The evidence for evolution is compelling and extensive. Looking at every level of organization in living systems, biologists see the signature of past and present evolution. Darwin dedicated a large portion of his book, On the Origin of Species, to identifying patterns in nature that were consistent with evolution, and since Darwin, our understanding has become clearer and broader.
Fossils provide solid evidence that organisms from the past are not the same as those found today, and fossils show a progression of evolution. Scientists determine the age of fossils and categorize them from all over the world to determine when the organisms lived relative to each other. The resulting fossil record tells the story of the past and shows the evolution of form over millions of years. For example, scientists have recovered highly detailed records showing the evolution of humans and horses (Figure 1).
Anatomy and Embryology
Another type of evidence for evolution is the presence of structures in organisms that share the same basic form. For example, the bones in the appendages of a human, dog, bird, and whale all share the same overall construction (Figure 2) resulting from their origin in the appendages of a common ancestor. Over time, evolution led to changes in the shapes and sizes of these bones in different species, but they have maintained the same overall layout. Scientists call these synonymous parts homologous structures.
Some structures exist in organisms that have no apparent function at all and appear to be residual parts from a past common ancestor. These unused structures without function are called vestigial structures. Other examples of vestigial structures are wings on flightless birds, leaves on some cacti, and hind leg bones in whales.
Another evidence of evolution is the convergence of form in organisms that share similar environments. For example, species of unrelated animals, such as the arctic fox and ptarmigan, living in the arctic region have been selected for seasonal white phenotypes during winter to blend with the snow and ice (Figure 3). These similarities occur not because of common ancestry, but because of similar selection pressures—the benefits of not being seen by predators.
Embryology, the study of the development of the anatomy of an organism to its adult form, also provides evidence of relatedness between now widely divergent groups of organisms. Mutational tweaking in the embryo can have such magnified consequences in the adult that embryo formation tends to be conserved. As a result, structures that are absent in some groups often appear in their embryonic forms and disappear by the time the adult or juvenile form is reached. For example, all vertebrate embryos, including humans, exhibit gill slits and tails at some point in their early development. These disappear in the adults of terrestrial groups but are maintained in adult forms of aquatic groups such as fish and some amphibians. Great ape embryos, including humans, have a tail structure during their development that is lost by the time of birth.
The geographic distribution of organisms (referred to as biogeography) on the planet follows patterns that are best explained by evolution in conjunction with the movement of tectonic plates over geological time. Broad groups that evolved before the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea (about 200 million years ago) are distributed worldwide. Groups that evolved since the breakup appear uniquely in regions of the planet, such as the unique flora and fauna of northern continents that formed from the supercontinent Laurasia and of the southern continents that formed from the supercontinent Gondwana. The presence of members of the plant family Proteaceae in Australia, southern Africa, and South America is best by their presence prior to the southern supercontinent Gondwana breaking up.
The great diversification of marsupials in Australia and the absence of other mammals reflect Australia’s long isolation. Australia has an abundance of endemic species—species found nowhere else—which is typical of islands whose isolation by expanses of water prevents species to migrate. Over time, these species diverge evolutionarily into new species that look very different from their ancestors that may exist on the mainland. The marsupials of Australia, the finches on the Galápagos, and many species on the Hawaiian Islands are all unique to their one point of origin, yet they display distant relationships to ancestral species on mainlands.
Like anatomical structures, the structures of the molecules of life reflect descent with modification. Evidence of a common ancestor for all of life is reflected in the universality of DNA as the genetic material and in the near universality of the genetic code and the machinery of DNA replication and expression. Fundamental divisions in life between the three domains are reflected in major structural differences in otherwise conservative structures such as the components of ribosomes and the structures of membranes. In general, the relatedness of groups of organisms is reflected in the similarity of their DNA sequences—exactly the pattern that would be expected from descent and diversification from a common ancestor.
DNA sequences have also shed light on some of the mechanisms of evolution. For example, it is clear that the evolution of new functions for proteins commonly occurs after gene duplication events that allow the free modification of one copy by mutation, selection, or drift (changes in a population’s gene pool resulting from chance), while the second copy continues to produce a functional protein.
Misconceptions of Evolution
Although the theory of evolution generated some controversy when it was first proposed, it was almost universally accepted by biologists, particularly younger biologists, within 20 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution is a difficult concept, and misconceptions about how it works abound.
