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

Course No. 1530
Professor Scott Solomon, PhD
Rice University
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Course No. 1530
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What Will You Learn?

  • Examine the state of speculation surrounding evolution when Darwin formulated his theory.
  • Uncover the gaps and uncertainties in Darwin's original theory.
  • Understand the key role played by Gregor Mendel in explaining genetic inheritance.
  • Explore the turn-of-the-20th-century research that consolidated Darwin's theory.
  • Understand the molecular biology revolution based on DNA.
  • Speculate on where the human species may be headed in further evolution.

Course Overview

Writing the final pages of his masterpiece The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin looked ahead to the work yet to be done on his groundbreaking theory of evolution by natural selection. “In the distant future,” he predicted, “I see open fields for far more important researches.”

How right he was. In the more than a century and a half since Origin was published in 1859, evolution has emerged as the fundamental concept in all of biology, explaining Earth’s endlessly diverse organisms while spawning new disciplines such as genetics, molecular biology, and evolutionary medicine. The tremendous progress in the fields that emerged from his original theories would have astounded even Darwin, who did not live to see developments such as:

  • The discovery of the rules of heredity;
  • The identification of DNA as the carrier of genetic information;
  • Fossil discoveries that fill major evolutionary gaps and offer new insights;
  • The recognition of multiple mass extinctions in Earth’s history;
  • The ability to read the genetic code of any organism; and
  • The power to manipulate genetic material.

And this is just a sample of the deep insights and remarkable conclusions that Darwin’s ideas inspired. What Darwin Didn’t Know: The Modern Science of Evolution charts this scientific revolution in 24 stimulating half-hour lectures suitable for curious learners at all levels, no matter what your background in science.

Darwin is renowned for his globe-circling voyage on the HMS Beagle when he was a young man, collecting observations that eventually led to the theory of natural selection. The outstanding teacher of What Darwin Didn’t Know is no less a world traveler. Professor Scott Solomon of Rice University has explored much of Earth’s amazing biodiversity as a field biologist, and he brings hands-on experience to these fascinating lectures, which cover 160 years of non-stop scientific advances.

The Theory of Evolution Takes Off

Professor Solomon begins by laying the foundation of Darwin’s theory—how he struggled to find an explanation for the tremendous variety within species, and how he hit on the idea that better-adapted organisms tend to survive and produce more offspring, driving evolution in the direction of beneficial traits. He was already familiar with artificial selection, accomplished through plant and animal breeding. Nature, Darwin surmised, must be following a similar path with natural selection favoring some randomly-appearing variations over others. Professor Solomon tells how another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, worked out an almost identical theory around the same time as Darwin (Darwin magnanimously ensured that their results were published simultaneously).

Darwin continued to refine his theory throughout his life, but much remained to be done by his successors. For example, the biggest gap in Darwin’s knowledge was the science of genetics, which was single-handedly pioneered by a little-known Austrian monk and part-time botanist named Gregor Mendel. Largely unnoticed until the early 20th century, Mendel’s conclusions about the discrete nature of hereditary traits proved to be the key to explaining how traits can pass intact from one generation to the next. With this, Darwin's theory that adaptive mutations can be transmitted gained a sound basis, and evolution took off as a rigorous and powerfully predictive science, accumulating steady improvements to Darwin’s original ideas, such as:

•     Natural selection in real time: Darwin believed that evolution always advances with extreme slowness. But biologists in the field have documented wild species—from Galapagos finches to flies infesting fruit—that acquire useful adaptations with stunning speed, sometimes in only a few generations.

•     Plate tectonics: Darwin noticed that obviously related species often exist on opposite sides of the world’s great oceans. This mystery was solved by the theory of plate tectonics, which shows that the continents move, dividing populations, which then evolve separately while retaining many common characteristics.

•     Universal genetic code: Darwin introduced the “Tree of Life” and the possibility that all of life evolved from a common ancestor, a view that was largely rejected in his own time. But biologists have demonstrated that every known type of life—from bacteria to human beings—uses the same DNA code inherited from a single ancestor.

