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What Darwin Didn't Know: The Modern Science of Evolution

Join a noted field biologist to survey how the theory of evolution has evolved.
What Darwin Didn't Know: The Modern Science of Evolution is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 67.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I learned a lot about Darwin I didn't know. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2022-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is one of your BEST courses! We loved this course! Its really wonderful, one of the very best of all the probably hundred that we have gotten from you. Our family is fighting over who gets the DVDs next. Thank you!
Date published: 2022-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really GREAT Integration of Many DIsciplines. I would be lying if I said I did not previously know of many things that came into this course. However the instructor's ability to weave different strands of knowledge from fields seemingly unrelated, into a new tapestry made this course a real pleasure, for me anyway. Along the way I learned a lot more about Darwin, what he knew, what he knew that he did NOT know, and what he had no idea he did NOT know. Enjoyable as well as educational, what I have come to expect from "The Great Courses.
Date published: 2022-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great examples of species creatin their niche Once again, the number of 4 and 5 stars versus lower ratings tells you this is a great course. What this course has done for me is to motivate me to find courses that go back to the very beginnings of organisms on primordial earth and understand how they started and developed into more complicated organisms. TGC has some other courses on this subject which I will have to take a look at. This course mostly covers what research has found after Darwin.
Date published: 2022-04-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative Doctor Solomon is an engaging and informative lecturer. I've listened to most of the lectures more than once.
Date published: 2022-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Examples I bought the audio version of this class and loved it. Professor Solomon did so much with the theme, and wow - did I learn a lot. There were so many new things about evolution I learned, and the examples were truly fascinating.
Date published: 2022-02-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from EVOLUTION Done Well Physicians are acutely aware of accuracy limitations when discussing human conditions. We present most diagnoses as conditional rather than concrete and rely on biopsy and other techniques to bolster or change our original conclusion. Unfortunately, older courses on evolution do the reverse: they presume a conclusion based on their finite understanding of evolution and say their conclusion is correct based on that pre-conception. For example, Huxley's non-evidence based linear progression from hunched ape to human is debunked in L12. Solomon, as the course title suggests, is acutely aware of the limitations of prior evolutionary theory. His evolution update is vast. HIGHLIGHTS: L22 does not discuss COVID but clears much of the confusion I have recently witnessed about vaccines. L9: Darwin missed observing how "sex prevents new varieties from maintaining their distinctiveness". Solomon uses it to show how "gene flow" enabled the new Homo sapiens sapiens to avoid species diversity while attaining geographical diversity. L23: Those who don’t like broccoli, cabbage, etc can decry them as known mutants. L18 (Many will need the course to follow this): Most amusing was Solomon’s combining medicine's long-appreciated mitochondrial endosymbiosis with parallel discussions of lichens, suggesting that our best POV of individuals is as chimeric “holobionts". This evolutionary forefront would invalidate Darwin’s premise of “…individuals as the fundamental units of evolution", but may be correct. It also allows for herbal medicine and L24’s concerns about the sterility of urban environments. OBSERVATIONS: Evolution is NOT a simple concept. L9's admission that "there is not a single definition of species" adds hard reality to the course. L11: Phylogenic evolutionary trees are best created with a “parsimonious" viewpoint: the fewer evolutionary changes needed, the more likely a phylogeny. However, horizontal transfer muddles even this. L13: Lenski's experiment to differentiate between Gould's view of evolutionary capriciousness and Morris' view of its determinism was masterful. Lenski's initial "mere chance" changes that later became nearly parallel evolutions are reminiscent of the "strange attractors" of L7 in TGC’s “Chaos" by Strogatz. SOME LECTURES on newer evolutionary areas were less convincing. L21 on aging seemed a bit grasping but it is a new area. L24 ends the course with an interesting mutational diversity rationale for the long observed choice of women for somewhat older males. CONCLUSION: Despite the CON below, this course is highly recommended because it is the best data-driven discussion of evolution available. It impresses one with the enormity and diversity of evolutionary mechanisms. Solomon's comprehensive effort is compact, orderly and prodigious. He does well differentiating between adaptive evolutionary changes (Ex: L19), random mostly harmful mutations, and internal cellular biochemical on-off adaptive mechanisms - though the lines are necessarily fuzzy. The excellent guidebook provides well thought out quizzes, a timeline and glossary. The audio is adequate. CON: My 1600 page Grant's Anatomy and I respectfully disagree with L15's: "...(vertebrate) eyes suffer from a critical design flaw: the photoreceptors are facing backwards" thus requiring a blind spot that a squid doesn't have. Yes, the squid, in the low light of ocean depths may need its photoreceptors forward. But we who walk from a dark room into a noonday desert sun (with our pupils constricting and our hands rapidly moving to further shade our retinas from damaging solar energy) should easily understand why Grant's observations show the vertebrate eye to be the NASCAR version of the squid design. Grant's notes: 1.) "The blood flow through the (layer at the back of the eye) is high..." - a feature thought to aid cooling of the retina; 2.) "The retinal pigment...cells...have long microvilli which contact the outer ends of rod and cone(s)". These "play a major role in the turnover of rod and cone...components. The failure of this process leads to blindness through...undegraded photoreceptor components within the retina." 3.) The retina pigment positioned near the photoreceptors "...acts as an anti-reflection device" sharpening vision 4.) Such protection, rapid regeneration devices and high blood flow are needed "because the energy absorbed could (otherwise) be dissipated as heat". "Indeed, very intense light may damage the pigment cells and cause...breakdown". Children applying a lens to paper on a sunny day agree with Grant when the paper starts to smoke.
Date published: 2021-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Presentation of a Fascinating Subject. I watched these lectures as a follow to Stephen Nowiki’s “Biology: The Science of Life”. Dr. Solomon is an excellent presenter and made the information relevant to current topics. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2021-10-27
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Taught by Professor Scott Solomon of Rice University, this course follows the revolution in biology and genetics sparked by Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. In Darwin's day, there were many gaps and uncertainties in his theory-most of which were conclusively solved by his successors. Throughout, Dr. Solomon contrasts what Darwin knew with our tremendous increase in knowledge today.


