11.1 Discovering How Populations Change
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.
The modern synthesis of evolutionary theory grew out of the reconciliation of Darwin’s, Wallace’s, and Mendel’s thoughts on evolution and heredity. Population genetics is a theoretical framework for describing evolutionary change in populations through the change in allele frequencies. Population genetics defines evolution as a change in allele frequency over generations. In the absence of evolutionary forces allele frequencies will not change in a population; this is known as Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium principle. However, in all populations, mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, and migration act to change allele frequencies.
11.2 Mechanisms of Evolution
There are four factors that can change the allele frequencies of a population. Natural selection works by selecting for alleles that confer beneficial traits or behaviors, while selecting against those for deleterious qualities. Mutations introduce new alleles into a population. Genetic drift stems from the chance occurrence that some individuals have more offspring than others and results in changes in allele frequencies that are random in direction. When individuals leave or join the population, allele frequencies can change as a result of gene flow.
11.3 Evidence of Evolution
The evidence for evolution is found at all levels of organization in living things and in the extinct species we know about through fossils. Fossils provide evidence for the evolutionary change through now extinct forms that led to modern species. For example, there is a rich fossil record that shows the evolutionary transitions from horse ancestors to modern horses that document intermediate forms and a gradual adaptation o changing ecosystems. The anatomy of species and the embryological development of that anatomy reveal common structures in divergent lineages that have been modified over time by evolution. The geographical distribution of living species reflects the origins of species in particular geographic locations and the history of continental movements. The structures of molecules, like anatomical structures, reflect the relationships of living species and match patterns of similarity expected from descent with modification.
Speciation occurs along two main pathways: geographic separation (allopatric speciation) and through mechanisms that occur within a shared habitat (sympatric speciation). Both pathways force reproductive isolation between populations. Sympatric speciation can occur through errors in meiosis that form gametes with extra chromosomes, called polyploidy. Autopolyploidy occurs within a single species, whereas allopolyploidy occurs because of a mating between closely related species. Once the populations are isolated, evolutionary divergence can take place leading to the evolution of reproductive isolating traits that prevent interbreeding should the two populations come together again. The reduced viability of hybrid offspring after a period of isolation is expected to select for stronger inherent isolating mechanisms.
11.5 Common Misconceptions about Evolution
The theory of evolution is a difficult concept and misconceptions abound. The factual nature of evolution is often challenged by wrongly associating the scientific meaning of a theory with the vernacular meaning. Evolution is sometimes mistakenly interpreted to mean that individuals evolve, when in fact only populations can evolve as their gene frequencies change over time. Evolution is often assumed to explain the origin of life, which it does not speak to. It is often spoken in goal-directed terms by which organisms change through intention, and selection operates on mutations present in a population that have not arisen in response to a particular environmental stress. Evolution is often characterized as being controversial among scientists; however, it is accepted by the vast majority of working scientists. Critics of evolution often argue that alternative theories to evolution should be taught in public schools; however, there are no viable alternative scientific theories to evolution. The alternative religious beliefs should not be taught as science because it cannot be proven, and in the United States it is unconstitutional. Science is silent on the question of the existence of a god while scientists are able to reconcile religious belief and scientific knowledge.