Theme 1: What Makes Us Unique?
1.3 The Genetic Basis of Evolution
Evolution is defined as a change in traits in a population over time. Small changes in the frequencies of specific traits from one generation to the next are typically referred to as micro-evolution. Bigger changes- such as one species diverging into two over many, many generations, are typically referred to as macro-evolution. In this course we will examine several mechanisms by small changes can happen within populations over generations (micro-evolution) as well as look at how these changes accumulate to create the diverse species we see today (macro-evolution). We will focus on human evolution- understanding how humans relate to other species and what this means about our characteristics, as well as how humans continue to evolve. In addition to this text, your lab manual provides a basic overview of mechanisms of evolution with examples.
Evolution is the Source of New Species
All species of living organisms evolved at some point from a common ancestor. Although it may seem that living things today stay much the same from generation to generation, that is not the case: evolution is ongoing. Evolution is the process through which the characteristics of species change and through which new species arise.
The theory of evolution is a unifying theory of biology, meaning it is a 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.”  He meant that the principle that all life has evolved and diversified from a common ancestor is the foundation from which we understand all other questions in biology. This chapter will explain some of the mechanisms for evolutionary change and the kinds of questions that biologists can and have answered using evolutionary theory.
Natural Selection is a Mechanism of Evolution
The theory of evolution by natural selection describes a mechanism for species change over time. That species change had been suggested and debated well before Darwin. The view that species were static and unchanging was grounded in the writings of Plato, yet there were also ancient Greeks that expressed evolutionary ideas.
Charles Darwin and Natural Selection
Natural selection as a mechanism for evolution was independently conceived of and described by two naturalists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, in the mid-nineteenth century. Importantly, each 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, visiting 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 in 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 that each had a unique beak shape (Figure 1). He observed both that these finches closely resembled another finch species on the mainland of South America and that the group of species in the Galápagos formed a graded series of beak sizes and shapes, with very small differences between the most similar. Darwin imagined that the island species might be all species modified from one original mainland species. In 1860, he wrote, “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.
Wallace and Darwin both observed similar patterns in other organisms and independently conceived a mechanism to explain how and why such changes could take place. Darwin called this mechanism natural selection. Natural selection, Darwin argued, was an inevitable outcome of three principles that operated in nature. First, the characteristics of organisms are inherited, or passed from parent to offspring. Second, more offspring are produced than are able to survive; in other words, 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 a 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. Out of these three principles, 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.”
Papers by Darwin and Wallace (Figure 2) presenting the idea of natural selection were read together in 1858 before the Linnaean Society in London. The following year Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was published, which outlined in considerable detail his arguments for evolution by natural selection.
Demonstrations of evolution by natural selection can be time consuming. One of the best demonstrations has been in the very birds that helped to inspire the 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 the operation of natural selection. The Grants found changes from one generation to the next in the beak shapes of the medium ground finches on the Galápagos island of Daphne Major. The medium ground finch feeds on seeds. The birds have inherited variation in the bill shape with some individuals having wide, deep bills and others having thinner bills. Large-billed birds feed more efficiently on large, hard seeds, whereas smaller billed birds feed more efficiently on small, soft seeds. During 1977, a drought period altered vegetation on the island. After this period, the number of seeds declined dramatically: the decline in small, soft seeds was greater than the decline in large, hard seeds. The large-billed birds were able to survive better than the small-billed birds the following year. The year following the drought when the Grants measured beak sizes in the much-reduced population, they found that the average bill size was larger (Figure 3). This was clear evidence for natural selection (differences in survival) of bill size caused by the availability of seeds. The Grants had studied the inheritance of bill sizes and knew that the surviving large-billed birds would tend to produce offspring with larger bills, so the selection would lead to evolution of bill size. Subsequent studies by the Grants have demonstrated selection on and evolution of bill size in this species in response to changing conditions on the island. The evolution has occurred both to larger bills, as in this case, and to smaller bills when large seeds became rare.
Variation and Adaptation
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, 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 sources: mutation and sexual reproduction. Mutation, a change in DNA, is the ultimate source of new genetic variation in any population. An individual that has a mutated gene might have a different trait than other individuals in the population. However, this is not always the case. A mutation can have one of three outcomes on the organisms’ appearance (or phenotype):
- A mutation may affect an organism’s traits in a way that gives it reduced fitness—lower likelihood of survival, resulting in fewer offspring.
- A mutation may produce a trait with a beneficial effect on fitness.
- Many mutations, called neutral mutations, will have no effect on fitness.
Sexual reproduction can also generate novel combinations of traits that may have positive or negative effects on the survival of offspring. For example, your DNA is organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes– one member of each pair is from your mother, and one from your father. Since you inherit only half of your mother’s chromosomes and only half of your father’s chromosomes, and the exact chromosomes you get from each is determined by chance, you are a unique combination of your parents, with traits slightly different from either of parent. This re-combination of DNA at each generation gives sexually reproducing organisms like us some guaranteed variation in our populations.
A heritable trait that aids the survival and reproduction of an organism in its present environment is called an adaptation. An adaptation is a “match” of the organism to the environment. Adaptation to an environment comes about when a change in the range of genetic variation occurs over time that increases or maintains the match of the population with its environment. The variations in finch beaks shifted from generation to generation providing adaptation to food availability.
