Evidence for Evolution

What you’ll learn to do: 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.

The video below summarizes the major types of evidence supporting evolution; you will read more details in the pages that follow.

Learning Outcomes

  • Outline physical evidence that supports the theory of evolution
  • Outline biological evidence that supports the theory of evolution
  • Refute common misconceptions about evolution

Physical Evidence

Fossils

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 (Figure 1a). For example, scientists have recovered highly detailed records showing the evolution of humans and horses (Figure 1b).

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. These unused structures without function are called vestigial structures. Some 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.

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 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.

This illustration shows three stages of embryonic development for 8 different vertebrates (fish, salamander, tortoise, chick, hog, calf, rabbit, and human). The first stage of them all are so similar with a tail, vertebrae starting to form along the back, an eye, folds that will become lungs/gills, and a small hole that will become an ear like structure. The other two stages show the differences in their development.

This illustration shows vertebrate embryos at different stages of development, which exhibit embryonic resemblance as support for evolution. 1892 copy by Romanes.

In Summary: Physical Evidence

Since Darwin developed his ideas on descent with modification and the pressures of natural selection, a variety of evidence has been gathered supporting the theory of evolution. Fossil evidence shows the changes in lineages over millions of years, such as in hominids and horses. Studying anatomy allows scientists to identify homologous structures across diverse groups of related organisms, such as leg bones. Vestigial structures also offer clues to common ancestors. Using embryology, scientists can identify common ancestors through structures present only during development and not in the adult form.

Biological Evidence

Biogeography

The geographic distribution of organisms 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 explained by their appearance 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 migration. This geographical isolation makes islands “hotbeds” for selective pressures. Due to these pressures, 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.

Molecular Biology

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 other copy continues to produce a functional protein.

In Summary: Biological Evidence

Biogeography offers further clues about evolutionary relationships. The presence of related organisms across continents indicates when these organisms may have evolved. For example, some flora and fauna of the northern continents are similar across these landmasses but distinct from that of the southern continents. Islands such as Australia and the Galapagos chain often have unique species that evolved after these landmasses separated from the mainland. Finally, molecular biology provides data supporting the theory of evolution. In particular, the universality of DNA and near universality of the genetic code for proteins shows that all life once shared a common ancestor. DNA also provides clues into how evolution may have happened. Gene duplications allow one copy to undergo mutational events without harming an organism, as one copy continues to produce functional protein.

Evolution—It’s a Thing

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

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 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.

Individuals Evolve

Evolution is the change in 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 bill-size change in medium-ground finches in the Galápagos, this does not mean that individual bills on the finches are changing. If one measures the average bill size among all individuals in the population at one time and then measures the average bill size in the population several years later, this 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 bill size; however, there will be many new individuals that contribute to the shift in average bill size.

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 the 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 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 the antibiotic.

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 Explains the Origin of Life

It is a common misunderstanding that evolution includes an explanation of life’s origins. Conversely, some of the theory’s critics believe that it cannot explain the origin of life. 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 the origin of species. 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. Importantly, biologists believe that the presence of life on Earth precludes the possibility that the events that led to life on Earth can be repeated because the intermediate stages would immediately become food for existing living things.

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.

In Summary: Misconceptions of Evolution

Many misconceptions exist about the theory of evolution—including some perpetuated by critics of the theory. First, evolution as a scientific theory means that it has years of observation and accumulated data supporting it. It is not “just a theory” as a person may say in common vernacular.

Another misconception is that individuals evolve, though in fact it is populations that evolve over time. Individuals simply carry mutations. Furthermore, these mutations neither arise on purpose nor do they arise in response to an environmental pressure. Instead, mutations in DNA happen spontaneously and are already present in individuals of a population when a selective pressure occurs. Once the environment begins to favor a particular trait, then those individuals already carrying that mutation will have a selective advantage and are likely to survive better and outproduce others without the adaptation.

Finally, the theory of evolution does not in fact address the origins of life on this planet. Scientists believe that we cannot, in fact, repeat the circumstances that led to life on Earth because at this time life already exists. The presence of life has so dramatically changed the environment that the origins cannot be totally produced for study.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.