The Road to Humans

Darwin did not deal with the evolution of humans in The Origin of Species, saving that controversial topic for The Descent of Man, which he published in 1871. Together with his colleague Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin argued that humans share a common ancestor with the great apes, based on the many similar anatomical features we share with them. In What Darwin Didn’t Know, you learn that the evidence for this connection has grown impressively since Darwin’s day. For example, recent DNA analyses show that our closest living relatives are chimpanzees. Next closest are gorillas and then orangutans. While the last common ancestor of all four lived around 10 million years ago, we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees until as recently as 5 to 7 million years ago. You also explore the following intriguing findings and conjectures about human evolution:

•     The perplexing path to us: Huxley proposed the classic view that humans evolved in a linear progression from primitive apes. But fossil discoveries show that the evolutionary path was much more complicated, with many branches, sub-branches, and dead-ends, along with one particular offshoot leading to Homo sapiens.

•     Neanderthals and Denisovans: Two extinct branches of the human family tree are the celebrated Neanderthals and a recently discovered species or sub-species called the Denisovans. Both interbred with humans at some point, and a small percentage of their DNA has spread widely through modern human populations.

•     The future of Homo sapiens: Is human evolution over thanks to modern medicine? Some biologists think so, but major evolutionary changes may be in our future as we exploit our ability to edit the human genome. Furthermore, any humans who leave the planet will face strong evolutionary pressures in extraterrestrial environments.

Evolution Is Inevitable

Professor Solomon points out that Darwin didn’t just suggest that species can evolve. One of the most important messages from the modern science of evolution is that evolution is a necessary feature of life. As long as life includes heredity and reproduction, all living things will evolve. Even a species that appears to have stayed the same for millions of years will turn out to have undergone many small changes, just to keep up with a changing environment. In short, evolution isn’t just possible. It’s inevitable.

In the final paragraph of The Origin of Species, Darwin slyly compared his discovery of evolution by natural selection to the revolution wrought by Isaac Newton with his law of universal gravitation. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin wrote about his theory, “…that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Just as Newton had no idea about Einstein, Hawking, or his many other successors, so Darwin was in the dark about the brilliant scientists who would build on his work, creating the biological golden age that we are living through today—a story told masterfully by Professor Solomon in this thrilling course.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    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. x
  • 7
    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. x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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  • 296-page printed course guidebook
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  • 296-page printed course guidebook
  • Questions and Answers
  • Timeline for the Modern Science of Evolution
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Your professor

Scott Solomon

About Your Professor

Scott Solomon, PhD
Rice University
Dr. 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, where his research explored the evolutionary origins of biodiversity in the Amazon basin. Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, he has worked as a visiting researcher with the...
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Reviews

What Darwin Didn't Know: The Modern Science of Evolution is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 20.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent -- just what I wanted! I purchased this a couple of weeks ago, so am still engaged in this course. And I do mean engaged! The lectures and book are interesting, technical enough, but not too technical. This is what I have learned to expect from The Great Courses!
Date published: 2019-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from clear and concise I am only through 6 of 24 lessons but really like the pace and logic of the presentation.
Date published: 2019-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I know more than Darwin This is a must have course! I’ve Justi completed the final lecture and thought I should arbitrarily least give a quick review and five stars to the Darwin team. It’s the best evolution course to date.
Date published: 2019-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Badly Needed Modern Course on Evolition This is the most modern course on genetics, evolutionary theory and practice offered by the Teaching Company. Scott Solomon does a great job laying out the foundations of evolutionare theory and shows in each lecture how the subject has progressed from Darwin’s time. Indeed, it’s amazing that Charles Darwin could reach his revolutionary conclusions about life, given the paucity of information available compared to today. This is a wonderful course and I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2019-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course on modern theory of evolution This a wonderful course which provides us with up to date knowledge of modern theory of evolution. The professor teaches extremely well. We enjoyed it greatly.
Date published: 2019-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Most Need-to-Know Courses I've Taken! This course is packed with information relevant to everyday modern life. I think everyone show know this info. It increased my understanding of genetics at least 10-fold, and led me to understand factors in evolution I had never before considered. The presentation was clear, engaging, and really, just blew me away. I loved this course!
Date published: 2019-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is an execptional series on Darwin Ants, Birds, Plants...... I have such a better understanding of evolution and life on our planet. The Professor was obviously very passionate about his curriculum. His presentation was at times a bit choppy with long pauses but the images and elements made up for it. Thank you for another great course.
Date published: 2019-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a Great Courses I enjoyed this course very much. Prof S is very knowledgable in his subject. More illustrations would have made this course even better, but the ones you do have are very good. I completed this course with a fuller understanding of evolution.
Date published: 2019-02-23
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