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Major Transitions in Evolution

Join two brilliant and engaging professors on an amazing exploration of evolution's most important moments-the giant leaps that gave rise to nature's boundless diversity.
Major Transitions in Evolution is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 75.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lost opportunities The course covered a vast amount but was rushed and poorly presented. The timeline that appeared for a few seconds now and then was incomprehensible, and there was far too little use of images and too much talking to camera. The small amount of visual content was shown too briefly to make any sense of it, and instead of a coherent account of what the title promised, we got unexplained lists and arm-waving. The last instalment of mutual admiration added nothing and was a complete waste of time. This course could have been so much better.
Date published: 2024-06-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid, predictable, with flashes of brilliance I'm a fairly casual viewer, and my subjective view will be mediate through that lens; you have been warned, reader. I found both lecturers 'genial' as another reviewer aptly put it, and though both lacked a certain polish to their delivery (Martin's jokes suffered in the telling, and Hawks occasionally halting diction was a minor distraction), I enjoyed being in their company for the journey. The journey itself was interesting enough, but the material covered felt very familiar to me. This could be in part due to the lecture series' age (it's getting on a bit, now), and in part due to the fact I personally follow this topic in podcasts and on YouTube, so I'm not coming at the content terribly fresh. Neither is a criticism of the course, per se; it's simply an observation about my own capacity to enjoy that which is aimed a centimetre or two below my level of understanding. There were, however, a few places where I was riveted. In particular, the discussions that leant into ecology and paleobotany to paint a complex picture of how plants and their co-evolution with animal species changed the literal and figurative evolutionary landscapes of their times... they were great, as Martin and Hawks themselves observe in their wrap up lecture. That wrap up lecture was also an interesting and welcome touch; seeing the two professors react and sum up was an interesting and dynamic way to wrap up the course. But perhaps the highlight was the truly excellent 23rd episode, where Hawks really challenged and ploughed up my understanding of evolution by discussing how human evolution has accelerated in the past 40,000 years. All in all, while some segments went in one ear and out the other, overall, there was plenty to like here, as a casual viewer, and some real food for thought. Next, I think, a course on botany.
Date published: 2023-09-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic and Informative Course This has been one of the best courses I have taken. Excellent presentations, extremely knowledgeable professors and great discussions at the end. I did not have any ideas about so many transitions in history before. I knew about ape to human transitions but did not know about so many other important ones including 1) transitions from soft shell to hard, from marine to land, dinosaurs to birds, and so on..
Date published: 2023-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course Five Stars, no question! It answered many questions that have been puzzling me for years. More important, it gave me lots of ideas to ponder. Great professors.
Date published: 2023-02-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from You will have to watch more than once. I'm on my third time with this course. There is so much information to assimilate, once doesn't work for me.
Date published: 2023-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting course Takes evolution from absolutely nothing to the current day and all the steps in between. Although there are many words that hard to pronounce in this course <g>, it is a fascinating story to hear.
Date published: 2022-06-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A Tale of Two Professors This course has two professors who have markedly different approaches. Similar to another recent reviewer, I would highly rate Professor Hawks but was unimpressed with Martin. To see why, I quote other Great Courses. Professor Martin presents micro- and macroevolution almost entirely by scientific nomenclature. This should be an enormous caution for solely using Martin's approach. As the Great Course "What Darwin Didn't Know" (Solomon, Lecture 9) points out: "there is not a single definition of species". When Martin tries to venture beyond, he gets visibly uncomfortable. EXAMPLE: he states that all sorts of families of animals suddenly and independently developed external/internal skeletons because "there was more calcium in the ocean". While the calcium ion is needed for skeleton formation, it’s not that easy. In “Nature of Earth” (John Renton, L9) explains a combination of CO2 and temperature is involved in oceanic calcium levels: “Carbon dioxide is very water-soluble and, when dissolved, makes carbonic acid. Calcium carbonate is dissolved by carbonic acid and goes into solution as the bicarbonate ion and the calcium ion." "This reaction is favored by COLD WATER.” (Emphasis mine). So, to get elevated Ca ion in the ocean, we need high CO2 levels and COLD. But the deposition of shells requires a temperature OPPOSITE. Dr Renton explains: “When cold oceanic water saturated with calcium bicarbonate is WARMED, the reaction is reversed. The calcite accumulates as a carbonate mud which…becomes…limestone” and adds: “The same chemical process is used by certain animals…that have shells.” Yet INTERNAL skeletons are found in COLD-WATER ANIMALS like fish. The unanswered question regarding skeletal formation is: how did that happen simultaneously across animal families across the globe? Martin teases but does not answer. Conversely, Solomon (L12) specifically debunks such non-evidence based, linear evolutionary progressions. Clearly, much more is involved than “there was more calcium in the ocean". Davis describes the astounding complexity of calcium biochemistry in “Foundations of Organic Chemistry”. Hazen warns in his L1 of the Great Course “Origins of Life”: “It is possible that life emerged by an almost infinitely improbably sequence of difficult chemical reactions. If that’s true, then living planets must be rare…that Earth (may be) the only living planet.” PROFESSOR HAWKS much shorter potion of "Major Transitions" is a delight, presenting anthropology as science. He nicely tackles areas of anthropology where science seems to have contradicted itself. He does this with an excellent anatomical/functional approach. SUMMARY: I do agree with Martin's analysis that sometimes scientists cherry-pick specimens to look for items that agree with their personal views of how "it should have happened". The experiences of the two professors are quite different. Although I returned the course, Hawks smaller part may well be worth purchasing "Major Transitions".
Date published: 2022-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Packed with information I took advantage of a recent sale and stocked up on my TGC DVD collection. This title appealed so I started watching it from my Digital Library function rather than waiting for the DVD to arrive. I'm half way through and think the course is absolutely brilliant. So much information and very well presented most of the time. Professor Martin is a very entertaining lecturer and is also very enthusiastic about this subject. So much so that he occasionally stumbles over the names of which ever form of life he is telling us about but there are plenty of images with labels on so that's not a problem. I treated myself to a used copy of DK Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth as it really compliments this course.
Date published: 2022-05-05
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Embark on an unforgettable look into the past with Major Transitions in Evolution, which tells the science-detective story of the giant leaps that gave rise to nature's boundless diversity. In these 24 lavishly illustrated lectures by two engaging professors-paleontologist Anthony Martin and paleoanthropologist John Hawks-investigate the conditions that led to the first complex cells, flying insects, flowering plants, dinosaurs, mammals, modern humans, and more. In the process, you'll gain a powerful understanding of the present world.


