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Major Transitions in Evolution

Instructors: Harold P. de Vladar, Nick Barton, Eörs Szathmáry





The course is targeted for an audience of 5-20 young scientists (advanced graduate students, early postdocs). They should have previous basic knowledge on evolutionary biology. The course will not be heavily mathematical  but occasionally there will be some formal analyses. However the mathematical knowledge required should be standard for any graduate student of related areas to evolutionary biology.

Consequently, there no special pre-requisite for this course. We will make a direct jump into how to understand the origin and evolution of complex organism -or parts of them.

This course is a complement to basic curricula of Evolutionary Biology and should be considered as an advanced course.

The attendants should be at least familiar with the notions of selection, evolution cell biology and domains of life. Knowledge of math and chemistry is useful but not mandatory.

Most of the course is conceptual in the sense that it will be based on classroom discussions. However, several "field trips" (not really: rounds in the museum) will complement and enhance the knowledge and experience.

By the end of the course, students and attendants should have learnt:

  1. The basic notion of what a Major Transition is
  2. What differentiates a major transition from "normal" evolutionary change
  3. What are evolutionary innovations
  4. Think critically regarding evolution in its relation to the notion of pre-adaptations


This course is a collaboration between IST Austria and the Natural History Museum Vienna, and is supported by Parmenides Foundation.

External link 1 


There will be quite some reading.

There will be four methods of evaluation: 

  1. One seminar (15 min) which, depending on the size of the course will be individual or in groups
  2. A brief weekly homework that summarises the topic studied on the last session
  3. A group activity in the museum (tba)
  4. A simple individual exam




Final Grade

 You should not worry about grades but about learning.





The course will be at the premises of the Natural History Museum.   Entrance through Burgring 7, 1010 Vienna.    

Schedule (subject to change)

Date Time Topic Location
May 4th, 2016 11:00-12:00 Seminal lecture "The Major Transitions in Evolution" by Eörs Szathmáry  
  12:15-13:00 Field trip  
  13:00-14:00 Introductory session  
May 11th, 2016 16:45-18:15 Origin of metabolism  
  18:30-20:00 First replicators  
May 18th, 2016 16:45-18:15 Emergence of protocells  
  18:30-20:00 Origin of the genetic code  
May 25th, 2016 16:45-18:15 Origin of chromosomes  
  18:30-20:00 Origin of sex and syngamy (taught with Nick Barton)  
June 1st, 2016 16:45-18:15 Eukariotic cell + field trip  
  18:30-20:00 Multicellularity  
June 8th, 2016 16:45-18:15 Eusociality + field trip  
  18:30-20:00 Origin of language (taught with Eörs Szathmáry)  
June 15th, 2016 16:45-20:00 Group activities and individual evaluation  


File Due Date
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Ch. 1 AND Szathmáry and Maynard Smith (1995) May 4
Read: Szathmáry, E. (2015). Toward major evolutionary transitions theory 2.0. PNAS 112(33), 10104–10111. May 11
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Chs. 3 AND 4 May 11
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Chs. 5 - 7 May 18
Hand In: Summary sheets for "Origin of Metabolism" and "First Replicators" May 18
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Chs. 7, 9-10 May 25
Hand In: Summary sheet for "Origin of the genetic code" May 25
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Ch. 8, and selected sections of Chs. 12, 11, 15 (see below) June 1
Hand In: Summary sheet for "Protocells" and "Origins of Sex" June 1
Hand In: Summary sheet for "Eukaryotic Cell" and "Multicellularity" June 8
Hand In: Review of the Projection "Origins of Life" June 8
Hand In: Summary sheet for "Eusociality" and "Origin of Language" June 15

Additional Downloads

Central reading from

[MS&S95]  Maynard Smith, J. & Szathmáry, E., (1995). The Major Transitions in Evolution. Oxford. 346 pp.

Download the summary sheet

Literature to read before the sessions (the list will gradually grow):

May 4: 

May 11:

May 18: 

May 25:

June 1:

June 8:




Lectures slides



Szathmáry, E. (March 25, 2015). The Major Transitions in Evolution.
John Maynard Smith on the Origins of Life and the Major Transitions
The Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction: An example of an autocatalytic, self-sustained, cycle. Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction at Wikipedia