averse! Pearl Harbor? Weird conclusions. He makes many very poor analogies with computers. As a 90 year old ex-computer guy – started working with computers in 1958 at UCLA, it seems that Dr. Silver has never written a computer program. His analogy is similar to many years ago when industrial machines came along – some made the analogy of the human mind to machines or clocks, etc. When you compare the “mind” to a computer – you seem to be unaware of how computers really work. Is way out of date published in 2009, now 2018. Says no Neanderthal genes in modern humans – wrong now know to be often 1 to 3% Says synapses are only chemical, now known to be both chemical & electrical, etc., many more. His presentations are strange – he has a habit of looking at his left hand as tho it is some object is very distracting. On our future – very strange – implies that the brain might get bigger – ignores how a bigger head will get out of the lady. Says we should plan now to populate other planets around other suns! No discussion of energy require, etc. So, several questionable statements, or some even wrong. His anti-religion bias is a distraction. Clearly as of 2018 out of date. This one is going back
Date published: 2018-12-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Difficult to follow Not what I expected. Would like to return this class
Date published: 2017-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Science of Life A fascinating course superbly taught and presented. Amazing graphics Highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Kicks in on the second disc I thought I'd chime in on the prof's lecture style. At first I was wary, thinking the fellow would be a bore. This opinion was dashed once he got into some of the heavier material. I was impressed how he would describe the more cutting edge material with such precision. Granted, he doesn't dance upon the stage but he does what I love most in TC courses... he wanders around in his brain and tells us what he sees in there. Beats the hell out of a snappy teleprompter-driven presentation. If you are up to snuff on biochemistry, speed through the first disc and settle in for some solid learning afterward.
Date published: 2015-04-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from An brief introduction to the science of self. Woefully out of step in time with the vast research taking place within the field of epigenetics. This is largely "old time DNA religion."
Date published: 2015-04-14
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