Scott Solomon

Insect species outnumber all the other animal groups combined.


Rice University

Scott Solomon is an Associate Teaching Professor at Rice University, where he teaches ecology, evolutionary biology, and scientific communication. He received his PhD in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from The University of Texas at Austin. He has also worked as a visiting researcher with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and with São Paulo State University in Rio Claro, Brazil.

Scott has taught field biology courses at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado and in the rainforests and coral reefs of Belize. He has also been a resident associate at Baker College, one of Rice’s residential colleges, and served as a faculty fellow at Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, where he acted as a liaison to other faculty. He received the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching and the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award from Rice University as well as the Rising Star Award from the University of Illinois Laboratory High School.

Scott is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society for the Study of Evolution. He also serves as an associate editor for the Journal of Tropical Ecology. He regularly lectures on science topics at museums, schools, churches, and TEDx events. His writing and photography have appeared in such publications as Aeon, Nautilus, Slate, and WIRED. He is the author of Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution.

By This Professor

What Darwin Didn't Know: The Modern Science of Evolution
Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Essential Species
What Darwin Didn't Know: The Modern Science of Evolution


What Darwin Knew and Why It Still Matters

01: What Darwin Knew and Why It Still Matters

Retrace Darwin’s path to his theory of evolution by natural selection, which appeared in his masterpiece The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Encounter collector Alfred Russel Wallace’s astonishing, almost identical, key insight. Detail the types of evidence, not known to Darwin, that have accumulated in the century and a half since his time, deepening and extending his ideas to a remarkable degree.

32 min
Inheritance: Darwin’s Missing Link

02: Inheritance: Darwin’s Missing Link

Missing from On the Origin of Species is any account of how traits pass from one generation to the next. Explore the work on genetic inheritance by Gregor Mendel, whose pioneering rules of heredity remained essentially unknown for 35 years. Follow up with 20th-century pioneers including Thomas Hunt Morgan, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and others, who established the “modern synthesis” of evolutionary biology.

33 min
Genome Mutations: Evolution’s Raw Material

03: Genome Mutations: Evolution’s Raw Material

The arrival of genetics in the early 20th century addressed what Darwin did not know about inheritance, but there was more to uncover: how do genes function, and where do variations come from? Trace the discovery of DNA as the carrier of genetic information and the realization that mutations and other structural changes in DNA are a source of the modifications that underlie natural selection.

