The theory of evolution is the unifying theory of biology, meaning it is the framework within which biologists ask questions about the living world. Its power is that it provides direction for predictions about living things that are borne out in experiment after experiment. The Ukrainian-born American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote that “nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution” (Dobzhansky, 1964). He meant that the tenet that all life has evolved and diversified from a common ancestor is the foundation from which we approach all questions in biology.
Evolution by natural selection describes a mechanism for how species change over time. There are two levels to this change; microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution refers to changes in the frequency of a gene in a population. These changes can occur in short periods of time and may not be visible until enough data is collected over several generations. Macroevolution refers to changes within whole taxonomic groups over long periods of time. This can be seen as the formation of a new trait or feature, the creation of new species, or the loss of species via extinction events.
That species change had been suggested and debated well before Darwin began to explore this idea. The view that species were static and unchanging was grounded in the writings of Plato, yet there were also ancient Greeks who expressed evolutionary ideas. In the eighteenth century, ideas about the evolution of animals were reintroduced by the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon who observed that various geographic regions have different plant and animal populations, even when the environments are similar. It was also accepted that there were extinct species.
During this time, James Hutton, a Scottish naturalist, proposed that geological change occurred gradually by the accumulation of small changes from processes operating like they are today over long periods of time. This contrasted with the predominant view that the geology of the planet was a consequence of catastrophic events occurring during a relatively brief past. Hutton’s view was popularized in the nineteenth century by the geologist Charles Lyell who became a friend to Darwin. Lyell’s ideas were influential on Darwin’s thinking: Lyell’s notion of the greater age of Earth gave more time for gradual change in species, and the process of change provided an analogy for gradual change in species. In the early nineteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published a book that detailed a mechanism for evolutionary change. This mechanism is now referred to as an inheritance of acquired characteristics by which modifications in an individual are caused by its environment, or the use or disuse of a structure during its lifetime, could be inherited by its offspring and thus bring about change in a species. While this mechanism for evolutionary change was discredited, Lamarck’s ideas were an important influence on evolutionary thought.
Charles Darwin and Natural Selection
In the mid-nineteenth century, the actual mechanism for evolution was independently conceived of and described by two naturalists: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Importantly, each naturalist spent time exploring the natural world on expeditions to the tropics. From 1831 to 1836, Darwin traveled around the world on H.M.S. Beagle, including stops in South America, Australia, and the southern tip of Africa. Wallace traveled to Brazil to collect insects in the Amazon rainforest from 1848 to 1852 and to the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862. Darwin’s journey, like Wallace’s later journeys to the Malay Archipelago, included stops at several island chains, the last being the Galápagos Islands west of Ecuador. On these islands, Darwin observed species of organisms on different islands that were clearly similar, yet had distinct differences. For example, the ground finches inhabiting the Galápagos Islands comprised several species with a unique beak shape (Figure 1). The species on the islands had a graded series of beak sizes and shapes with very small differences between the most similar. He observed that these finches closely resembled another finch species on the mainland of South America. Darwin imagined that the island species might be species modified from one of the original mainland species. Upon further study, he realized that the varied beaks of each finch helped the birds acquire a specific type of food. For example, seed-eating finches had stronger, thicker beaks for breaking seeds, and insect-eating finches had spear-like beaks for stabbing their prey.
Wallace and Darwin both observed similar patterns in other organisms and they independently developed the same explanation for how and why such changes could take place. Darwin called this mechanism natural selection. Natural selection, also known as “survival of the fittest,” is the more prolific reproduction of individuals with favorable traits that survive environmental change because of those traits; this leads to evolutionary change.
For example, a population of giant tortoises found in the Galapagos Archipelago was observed by Darwin to have longer necks than those that lived on other islands with dry lowlands. These tortoises were “selected” because they could reach more leaves and access more food than those with short necks. In times of drought when fewer leaves would be available, those that could reach more leaves had a better chance to eat and survive than those that couldn’t reach the food source. Consequently, long-necked tortoises would be more likely to be reproductively successful and pass the long-necked trait to their offspring. Over time, only long-necked tortoises would be present in the population.
Natural selection, Darwin argued, was an inevitable outcome of three principles that operated in nature. First, most characteristics of organisms are inherited, or passed from parent to offspring. Although no one, including Darwin and Wallace, knew how this happened at the time, it was a common understanding. Second, more offspring are produced than are able to survive, so resources for survival and reproduction are limited. The capacity for reproduction in all organisms outstrips the availability of resources to support their numbers. Thus, there is competition for those resources in each generation. Both Darwin and Wallace’s understanding of this principle came from reading an essay by the economist Thomas Malthus who discussed this principle in relation to human populations. Third, offspring vary among each other in regard to their characteristics and those variations are inherited. Darwin and Wallace reasoned that offspring with inherited characteristics that allow them to best compete for limited resources will survive and have more offspring than those individuals with variations that are less able to compete. Because characteristics are inherited, these traits will be better represented in the next generation. This will lead to change in populations over generations in a process that Darwin called descent with modification. Ultimately, natural selection leads to greater adaptation of the population to its local environment; it is the only mechanism known for adaptive evolution.