Whether or not a trait is favorable depends on the environment at the time. The same traits do not always have the same relative benefit or disadvantage because environmental conditions can change. For example, finches with large bills were benefited in one climate, while small bills were a disadvantage; in a different climate, the relationship reversed.
Patterns of Evolution
The evolution of species has resulted in enormous variation in form and function. When two species evolve in different directions from a common point, it is called divergent evolution. Such divergent evolution can be seen in the forms of the reproductive organs of flowering plants, which share the same basic anatomies; however, they can look very different as a result of selection in different physical environments, and adaptation to different kinds of pollinators (Figure 4).
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. The wings of bats and insects, however, evolved from very different original structures. When similar structures arise through evolution independently in different species it is called convergent evolution. The wings of bats and insects are called analogous structures; they are similar in function and appearance, but do not share an origin in a common ancestor. Instead they evolved independently in the two lineages. The wings of a hummingbird and an ostrich are homologous structures, meaning they share similarities (despite their differences resulting from evolutionary divergence). The wings of hummingbirds and ostriches did not evolve independently in the hummingbird lineage and the ostrich lineage—they descended from a common ancestor with wings.
The Modern Synthesis
The mechanisms of inheritance, genetics, were not understood at the time Darwin and Wallace were developing their idea of natural selection. This lack of understanding was a stumbling block to comprehending many aspects of evolution. Darwin and Wallace were unaware of the genetics work by Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, which was published in 1866, not long after publication of On the Origin of Species. Mendel’s work, which described the genetic basis of inheritance, was rediscovered in the early twentieth century. and integrated in what became known as the modern synthesis—the coherent understanding of the relationship between natural selection and genetics. The modern synthesis describes how evolutionary pressures, such as natural selection, can affect a population’s genetic makeup, and, in turn, how this can result in the gradual evolution of populations and species. The theory also connects this gradual change of a population over time, called microevolution, with the processes that gave rise to new species and higher taxonomic groups with widely divergent characters, called macroevolution.
Until now, we have defined evolution as a change in the characteristics of a population of organisms, but behind that change in characteristics is genetic change. In population genetic terms, evolution is defined as a change in the frequency of specific gene in a population. Using the ABO blood system as an example, the frequency of the gene that codes for A blood protein, IA, is the number of copies of that gene divided by the total number of all A, B or O blood protein coding genes in the population. For example, a study in Jordan found a frequency of IA to be 26.1 percent. The IB, I0 blood coding genes made up 13.4 percent and 60.5 percent of the blood protein coding genes respectively, and all of the frequencies add up to 100 percent. A change in this frequency over time would constitute evolution in the population.
One way the frequency of a particular gene in a population can change is natural selection. If the gene confers a trait that allows an individual to have more offspring that survive and reproduce, that gene, by virtue of being inherited by those offspring, will be in greater frequency in the next generation. Since gene frequencies always add up to 100 percent, an increase in the frequency of one gene always means a corresponding decrease in one or more of the other genes. Highly beneficial genes may, over a very few generations, become “fixed” in this way, meaning that every individual of the population will carry the gene. Similarly, detrimental genes may be swiftly eliminated from the gene pool, the sum of all the genes in a population. Part of the study of population genetics is tracking how selective forces change the frequencies of certain genes in a population over time, which can give scientists clues regarding the selective forces that may be operating on a given population. The studies of changes in wing coloration in the peppered moth from mottled white to dark in response to soot-covered tree trunks and then back to mottled white when factories stopped producing so much soot is a classic example of studying evolution in natural populations (Figure 5).
Evolution by natural selection arises from three conditions: individuals within a species vary, some of those variations are heritable, and organisms have more offspring than resources can support. The consequence is that individuals with relatively advantageous variations will be more likely to survive and have higher reproductive rates than those individuals with different traits. The advantageous traits will be passed on to offspring in greater proportion. Thus, the trait will have higher representation in the next and subsequent generations leading to genetic change in the population.
- a heritable trait or behavior in an organism that aids in its survival in its present environment
- analogous structure
- a structure that is similar because of evolution in response to similar selection pressures resulting in convergent evolution, not similar because of descent from a common ancestor
- convergent evolution
- an evolution that results in similar forms on different species
- divergent evolution
- an evolution that results in different forms in two species with a common ancestor
- gene pool
- all of the alleles carried by all of the individuals in the population
- homologous structure
- a structure that is similar because of descent from a common ancestor
- a broader scale of evolutionary changes seen over paleontological time
- the changes in a population’s genetic structure (i.e., allele frequency)
- modern synthesis
- the overarching evolutionary paradigm that took shape by the 1940s and is generally accepted today
- natural selection
- the greater relative survival and reproduction of individuals in a population that have favorable heritable traits, leading to evolutionary change
- population genetics
- the study of how selective forces change the allele frequencies in a population over time
- the variety of traits in a population
- Theodosius Dobzhansky. “Biology, Molecular and Organismic.” American Zoologist 4, no. 4 (1964): 449. ↵
- Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N, 2nd. ed. (London: John Murray, 1860), http://www.archive.org/details/journalofresea00darw. ↵
- Sahar S. Hanania, Dhia S. Hassawi, and Nidal M. Irshaid, “Allele Frequency and Molecular Genotypes of ABO Blood Group System in a Jordanian Population,” Journal of Medical Sciences 7 (2007): 51-58, doi:10.3923/jms.2007.51.58 ↵