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Major Transitions in Evolution: context, causes, consequences

Instructors: Harold P. de Vladar*, Nick Barton, Eörs Szathmáry, Bill Martin and Tecumseh Fitch.

* Coordinator




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 exaptations


This course is a collaboration between IST Austria and the Natural History Museum Vienna.

External link 1 


There will be substantial amounts of 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.    
Date Time Topic Instructor
May 3rd, 2017 16:45-18:15 Introduction to the Major Transitions HPdV
  18:30-20:00 Museum tour HPdV
May 10th, 2017 16:45-18:15 Types of transitions ESz
  18:30-20:00 First replicators HPdV
May 16th, 2017 11:00-13:00 Origins of Life WFM
  13:30-15:00 Origin of the genetic code HPdV
May 24th, 2017 16:45-18:15 Origin of sex and syngamy NB
  18:30-20:00 Museum Activity  
May 31st, 2017 16:45-18:15 Eukaryotic cells HPdV
  18:30-20:00 Museum Activity HPdV
June 7th, 2017 16:45-18:15 Multicellularity HPdV
  18:30-20:00 Eusociality HPdV
June 14th, 2017 16:45-18:15 Origins of Language TF
  18:30-20:00 Cultural Evolution HPdV
June 21st, 2017 16:45-18:15 Final Evaluation I HPdV
  18:30-20:00 Final Evaluation II HPdV


Task Due Date
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Ch. 1 AND Szathmáry and Maynard Smith (1995) 03/05
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Chs. 3.4, 4.1-4.3, 4.6 10/05
Discuss: Examples of innovation by gene duplication 10/05
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Reminder Ch.3 and Chs. 5&6 16/05
Hand in: Summary sheet for Origin of replicators 16/05
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Ch. 7.9 and 9 24/05
Read: Barton et al. Evolution textbook Ch. 23 24/05
Hand in: Summary sheet for Origin of Metabolism 24/05
Hand in: Summary sheet for Origin of the Genetic Code 24/05
Hand in: Exercise of codon replacement 24/05
Read: Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1995) Ch. 8 31/05
Hand in: Summary sheet for Origin and Evolution of Sex 31/05
Hand in: Museum exercise report 31/05


Download summary sheet

May 3: 

May 10:

May 16 

May 24

May 31



Lecture slides