Evidence of Evolution

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe how the theory of evolution by natural selection is supported by evidence

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.

Physical Evidence


Fossils provide solid evidence that organisms from the past are not the same as those 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 (Figure 1a). For example, scientists have recovered highly detailed records showing the evolution of humans and horses (Figure 1b). The whale flipper shares a similar morphology to bird and mammal appendages (Figure 2) indicating that these species share a common ancestor.

Photo A shows a museum display of hominid skulls that vary in size and shape. Illustration B shows five extinct species related and similar in appearance to the modern horse. The species vary in size from that of a modern horse to that of a medium-sized dog.

Figure 1. In this (a) display, fossil hominids are arranged from oldest (bottom) to newest (top). As hominids evolved, the shape of the skull changed. An artist’s rendition of (b) extinct species of the genus Equus reveals that these ancient species resembled the modern horse (Equus ferus) but varied in size.

Anatomy and Embryology

Illustration compares a human arm, dog and bird legs, and a whale flipper. All appendages have the same bones, but the size and shape of these bones vary.

Figure 2. The similar construction of these appendages indicates that these organisms share a common ancestor.

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. We call these unused structures without function vestigial structures. Other examples of vestigial structures are wings on flightless birds, leaves on some cacti, and hind leg bones in whales. Not all similarities represent homologous structures. When similar characteristics occur because of environmental constraints and not due to a close evolutionary relationship, it is an analogy or homoplasy. For example, insects use wings to fly like bats and birds, but the wing structure and embryonic origin are completely different. These are analogous structures.

Visit this interactive site to guess which bones structures are homologous and which are analogous. There are also examples of evolutionary adaptations that illustrate these concepts.

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 predators not seeing them.

The left photo depicts an arctic fox with white fur sleeping on white snow, and the right photo shows a ptarmigan with white plumage standing on white snow.

Figure 3. The white winter coat of the (a) arctic fox and the (b) ptarmigan’s plumage are adaptations to their environments. (credit a: modification of work by Keith Morehouse)

Embryology, the study of the anatomy of an organism’s development 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 tends to conserve embryo formation. As a result, structures that are absent in some groups often appear in their embryonic forms and disappear when they reach the adult or juvenile form. 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 adult forms of aquatic groups such as fish and some amphibians maintain them. Great ape embryos, including humans, have a tail structure during their development that they lose when they are born.

Biological Evidence


The geographic distribution of organisms on the planet follows patterns that we can explain best by evolution in conjunction with tectonic plate movement over geological time. Broad groups that evolved before the supercontinent Pangaea broke up (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 was most predominant prior to the southern supercontinent Gondwana breaking up.

Marsupial diversification 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. Australia’s marsupials, the Galápagos’ finches, 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.

Molecular Biology

Like anatomical structures, the molecular structures of life reflect descent with modification. DNA’s universality reflects evidence of a common ancestor for all of life. Fundamental divisions in life between the genetic code, DNA replication, and expression are reflected in major structural differences in otherwise conservative structures such as ribosome components and membrane structures. In general, the relatedness of groups of organisms is reflected in the similarity of their DNA sequences—exactly the pattern that we would expect 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 freely modifying 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.

Evolution—It’s a Thing

This video defines evolution and discusses several varieties of evidence that support the Theory of Evolution:

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