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Major Transitions in Evolutionary History

Module titleMajor Transitions in Evolutionary History
Module codeBIO3434
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Dr Xiaoya Ma (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks




Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

Throughout the history of life on Earth there have been a number of significant adaptive changes that have affected the course of evolution. These events can range from the first appearance of replicating molecules and the evolution of organic life itself from inorganic precursors, to the development of complex language and organized societies in modern humans. Changes in the biosphere can have profound impacts on the planet as a whole, such as the Great Oxygenation Event. Major transitions are not spread evenly over geological time, for example the first few billion years of Earth history is dominated by prokaryotic cells, until the evolution of the eukaryotic cell and the relatively rapid development of multicellular life 600 million years ago, as evidenced by the appearance of large body fossils in the geological record. One major transition can lead to another, and the diversity of animal life since the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ has increased exponentially. As with the evolution of eukaryotes, major transitions can also be the result of symbiotic relationships that can fundamentally change ecosystems, such as the rapid diversification of flowering plants and their pollinators since the end of the Cretaceous until the present day. This module will introduce you to some of the most important transitions in evolution, using fossil evidence where possible and subsequent effects on life and ecosystems over geological timescales in shaping life on Earth to this day and beyond.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to deepen your understanding of how major transitions in evolution have altered the course of life on Earth. The module will focus on various major transitions and how the outcomes have led to the current diversity of life, through an analysis of trends in macroevolution, the rise of major clades and coevolution between organisms and the environment. Understanding how modern life and ecosystems have evolved combined with how successful evolutionary strategies have survived environmental crises, such as mass extinctions, will develop your capacity to think critically about conditions needed for complex ecosystems and their resilience to change.

By attending the lectures and completing assessments, students will develop the following transferable analytical and research skills:

  • Critical thinking (learning to understand the reasons why organisms have evolved along certain pathways).
  • Time management (managing own time and group time to achieve course objectives).
  • Working with others (being respectful of other people’s views and opinions regarding course content, supporting others and taking initiative).
  • Communication (presenting work and ideas to others in various formats and responding well to questions).

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Describe in detail the major transitions in the evolution of life on Earth.
  • 2. Outline the major consequences of these transitions on course of evolution.
  • 3. Discuss how evolutionary events in the past may inform us about life on Earth today and in the future.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of palaeontology.
  • 5. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work.
  • 6. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in palaeontology.
  • 7. With minimal guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within palaeontology.
  • 8. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of the history of life on Earth with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 9. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 10. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 11. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance
  • 12. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary
  • 13. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

This module will begin by considering the evolution of life on Earth, looking in detail at the key steps that led to the present levels of biodiversity, including evolution of eukaryotes and photosynthesis, multicellularity and the rise of complex animal life. It will then evaluate the relative importance major evolutionary transitions and their impact on developing ecosystems, where possible using fossil evidence. This module will also look in detail at the impact of environmental change on past ecosystems, with consideration of the importance of current anthropogenic change for the future direction of life on Earth. This module will be delivered with face-to-face lectures, discussions and a one-day field trip to Lyme Regis.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching 22Lectures and one-day field trip
Guided independent learning 128Additional research, reading and preparation for module assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Discussions during lectures and field tripOngoing throughout the module1-13Oral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay 401500 words 1-11Written feedback sheet
Poster and poster presentation601 PowerPoint slide1-11Written feedback sheet


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay Essay 1-11August re-assessment period
PosterPoster1-11August re-assessment period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to re-submit an assessment as described in the table above. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Smith, J.M. & Szathmary, E. (2004) The Major Transitions in Evolution. Oxford University Press

Calcott, B., Sterelny, K. (2011) The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited. MIT Press.

Plus several up-to-date scientific papers, websites recommended for each lecture.

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Evolution, origin of life, the rise of vertebrates, invasion of the land, age of dinosaurs, inheritors of a new world, mass extinction events, environmental change,  radiation events,  

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


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NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


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Last revision date