- Describe the basis of the present-day theory 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 nongenetic reasons can cause variation among individuals such as an individual’s height 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 that mutation causes can have one of three outcomes on the phenotype. A mutation affects the organism’s phenotype 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. Many mutations will also have no effect on the phenotype’s fitness. We call these neutral mutations. Mutations may also have a whole range of effect sizes on the organism’s fitness 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 offspring.
We call a heritable trait that helps an organism’s survival and reproduction in its present environment an adaptation. Scientists describe groups of organisms adapting to their environment when a genetic variation occurs over time that increases or maintains the population’s “fit” to its environment. A platypus’s webbed feet are an adaptation for swimming. A snow leopard’s thick fur is an adaptation for living in the cold. A cheetah’s fast speed is an adaptation for catching prey.
Whether or not a trait is favorable depends on the current environmental conditions. The same traits are not always selected because environmental conditions can change. For example, consider a plant species 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. We call two species that evolve in diverse directions from a common point divergent evolution. We can see such divergent evolution 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 1).
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 recent 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.
Our Modern Understanding
People did not understand the mechanisms of inheritance, or genetics, at the time Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were developing their idea of natural selection. This lack of knowledge was a stumbling block to understanding many aspects of evolution. The predominant (and incorrect) genetic theory of the time, blending inheritance, made it difficult to understand how natural selection might operate. Darwin and Wallace were unaware of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel’s 1866 publication “Experiments in Plant Hybridization”, which came out not long after Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species.
Scholars rediscovered Mendel’s work in the early twentieth century at which time geneticists were rapidly coming to an understanding of the basics of inheritance. Initially, the newly discovered particulate nature of genes made it difficult for biologists to understand how gradual evolution could occur. However, over the next few decades scientists integrated genetics and evolution in what became known as the modern synthesis—the coherent understanding of the relationship between natural selection and genetics that took shape by the 1940s. Generally, this concept is generally accepted today. In short, the modern synthesis describes how evolutionary processes, 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 population change over time (microevolution), with the processes that gave rise to new species and higher taxonomic groups with widely divergent characters, called (macroevolution).
Evolution and Flu Vaccines
Every fall, the media starts reporting on flu vaccinations and potential outbreaks. Scientists, health experts, and institutions determine recommendations for different parts of the population, predict optimal production and inoculation schedules, create vaccines, and set up clinics to provide inoculations. You may think of the annual flu shot as media hype, an important health protection, or just a briefly uncomfortable prick in your arm. However, do you think of it in terms of evolution?
The media hype of annual flu shots is scientifically grounded in our understanding of evolution. Each year, scientists across the globe strive to predict the flu strains that they anticipate as most widespread and harmful in the coming year. They base this knowledge on how flu strains have evolved over time and over the past few flu seasons. Scientists then work to create the most effective vaccine to combat those selected strains. Pharmaceutical companies produce hundreds of millions of doses in a short period in order to provide vaccinations to key populations at the optimal time.
Because viruses, like the flu, evolve very quickly (especially in evolutionary time), this poses quite a challenge. Viruses mutate and replicate at a fast rate, so the vaccine developed to protect against last year’s flu strain may not provide the protection one needs against the coming year’s strain. Evolution of these viruses means continued adaptations to ensure survival, including adaptations to survive previous vaccines.