Papers by Darwin and Wallace presenting the idea of natural selection were read together in 1858 before the Linnean Society in London. The following year Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was published. His book outlined in considerable detail his arguments for evolution by natural selection. It’s important to note that Darwin is a deeply problematic figure and that many of his contributions to science are remembered because of his privilege and power. Darwin had many racist and offensive beliefs, and the fact that he is often celebrated in biology classes is an example of systematic racism in the classroom. Scientists and educators need to be doing a better job of recognizing prejudice in our materials and highlighting ways to promote racial equity.
Demonstrations of evolution by natural selection are time-consuming and difficult to obtain. One of the best examples has been demonstrated in the very birds that helped to inspire Darwin’s theory: the Galápagos finches. Peter and Rosemary Grant and their colleagues have studied Galápagos finch populations every year since 1976 and have provided important demonstrations of natural selection. The Grants found changes from one generation to the next in the distribution of beak shapes with the medium ground finch on the Galápagos island of Daphne Major. The birds have inherited variation in the bill shape with some birds having wide deep bills and others having thinner bills. During a period in which rainfall was higher than normal because of an El Niño, the large hard seeds that large-billed birds ate were reduced in number; however, there was an abundance of the small soft seeds which the small-billed birds ate. Therefore, survival and reproduction were much better in the following years for the small-billed birds. In the years following this El Niño, the Grants measured beak sizes in the population and found that the average bill size was smaller. Since bill size is an inherited trait, parents with smaller bills had more offspring and the size of bills had evolved to be smaller. As conditions improved in 1987 and larger seeds became more available, the trend toward smaller average bill size ceased.
The book The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner is a wonderful exploration of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s work. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking it out.
Processes and Patterns of Evolution
Natural selection can only take place if there is variation, or differences, among individuals in a population. Importantly, these differences must have some genetic basis; otherwise, the selection will not lead to change in the next generation. This is critical because variation among individuals can be caused by non-genetic reasons such as an individual being taller because of better nutrition rather than different genes.
Genetic diversity in a population comes from two main mechanisms: mutation and sexual reproduction. Mutation, a change in DNA, is the ultimate source of new alleles, or new genetic variation in any population. The genetic changes caused by mutation can have one of three outcomes on the phenotype. A mutation affects the phenotype of the organism in a way that gives it reduced fitness—lower likelihood of survival or fewer offspring. A mutation may produce a phenotype with a beneficial effect on fitness. And, many mutations will also have no effect on the fitness of the phenotype; these are called neutral mutations. Mutations may also have a whole range of effect sizes on the fitness of the organism that expresses them in their phenotype, from a small effect to a great effect. Sexual reproduction also leads to genetic diversity: when two parents reproduce, unique combinations of alleles assemble to produce the unique genotypes and thus phenotypes in each of the offspring.
A heritable trait that helps the survival and reproduction of an organism in its present environment is called an adaptation. Scientists describe groups of organisms becoming adapted to their environment when a change in the range of genetic variation occurs over time that increases or maintains the “fit” of the population to its environment. The webbed feet of platypuses are an adaptation for swimming. The snow leopards’ thick fur is an adaptation for living in the cold. The cheetahs’ fast speed is an adaptation for catching prey.
Whether or not a trait is favorable depends on the environmental conditions at the time. The same traits are not always selected because environmental conditions can change. For example, consider a species of plant that grew in a moist climate and did not need to conserve water. Large leaves were selected because they allowed the plant to obtain more energy from the sun. Large leaves require more water to maintain than small leaves, and the moist environment provided favorable conditions to support large leaves. After thousands of years, the climate changed, and the area no longer had excess water. The direction of natural selection shifted so that plants with small leaves were selected because those populations were able to conserve water to survive the new environmental conditions.
The evolution of species has resulted in enormous variation in form and function. Sometimes, evolution gives rise to groups of organisms that become tremendously different from each other. When two species evolve in diverse directions from a common point, it is called divergent evolution.
In other cases, similar phenotypes evolve independently in distantly related species. For example, flight has evolved in both bats and insects, and they both have structures we refer to as wings, which are adaptations to flight. However, the wings of bats and insects have evolved from very different original structures. This phenomenon is called convergent evolution, where similar traits evolve independently in species that do not share a common ancestry. The two species came to the same function, flying, but did so separately from each other.
These physical changes occur over enormous spans of time and help explain how evolution occurs. Natural selection acts on individual organisms, which in turn can shape an entire species. Although natural selection may work in a single generation on an individual, it can take thousands or even millions of years for the genotype of an entire species to evolve. It is over these large time spans that life on earth has changed and continues to change.
Dobzhansky, T. 1964. “Biology, Molecular and Organismic.” American Zoologist 4, no. 4: 449.
OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. June 23, 2020. https://cnx.org/contents/GFy_h8cu@10.137:noBcfThl@7/Understanding-Evolution.