The tree of life showing the three domains of life on Earth.

Evolution is a scientific theory used by biologists. It explains how living things change over a long time, and how they have come to be the way they are.[1]

Earth is very old.[2][3] By studying the layers of rock that make up Earth's crust, scientists can find out about its past. This kind of research is called historical geology.

It is known that living things have changed over time, because their remains can be seen in the rocks. These remains are called 'fossils'. This proves that the animals and plants of today are different from those of long ago. The older the fossils, the bigger the differences from modern forms.[4] How has this come about? Evolution has taken place. That evolution has taken place is a fact, because it is overwhelmingly supported by many lines of evidence.[5][6][7] At the same time, evolutionary questions are still being actively researched by biologists.

Comparison of DNA sequences allows organisms to be grouped by how similar their sequences are. In 2010 an analysis compared sequences to phylogenetic trees, and supported the idea of common descent. There is now "strong quantitative support, by a formal test",[8] for the unity of life.[9]

The theory of evolution is the basis of modern biology. Theodosius Dobzhansky, a well-known evolutionary biologist, has said: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution".[10]

Evidence for evolution

The evidence for evolution is given in a number of books.[11][12][13][14] Some of this evidence is discussed here.

Fossils show that change has occurred

The realization that some rocks contain fossils was a very important event in natural history. There are three parts to this story:

  1. Realizing that things in rocks which looked organic actually were the altered remains of living things. This was settled in the 16th and 17th centuries by Conrad Gessner, Nicolaus Steno, Robert Hooke and others.[15][16]
  2. Realizing that many fossils represented species which do not exist today. It was Georges Cuvier, the comparative anatomist, who proved that extinction occurred, and that different strata contained different fossils.[17]p108
  3. Realizing that early fossils were simpler organisms than later fossils. Also, the later the rocks, the more like the present day are the fossils.[18]

The most convincing evidence for the occurrence of evolution is the discovery of extinct organisms in older geological strata... The older the strata are...the more different the fossil will be from living representatives... that is to be expected if the fauna and flora of the earlier strata had gradually evolved into their descendants.

— Ernst Mayr [1]p13

Evolution of horses

The ancestors of our horses lived in forests.

The evolution of the horse family (Equidae) is a good example of the way that evolution works. The oldest fossil of a horse is about 52 million years old. It was a small animal with five toes on the front feet and four on the hind feet. At that time, there were more forests in the world than today. This horse lived in woodland, eating leaves, nuts and fruit with its simple teeth. It was only about as big as a fox.[19]

About 30 million years ago the world started to become cooler and drier. Forests shrank; grassland expanded, and horses changed. They ate grass, they grew larger, and they ran faster because they had to escape faster predators. Because grass wears teeth out, horses with longer-lasting teeth had an advantage.

For most of this long period of time, there were a number of horse types (genera). Now, however, only one genus exists: the modern horse, Equus. It has teeth which grow all its life, hooves on single toes, great long legs for running, and the animal is big and strong enough to survive in the open plain.[19] Horses lived in western Canada until 12,000 years ago,[20] but all horses in North America became extinct about 11,000 years ago. The causes of this extinction are not yet clear. Climate change and over-hunting by humans are suggested.

So, scientists can see that changes have happened. They have happened slowly over a long time. How these changes have come about is explained by the theory of evolution.

Geographical distribution

Protea. The Proteaceae are a family of flowering plants entirely limited to the southern continents.

This is a topic which fascinated both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.[21][22][23] When new species occur, usually by the splitting of older species, this takes place in one place in the world. Once it is established, a new species may spread to some places and not others.


Australasia has been separated from other continents for many millions of years. In the main part of the continent, Australia, 83% of mammals, 89% of reptiles, 90% of fish and insects and 93% of amphibians are endemic.[24] Its native mammals are mostly marsupials like kangaroos, bandicoots, and quolls.[25] By contrast, marsupials are today totally absent from Africa and form a small portion of the mammalian fauna of South America, where opossums, shrew opossums, and the monito del monte occur (see the Great American Interchange).

The only living representatives of primitive egg-laying mammals (monotremes) are the echidnas and the platypus. They are only found in Australasia, which includes Tasmania, New Guinea, and Kangaroo Island. These monotremes are totally absent in the rest of the world.[26] On the other hand, Australia is missing many groups of placental mammals that are common on other continents (carnivora, artiodactyls, shrews, squirrels, lagomorphs), although it does have indigenous bats and rodents, which arrived later.[27]

The evolutionary story is that placental mammals evolved in Eurasia, and wiped out the marsupials and monotremes wherever they spread. They did not reach Australasia until more recently. That is the simple reason why Australia has most of the world's marsupials and all the world's monotremes.

Hawaiian Drosophila

In about 6,500 sq mi (17,000 km2), the Hawaiian Islands have the most diverse collection of Drosophila flies in the world, living from rainforests to mountain meadows. About 800 Hawaiian drosophilid species are known.

