Each of us is connected through our parents and their parents and so forth to a first life form which has no parent and is composed and derived from non-biological forms. So each of us is intimately connected through our genealogical history to the non-biological Universe! Indeed, each of us is connected in this way to the whole Universe!!! It is this type of conceptual, big picture thinking that pervades Stephen Stearns’ free video course EEB 122: Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior at Open Yale Courses (OYC). Even though I do not think the separation between life and non-life is as clearcut as Stearns suggests, Jeannie and I thoroughly enjoyed our excursion into Biology with Stephen Stearns as our guide at OYC!
Understanding biology is essential as civilization is inseparable from the great ecosystems upon which it is built and in which it is housed. Our future is inextricably linked to the always changing nature of the Earth-Biosphere system which provides our food and shelter. In EEB 122, we learned that the entire Earth has been sculpted by the biological technology we call “life“. At a more day-to-day human scale, medicine and health care are vital subjects in biology and in our economy (caring for the health of the ecosystem of cells, organs and their microscopic cohabitators known as “human” engages 9% of the economies in most OECD countries and nearly twice that in the USA). EEB 122 has a whole lecture devoted to medicine and more comments throughout the course.
Evolution theory has had a profound influence on modern thinking. From its nascent formulation by Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution has itself changed (evolved!) substantially over its first 150 years. I found it particularly interesting to learn that the modern theory is quite different from what my culture-imbued intuitions misled me to think. This course is eye-opening! Even if you disagree with some of the ideas of evolution (and who doesn’t have some questions and concerns about this subtle subject which is itself changing), this course corrects some of our endemic misperceptions. For example, Stearns asserts in lecture 3 that the notion of “survival of the fittest” is wrong! I had no idea that that iconic “sound bite” is but a dead-end on the road to the modern theory of evolution!
It’s not ignorance does so much damage; it’s knowing so darned much that ain’t so. — Josh Billings
With current concerns about global warming and other stresses on our environment, ecology is a vitally important subject. The point is reinforced by the work of three of the recent winners of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge which deeply engages the subject of ecology. The 2011 winner, Blue Ventures, conserves threatened marine environments. The 2010 winner, Project Hope, restores savannas and grasslands lost to desertification with a comprehensive program featuring cattle management. The 2008 winner, John Todd’s Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World, restores the ecological devastation of the impact of mining in Appalachia. The principles of biology and ecology are essential to better understand and contribute to these and similar initiatives to improve our management of Earth’s ecosystems while raising the standard of living of every human being. EEB 122 explains some of the vital principles that will underpin any such solution.
In summary, OYC’s EEB 122 is an excellent introduction to the basic principles of biology needed to better understand medicine, health care, evolution theory, ecology, the behavior of organisms, and biological technologies such as the enterprising work of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge winners. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, EEB 122 gives a conceptually broad, biologically detailed introduction to one of the most enchanting visions of change ever developed: the theory of the evolution of species.
Jeannie and I started watching EEB 122 around New Year’s. We watch courses like this for edutainment. That is, we do not plan to become professional biologists, instead we watch video courses as a form cultural enrichment: How do biologists think? What do they know? What is the current understanding of evolution? I am deeply curious about how the world works. Video courses like EEB 122 are deeply enriching in this regard. It took just over five months of watching one 50 minute video approximately every four days to work through the 36 videos in the course. We find that watching videos more frequently than that gives a rushed feeling and a sense of information overload. For us, watching less frequently sometimes results in losing “presence” to the thread of the course and feels less coherent.
The course includes a syllabus and two exams with solutions (we did not look at the exams). OYC includes a summary (very useful) and reading assignment with each video. There is also audio, but Stearns’ use of slides means that video is the best way to enjoy the course. The transcripts of the lectures were very helpful when I wanted to better understand a lecture or to get the spelling of a name or technical term. The videos are also collected in a YouTube playlist with 36 videos for 27 hours and 28 minutes.
The video lectures are self-contained and are so good that we did not get the textbook. Sometimes, we followed up on a lecture with Wikipedia or other sources to learn more. The video style of OYC is to use just one camera with minimal editing. The camera does pan to try to capture Stearns’ slides and gestures and that is effective (with a big screen and moving close to it, we were able to read almost every slide — sometimes this involved squinting). Certainly, it would be much better if an electronic version of the slides were included with the course, but the video was rich enough that not having the slides was only a minor disadvantage.