33 min
Gene Flow versus Natural Selection

04: Gene Flow versus Natural Selection

Natural selection is not the only mechanism driving evolution. In this lecture, discover how the movement of individuals leads to gene flow between populations. Travel to the Galapagos Islands and neighboring Cocos Island to see how finches evolved into multiple species in the Galapagos archipelago but stayed a distinct species on isolated Cocos. Consider the implications for human evolution.

31 min
Geology and Genes: The Geography of Life

05: Geology and Genes: The Geography of Life

Trace the importance of geology in Darwin’s thinking and his many observations that make sense only in light of the theory of plate tectonics, which was not developed until the 1960s. Chart the breakup, movement, and reassembly of continental plates that dispersed related flora and fauna all over the planet. Also look at the Wallace Line in Indonesia, which separates Asian from Australian species.

31 min
Genetic Drift: When Evolution Is Random

06: Genetic Drift: When Evolution Is Random

Explore how population bottlenecks and the founder effect lead to random changes in the frequency of genes, an independent mechanism of evolution known as as genetic drift. Darwin had an inkling of this process when he proposed that “spontaneous variations” play a role in evolution. But genetic drift has proved far more significant than he ever envisioned. For example, it has played a key role in human evolution.

32 min
Rapid Evolution within Species

07: Rapid Evolution within Species

Darwin thought evolution was an imperceptibly slow process, but it can happen remarkably quickly. Review Peter and Rosemary Grant’s famous studies of Galapagos finches, along with the work of other scientists on guppies in Trinidad, moths in England, and foxes in Siberia. These show evolution playing out in real-time as creatures adapt to changing conditions within a few generations.

29 min
Evolution in the Lab

08: Evolution in the Lab

One thing Darwin never anticipated was that evolution would be observed in the laboratory. In this lecture, analyze lab experiments that shed light on the minute details of evolution, helping to settle a long-standing debate: Is the outcome of evolution random or predictable? Also cover digital life simulations, which inspire new ideas that can be tested with living populations.

31 min
The Many Origins of Species

09: The Many Origins of Species

Despite its title, On the Origin of Species does not fully address how new species arise. Delve into this complex problem by investigating what a species is. Consider definitions based on morphological, biological, phylogenetic, and genomic distinctions. Then examine the reproductive barriers, both before conception and after, that can lead to the origin of new species.

32 min
Cambrian Explosion to Dinosaur Extinction

10: Cambrian Explosion to Dinosaur Extinction

Darwin was puzzled by the sudden appearance of complex, diverse flora and fauna in the fossil record roughly 540 million years ago, a period known as the Cambrian explosion. And Darwin had no idea that the history of life on Earth has included five big mass extinction events—including the demise of the dinosaurs—followed by accelerated periods of evolution that often took life in radically new directions.

32 min
Reconstructing the Tree of Life with DNA

11: Reconstructing the Tree of Life with DNA

Darwin envisioned the history of evolution as a great Tree of Life, in which all the branches are connected by ancestry. Explore the modern version of this idea, which has been revolutionized by DNA sequencing. Investigate the concept of phylogenetics and the surprisingly close link between single-celled microorganisms, plants, and animals. Also probe the phenomenon of “jumping” genes.

31 min
Human Evolution in All Directions

12: Human Evolution in All Directions

Zoom in on the branch of the Tree of Life that gave rise to our species. Fossil discoveries and insights from DNA have led researchers to abandon the iconic image of a linear progression from hunched apes to upright humans. In its place is a much more intertwined tree for humans and their closest living and extinct relatives, including Neanderthals and the recently discovered Denisovans.

32 min
Evolution Doesn’t Repeat, but It Rhymes

13: Evolution Doesn’t Repeat, but It Rhymes

Convergent evolution occurs when natural selection causes different species to evolve in similar ways. Does this mean that evolution follows a predetermined path? Focus on the recent debate between scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris. Gould perceived contingencies and unpredictability, but Conway Morris saw repetition and consistency. How do these views relate to human evolution?

