What you will study
This course gives a broad treatment of both the biological and the palaeontological aspects of evolution, and so will be particularly rewarding to anyone who has an interest in life, earth or environmental sciences.
In particular, the course demonstrates how small genetic changes within populations (microevolution) can occur both through natural selection (including sexual selection) and as a consequence of other effects, and how such processes can lead to adaptive and other differences between populations. It considers how new species can arise; how evolutionary relationships are reconstructed; and how evolutionary changes in the genetic controls on development – and variation in the rates of speciation and of extinction – can lead to large-scale evolutionary patterns (macroevolution). It also looks at how humans have been (and are) affecting the evolution both of themselves and other contemporary organisms.
The course is based on the book Evolution by Douglas J. Futuyma (Sinauer, 2009), which is provided. A full colour Companion Text guides the student through the course books. It provides links to the additional components, including exercises and assignments designed to develop and test mastery of the learning outcomes of the course. Computer-based work involves interactive learning packages, video presentations, analytical software on DVD and a tutor-group wiki activity. You’ll also have access to a website and both tutor-group and course-wide online forums. For practical investigations, you’ll use a home kit of replica fossil specimens, supported by a Practical Booklet. The outcomes of these investigations are assessed in the tutor-marked assignments. Other supporting material includes an Introduction and Guide to the course (with included Glossary), and a Specimen Examination Paper.
Following introductions to the scientific basis of evolutionary theory and the key phenomena of adaptation and organised biological diversity, the methods for reconstructing evolutionary relationships are addressed with the aid of an interactive learning package and tree-building software. Patterns of evolution, as inferred from comparative studies, the fossil record, and the distributions of organisms are considered next. Supporting material includes a multimedia case study on the evolution of plumage in dinosaurs and birds (which is revisited in later parts of the course). There is also an exercise based on a set of plaster replicas of fossil shells supplied in the Home Kit.
The focus then moves on to the sources of genetic variation, how it affects the growth and form of organisms, and the investigation of genetic diversity within populations, all of which prepares you for the project work. Sexual selection and the issues of conflict and cooperation within species are explored next.
Then follow explorations of species concepts, how new species evolve, and life history evolution and its implications for the diversity of reproductive modes. These topics are supported by multimedia activities. The rapidly expanding field of developmental evolution is also considered, with a return to the plumage case study by way of illustration.
Finally, after considering some general broad issues, the course finishes with a look at the impact of humans on the evolution both of themselves and of other organisms.