Downloading the videos (thankfully) was easy: use a “DocumentRoot” of http://openmedia.yale.edu/projects/ and then append the rest of the filename which I deduced by mousing over the download link (or viewing the page source code). Once we had the video downloaded, we could watch it on demand and use the remote control to pause or “rewind” by 15 seconds or 1 minute or whatever we needed in case the phone rang or our minds wandered. As I mentioned before, streaming video is “bad” for watching video courses.
There are several other introductory biology video courses in the Open Educational Resources (OER) ecosystem. We watched and enjoyed the excellent video course at MIT OCW, 7.014 Introductory Biology with Graham Walker (biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics: 23 lectures), Martin Polz (molecular evolution: 2 lectures) and Penny Chisholm (ecology: 11 lectures); (34 videos totaling 25 hours 57 minutes plus 2 audio lectures). Graham Walker got carried away with his mastery of biochemistry once or twice, but he really got across the fluidity of knowledge in biology. Penny Chisholm’s portion of the course on ecology is in some ways better than Stearns’ treatment as it is longer and more thorough (Stearns only dedicates 8 lectures to ecology). From the perspective of edutainment, the MIT lectures cram in too much information. We got a lot out of it despite the occasional pangs of overload. Of course, one can pause the video to take notes and reference MIT OCW’s extensive supplementary material and Wikipedia. 7.014 is a good course, but to fully enjoy it either a strong biology background or a commitment to study is necessary (unless you enjoy sipping from fire hydrants).
OCW’s 7.014 is complementary with EEB 122 (especially the ecology parts). For a deeper understanding I recommend watching both. Start with EEB 122 as it is less demanding. Unlike the 7.014 videos, the EEB 122 videos gave me the feeling that I had a good conceptual overview of the subject after each lecture. Stearns’ EEB 122 is effective!
I found a some other introductory biology video courses worth mentioning even though I haven’t watched them. I am very interested in MIT OCW’s 7.012 Introduction to Biology (34 videos totaling 27 hours 45 minutes). Compared to 7.014, it drops ecology and adds coverage of neurobiology, molecular medicine, and cancer (both OCW courses have roughly equal coverage of biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics). 7.012 is on my TODO list: with 7.014 and EEB 122 behind me, I am emboldened to learn biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics in more detail!
Berkeley’s YouTube channel has a couple of versions of their introductory courses on “General Biology”. They are Bio 1A (39 videos totaling 32 hours 14 minutes) and Bio 1B (41 videos totaling 34 hours 41 minutes). The courses are team taught by three or four professors each term. I watched a few seconds here and there of several of the Berkeley videos and they are very well produced. The Berkeley biology courses seem to be structured more as a survey of important topics than as a conceptual, principles-based overview (which is the strength of Stearns’ EEB 122).
Berkeley has two other introductory biology video courses which are interesting. Biology 1AL: General Biology Laboratory (which accompanies Bio 1A with 12 YouTube videos totaling 16 hours 6 minutes) looks interesting enough that I put it on my TODO list. Finally, I have watched a few of the videos in Marian Diamond’s excellent course Integrative Biology 131 – General Human Anatomy covering the functional anatomy of the human body as revealed by gross and microscopic examination (Fall 2005 with 39 videos totaling 32 hours 25 minutes). Before choosing a course, it can be worth checking Berkeley’s webcast site to look for related courses or other versions of these courses.
The Khan Academy also has an excellent archive of topical biology videos. Another that might be very interesting is UCLA’s Life Sciences 15: Life, Concepts and Issues (19 videos totaling 19 hours 48 minutes). There are other biology courses out there, but this survey is already adequate to get started. Please let me know your thoughts about any interesting video courses that you watch.
The 36 lectures are divided into three sequential thematic sections: Evolution (23 lectures), Ecology (8 lectures), and Behavior (5 lectures). Because the themes interweave, each is discussed throughout the course. I posted summaries or more accurately thoughts about each lecture to my wall on Facebook. What follows is my distillation of those notes plus some commentaries, references, fun facts, a few hypotheses and other nuggets for thought. Hopefully they give a feel for the course and the subject. They might help you find parts of special interest to watch or at least enjoy EEB 122 vicariously through my comments.
Vaccines are technology built on the theory of evolution! As Stearns explains it: “what an attenuated vaccine is, is a pathogen that would cause a serious disease, but it’s been evolutionarily changed, so that it’s attenuated.”
