Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Course Descriptions > History of Life

History of Life

Mitchell W. Colgan
, College of Charleston


This Honor's Geology Class provides an overview of the origin and evolution life. The course uses geological and paleontological methods to help the student appreciate scientific approaches to testing and verifying hypotheses. Course material emphasizes vertebrate evolution.

Course Type:
Entry Level Historical Geology

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture is taught by the professor and the lab is taught by TAs.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This is the second class in a two-course general education science sequence for honors students. The students completed an environmental geology class before attending this class. A three-hour paleontology laboratory course is a co-requisite, and the lab and the lecture closely linked. The vast majority of students are non-science majors, and less than 5% are geology majors.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no

If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? no

Course Content:

The topics covered in this course are:
1. Origin on the earth
2. Origin of life
3. Charles Darwin and Evolutionary Theory
4. Geologic Time
5. Fossils and Uniformitarism
6. Sedimentology and stratigraphy
7. Precambrian evolution
8. The history of the atmosphere
9. Evolution and diversification of invertebrate
10. Evolution of vertebrates
11. Early Tetrapod evolution
12. Dinosaurs diversity
13. Evolution of flight - bird, bats, and Pterosaurs
14. Origin of mammals and Mesozoic mammal diversity
15. Diversification of Cenozoic mammals (horse and whale evolution)
16. Primate and Human evolution
17. Ice ages

Course Goals:

Most of the students are non-science majors, and this is their last science class. When they leave my class, I want them to have a renewed excitement and interest about the world around them. The class focuses on vertebrate evolution to enable the student's to see the biological connectivity between all living things. I attempt show them how an appreciation of science and natural world enhances the quality of their lives.

The class will enable students to:
1. increase their understanding evolution and the origin of life
2. appreciate life's long geological history
3. use paleontological information to interpret geologic and evolutionary history.
4. understand the complex interaction between geology and biology
5. better understand their connection to and the shared history of all life forms
6. gain understanding of importance of chance events and extinctions play in the history of life
7. use and understand geological and paleontological methods to unravel the history of life

Course Features:

This is a lecture class for first year honor students. All students are required to attend a three-hour laboratory class that supports the lecture material.

Course Philosophy:

I attempt to foster an active learning atmosphere where students ask questions, debate and are involved in classroom learning. I bring in new scientific findings to the class, and I update and rewrite each of my lectures. I spend long hours perfecting my PowerPoint presentations, and I develop new visual aids to illustrate my lectures. I work closely with the laboratory instructors to coordinate lecture and lab material.


The students take four examinations, and have four writing assignments. For labs, there are weekly assignments, two exams, and a final project and oral presentation.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 75kB Jun25 08)

References and Notes:

Cowen, R. 2005. History of Life, 4th Blackwell Scientific Pub., Boston. pp. xii + 324. This is an outstanding textbook with a great supporting web site.
We use a self-published lab manual

Additional readings:
Voyage of the Beagle
The Origin of Species
Recent articles from Science and Nature. For example
Thewissen, G. M., E. M. Williams, E. M., L. J. Roe L. T. and Hussain, S.T. 2001. Skeletons of terrestrial cetaceans and the relationship of whales to artiodactyls. Nature. 413: 277-280.
Scientific American review articles. for example:
Wong. K. 2002. Mammals That Conquered the Seas. Scientific American. 70-80.
Prum, R. O and. Brush, A. H. 2003. Which came first the Feather or the Bird? Scientific American. 83-93