Evolution Is Just a Theory
Critics of the theory of evolution dismiss its importance by purposefully confounding the everyday usage of the word “theory” with the way scientists use the word. In science, a “theory” is understood to be a body of thoroughly tested and verified explanations for a set of observations of the natural world. Scientists have a theory of the atom, a theory of gravity, and the theory of relativity, each of which describes understood facts about the world. In the same way, the theory of evolution describes facts about the living world. As such, a theory in science has survived significant efforts to discredit it by scientists. In contrast, a “theory” in common vernacular is a word meaning a guess or suggested explanation; this meaning is more akin to the scientific concept of “hypothesis.” When critics of evolution say evolution is “just a theory,” they are implying that there is little evidence supporting it and that it is still in the process of being rigorously tested. This is a mischaracterization.
Evolution is the change in the genetic composition of a population over time, specifically over generations, resulting from differential reproduction of individuals with certain alleles. Individuals do change over their lifetime, obviously, but this is called development and involves changes programmed by the set of genes the individual acquired at birth in coordination with the individual’s environment. When thinking about the evolution of a characteristic, it is probably best to think about the change of the average value of the characteristic in the population over time. For example, when natural selection leads to a beak size change in medium-ground finches in the Galápagos, this does not mean that individual beaks on living finches are changing. Instead, it means that if one measures the average beak size among all individuals in the population at one time and then measures the average beak size in the population several years later, the average value will be different as a result of evolution. Although some individuals may survive from the first time to the second, they will still have the same beak size; however, there will be many new individuals that contribute to the shift in average beak size.
Evolution Explains the Origin of Life
It is a common misunderstanding that evolution includes an explanation of life’s origins. The theory does not try to explain the origin of life. The theory of evolution explains how populations change over time and how life diversifies. It does not shed light on the beginnings of life including the origins of the first cells, which is how life is defined. The mechanisms of the origin of life on Earth are a particularly difficult problem because it occurred a very long time ago, and presumably, it just occurred once.
However, once a mechanism of inheritance was in place in the form of a molecule like DNA either within a cell or pre-cell, these entities would be subject to the principle of natural selection. More effective reproducers would increase in frequency at the expense of inefficient reproducers. So while evolution does not explain the origin of life, it may have something to say about some of the processes operating once pre-living entities acquired certain properties.
Organisms Evolve on Purpose
Statements such as “organisms evolve in response to a change in an environment” are quite common, but such statements can lead to two types of misunderstandings. First, the statement must not be understood to mean that individual organisms evolve. The statement is shorthand for “a population evolves in response to a changing environment.” However, a second misunderstanding may arise by interpreting the statement to mean that evolution is somehow intentional. A changed environment results in some individuals in the population, those with particular phenotypes, benefiting and therefore producing proportionately more offspring than other phenotypes. This results in a change in the population if the characteristics are genetically determined.
It is also important to understand that the variation that natural selection works on is already in a population and does not arise in response to an environmental change. For example, applying antibiotics to a population of bacteria will, over time, select a population of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The resistance, which is caused by a gene, did not arise by mutation because of the application of the antibiotic. The gene for resistance was already present in the gene pool of the bacteria, likely at a low frequency. The antibiotic, which kills the bacterial cells without the resistance gene, strongly selects individuals that are resistant, since these would be the only ones that survived and divided. Experiments have demonstrated that mutations for antibiotic resistance do not arise as a result of antibiotics.
In a larger sense, evolution is not goal-directed. Species do not become “better” over time; they simply track their changing environment with adaptations that maximize their reproduction in a particular environment at a particular time. Evolution has no goal of making faster, bigger, more complex, or even smarter species, despite the commonness of this kind of language in popular discourse. What characteristics evolve in a species are a function of the variation present and the environment, both of which are constantly changing in a non-directional way. What trait is fit in one environment at one time may well be fatal at some point in the future. This holds equally well for a species of insect as it does the human species.
Evolution is the process of adaptation through mutation which allows more desirable characteristics to be passed to the next generation. Over time, organisms evolve more characteristics that are beneficial to their survival. For living organisms to adapt and change to environmental pressures, genetic variation must be present. With genetic variation, individuals have differences in form and function that allow some to survive certain conditions better than others. These organisms pass their favorable traits to their offspring. Eventually, environments change, and what was once a desirable, advantageous trait may become an undesirable trait and organisms may further evolve. Evolution may be convergent with similar traits evolving in multiple species or divergent with diverse traits evolving in multiple species that came from a common ancestor. Evidence of evolution can be observed by means of DNA code and the fossil record, and also by the existence of homologous and vestigial structures.
OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. June 23, 2020. https://cnx.org/contents/GFy_h8cu@10.137:noBcfThl@7/Understanding-Evolution.