Stearns said, “[T]here are actually more people who were dying of bacterial infections that they acquired in hospitals than of [AIDS, flu, breast cancer] combined.” Then he observes, “There’s about a ton of bacteria per acre in a cropland; that’s about 1017th bacteria.” Among that enormous biodiversity many strains are resistant to antibiotics. Human use of antibiotics selects for drug resistant strains. Stearns’ cited the Danish experience where Vancomycin was banned in agriculture (rural farms) and there followed a dramatic reduction in antibiotic resistance in hospitals (in cities). Which suggests that agricultural use of antibiotics is partially responsible for drug resistant infections of hospital patients! The city and the country are connected in one system with evolutionary processes entangling their fate!
Evolutionary theory has become critically important for the technology of medicine!
Stearns gives a remarkable description of El Niño: The Hadley cells and Coriolis effect produce gyres in the northern and southern hemispheres which come together in the Pacific at the equator and push water to the West. The result is that about 1 meter of warm water gets piled up between Guam and the Philippines. This is the normal situation; it is called La Niña. About once every 10 or 11 years, the pattern breaks down and El Niño ensues: the wall of 1 meter high water starts flowing eastward. Which squashes the upwelling of the normal ocean currents. Without upwelling bringing nutrients to the surface, the great fisheries of the eastern Pacific collapse, fisherman lose their livelihood, birds die of starvation, and the weather changes. It is a big effect. It is normal: it happens about once every 10 years.
The island biogeography model is on the wane as the Metapopulations model supplants it by fixing a number of its problems. The world is fragmented … it is spatially heterogeneous: “There are islands, there are mountains, there are lakes and oases … what is determining biodiversity in a fragment? What happens when we break the world up?” The metapopulation theory involves a stochastic model of continual migration and local extinction as normal ecological behavior. It connects with epidemiology to give insights into disease spread. Fun fact: at 35,000 feet altitude over Antarctica, you will find baby spiders and fern spores at -70 degrees Celsius in deep hibernation but still alive!
More details: there are three large carbon stores: 750 Gtons in atmosphere, ocean surface 1000 Gtons, deep ocean 38000 Gtons. Humans are adding about 5 Gtons per year. Relatively small. Stearns points out that global warming is a small perturbation with respect to biological and geological history. Life will adapt to global warming. The question is will the changes be too fast for Humans to adapt? As I discussed in my essay on technology, the risk of a black swan always looms. For example, if the methane hydrates currently stored in the deep ocean melt and are released, the impact of global warming could easily change from being just a worry to a head on collision.
140 gigatons is equivalent to 10 million trucks of dry nitrogen fertilizer that we are putting into the system with completely unknown effects.
— Penny Chisholm in MIT OCW’s 7.012 video on Biogeochemical Cycles
This lecture and OCW’s 7.012 videos convinced me of the profound importance of biogeochemistry. I have not yet found a free video lecture course on biogeochemistry, let me know if you see one.
The science of biodiversity doesn’t give strong arguments to preserve the environment, Stearns reports “Bob May showed that more diverse communities can be less stable. … Since then there have been a lot of experiments. There isn’t a convincing clear pattern.” Recent research does suggest that diversity is important in pollinator communities. So there is a strong economic argument to preserve the biodiversity of our pollinators because our agricultural system depends on it.
Stearns gives a strong warning against arguments that “biodiversity is important for maintaining everything that Nature gives us for free”. If we overstate the science and our ecosystems still haven’t collapsed, we look like we are “crying wolf”. Stearns concludes “the issue that you could have a lot of ecosystem redundancy, which is buffering you from the extinctions that might otherwise be affecting ecosystem function, but at some point, if you’ve eliminated a lot of species, you will hit a limit at which there’s no redundancy left, and at that point ecosystems start to collapse.” I liked Stearns’ poignant observation: “the extinction crisis, and the meaning of biodiversity on the planet, is an interesting probe into our own nature and our own priorities. … [it is] an opportunity to learn an awful lot about ourselves and about the Nature that we interact with. … So it’s not all pessimistic. It’s simply a very deep-cutting, revealing situation.”
Whether you are looking for videos for edutainment, or to study biology in depth, or whether you watch just a few lectures of interest or all of them, EEB 122 is a great course! Stephen Stearns’ big picture and conceptual approach to the principles of evolution, ecology and behavior make this course particularly apt for a comprehensivist like me who is interested in building a deeper understanding of how the world works. Too much of our educational system is focused on turning out specialists by building technical language barricades that divides us from each other and complicate cross-disciplinary understanding. Like Physics C10/LS C70V at Berkeley, this course opens some of the vitally important principles of how our world works to a broader audience. A big thank you to Yale, OYC, and Stephen Stearns for this exquisite video course!