30 min
The Evolution of Extreme Life

14: The Evolution of Extreme Life

Life is even more adaptable than Darwin could have known. In this lecture, investigate extremophiles—organisms that flourish in extreme conditions. These have made biologists rethink the limitations of life on Earth. From bacteria existing miles underground that divide once every 10,000 years to creatures thriving next to superheated undersea volcanoes, life is programmed to adapt and survive.

32 min
Imperfect Nature: Ad Hoc Body Designs

15: Imperfect Nature: Ad Hoc Body Designs

While Darwin knew of inefficient anatomical features of humans and other animals, he didn’t consider these a distinct category of evidence for natural selection. Explore ad hoc body designs—from our imperfect eyes and sexual anatomy, to the bizarre faces of flounders and the false thumbs of pandas. Each adaptation shows evolution devising a solution that is “good enough,” even if it is not ideal.

31 min
The Sterile Worker Paradox

16: The Sterile Worker Paradox

Why was Darwin afraid that ants might undermine his theory of natural selection? Delve into the sterile worker paradox: the puzzle of why ants and other “eusocial” species evolved to have large numbers of non-reproducing offspring. Since the ability to reproduce is central to natural selection, this feature, which is common among insects and also present in other animals, demands explanation.

33 min
Coevolution: Peace Accords and Arms Races

17: Coevolution: Peace Accords and Arms Races

Darwin saw that natural selection not only leads to species that evolve to their mutual advantage, but to enemies that wage an evolutionary arms race that ends up benefiting both sides. Study coevolutionary cases—from the yucca plant and its symbiotic partner, the yucca moth, to the fastest animal on Earth, the cheetah, and its prey the springbok antelope, which has evolved to be almost as fast.

32 min
Microbiomes: Evolution with Small Partners

18: Microbiomes: Evolution with Small Partners

On the Origin of Species failed to account for a major part of the Tree of Life, namely bacteria and other microorganisms. These represent the original forms of life, and they have played a central role in the evolution of every species since. Study the symbiotic role of microbes in the functioning of plants and animals, and consider the view that all organisms are, in part, microbial.

33 min
The Evolution of Brains and Behavior

19: The Evolution of Brains and Behavior

In Darwin’s lifetime, comparisons between the brains of different species were restricted to examinations of anatomy alone. Today, researchers use genetic tools to gain deep insights into how behaviors and sensory abilities evolve. Study behavior in creatures from fire ants to crows to humans, asking how did human brains get so large—and why are big brains so useful anyway?

31 min
The Evolution of Sex and Parenting

20: The Evolution of Sex and Parenting

Darwin devised his theory of sexual selection to explain many traits that can’t be understood through natural selection alone—from the peacock’s gaudy tail to the elaborate constructions of bowerbirds. Probe deeper to discover why sexual reproduction exists at all, what causes individuals to develop into males versus females, and why some males take on the role of raising the young.

32 min
The Evolution of Aging and Death

21: The Evolution of Aging and Death

Darwin’s writings seem to imply that evolution through natural selection should always favor longer lifespans. So why don’t we live forever (or at least for several centuries)? Consider ways that evolutionary processes account for aging and death. Weigh factors such as accumulated mutations, programmed cell death, and genes whose multiple effects are antagonistically at odds with one another.

32 min
Evolutionary Medicine

22: Evolutionary Medicine

Explore one of the ultimate applications of evolutionary principles: harnessing evolution to benefit human health. Study diseases such as malaria, AIDS, influenza, and cancer that evolve rapidly to outmaneuver the body’s changing defenses. Also contrast our modern lifestyle with the physiology we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors, who evolved to compete in a far different world.

32 min
Gene Editing and Directed Evolution

23: Gene Editing and Directed Evolution

Darwin contrasted natural selection with artificial selection—the time-tested techniques for selective breeding that promote desired traits in plants and animals. See how far we’ve come with 21st-century tools such as CRISPR, which allows precise edits to the DNA sequence of any species. Evaluate the promise and perils of this technology, which lets us take evolution into our own hands.

32 min
The Future of Human Evolution

24: The Future of Human Evolution

What does the future hold? Will we evolve into new species? Or have we reached an optimum state that will see minimal evolutionary changes? Weigh the impact of our ever-more-sophisticated technology and consider what will happen to humans who leave Earth for another planet with new physiological challenges. As you learn in this course, evolution isn’t just possible; it’s inevitable.

38 min