Anthony Martin

To better overcome the challenges of confronting deep time when studying evolution, paleontology and geology are the most important sciences.


University of Georgia

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

By This Professor

Major Transitions in Evolution
Major Transitions in Evolution


Macroevolution and Major Transitions

01: 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.

33 min
Paleontology and Geologic Time

02: 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.

31 min
Single-Celled Life-Prokaryotes to Eukaryotes

03: 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.

28 min
Metazoans-The Earliest Multicellular Animals

04: 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.

27 min
The Development of Skeletons

05: 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.

29 min
The Rise of Vertebrates

06: 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.

29 min
Colonization of the Land

07: 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.

33 min
Origins of Insects and of Powered Flight

08: 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.

30 min
Seed Plants and the First Forests

09: 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.

34 min
From Fish to 4-Limbed Animals

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.

29 min
The Egg Came First-Early Reptile Evolution

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.

30 min
The Origins and Successes of the Dinosaurs

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.

29 min
Marine and Flying Reptiles

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.

28 min
Birds-The Dinosaurs among Us

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....

31 min
The First Flowers and Pollinator Coevolution

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.

33 min
Egg to Placenta-Early Mammal Evolution

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.

31 min
From Land to Sea-The Evolution of Whales

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?"

29 min
Moving on Up-The First Primates

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.

32 min
Apes-Swinging Down from the Trees

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.

32 min
From 4 Legs to 2-The Hominin Radiation

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?

31 min
First Humans-Toolmakers and Hunter-Gatherers

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.

32 min
From Homo to sapiens-Talking and Thinking

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.

32 min
Our Accelerating Evolution

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.

32 min
Reflections on Major Transitions

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

33 min