Genetic evidence shows that all the native drosophilid species in Hawaiʻi have descended from a single ancestral species that colonized the islands, about 20 million years ago. The subsequent adaptive radiation was spurred by a lack of competition and a wide variety of vacant niches. Although it would be possible for a single pregnant female to colonise an island, it is more likely to have been a group from the same species.[28][29][30][31]

Distribution of Glossopteris

Current distribution of Glossopteris on a Permian map showing the connection of the continents. (1. South America 2. Africa 3. Madagascar 4. India 5. Antarctica and 6. Australia)

The combination of continental drift and evolution can explain what is found in the fossil record. Glossopteris is an extinct species of seed fern plants from the Permian period on the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana.[32]

Glossopteris fossils are found in Permian strata in southeast South America, southeast Africa, all of Madagascar, northern India, all of Australia, all of New Zealand, and scattered on the southern and northern edges of Antarctica.

During the Permian, these continents were connected as Gondwana. This is known from magnetic striping in the rocks, other fossil distributions, and glacial scratches pointing away from the temperate climate of the South Pole during the Permian.[13]p103[33]

Common descent

When biologists look at living things, they see that animals and plants belong to groups which have something in common. Charles Darwin explained that this followed naturally if "we admit the common parentage of allied forms, together with their modification through variation and natural selection".[21]p402[11]p456

For example, all insects are related. They share a basic body plan, whose development is controlled by master regulatory genes.[34] They have six legs; they have hard parts on the outside of the body (an exoskeleton); they have eyes formed of many separate chambers, and so on. Biologists explain this with evolution. All insects are the descendants of a group of animals who lived a long time ago. They still keep the basic plan (six legs and so on) but the details change. They look different now because they changed in different ways: this is evolution.[35]

It was Darwin who first suggested that all life on Earth had a single origin, and from that beginning "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved".[11]p490[21] Evidence from molecular biology in recent years has supported the idea that all life is related by common descent.[36]

Vestigial structures

Strong evidence for common descent comes from vestigial structures.[21]p397 The useless wings of flightless beetles are sealed under fused wing covers. This can be simply explained by their descent from ancestral beetles which had wings that worked.[14]p49

Rudimentary body parts, those that are smaller and simpler in structure than corresponding parts in ancestral species, are called vestigial organs. Those organs are functional in the ancestral species but are now either nonfunctional or re-adapted to a new function. Examples are the pelvic girdles of whales, halteres (hind wings) of flies, wings of flightless birds, and the leaves of some xerophytes (e.g. cactus) and parasitic plants (e.g. dodder).

However, vestigial structures may have their original function replaced with another. For example, the halteres in flies help balance the insect while in flight, and the wings of ostriches are used in mating rituals, and in aggressive display. The ear ossicles in mammals are former bones of the lower jaw.

"Rudimentary organs plainly declare their origin and meaning..." (p262). "Rudimentary organs... are the record of a former state of things, and have been retained solely though the powers of inheritance... far from being a difficulty, as they assuredly do on the old doctrine of creation, might even have been anticipated in accordance with the views here explained" (p402). Charles Darwin.[21]

In 1893, Robert Wiedersheim published a book on human anatomy and its relevance to man's evolutionary history. This book contained a list of 86 human organs that he considered vestigial.[37] This list included examples such as the appendix and the 3rd molar teeth (wisdom teeth).

The strong grip of a baby is another example.[38] It is a vestigial reflex, a remnant of the past when pre-human babies clung to their mothers' hair as the mothers swung through the trees. This is borne out by the babies' feet, which curl up when it is sitting down (primate babies grip with the feet as well). All primates except modern man have thick body hair to which an infant can cling, unlike modern humans. The grasp reflex allows the mother to escape danger by climbing a tree using both hands and feet.[13][39]

Vestigial organs often have some selection against them. The original organs took resources, sometimes huge resources. If they no longer have a function, reducing their size improves fitness. And there is direct evidence of selection. Some cave crustacea reproduce more successfully with smaller eyes than do those with larger eyes. This may be because the nervous tissue dealing with sight now becomes available to handle other sensory input.[40]p310


From the eighteenth century it was known that embryos of different species were much more similar than the adults. In particular, some parts of embryos reflect their evolutionary past. For example, the embryos of land vertebrates develop gill slits like fish embryos. Of course, this is only a temporary stage, which gives rise to many structures in the neck of reptiles, birds and mammals. The proto-gill slits are part of a complicated system of development: that is why they persisted.[34]

Another example are the embryonic teeth of baleen whales.[41] They are later lost. The baleen filter is developed from different tissue, called keratin. Early fossil baleen whales did actually have teeth as well as the baleen.[42]

A good example is the barnacle. It took many centuries before natural historians discovered that barnacles were crustacea. Their adults look so unlike other crustacea, but their larvae are very similar to those of other crustacea.[43]

Artificial selection

This mixed-breed Chihuahua and Great Dane show the range of dog breed sizes produced by artificial selection.
Selective breeding transformed teosinte's few fruitcases (left) into modern corn's rows of exposed kernels (right).

Charles Darwin lived in a world where animal husbandry and domesticated crops were vitally important. In both cases farmers selected for breeding individuals with special properties, and prevented the breeding of individuals with less desirable characteristics. The eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw a growth in scientific agriculture, and artificial breeding was part of this.

Darwin discussed artificial selection as a model for natural selection in the 1859 first edition of his work On the Origin of Species, in Chapter IV: Natural selection:

"Slow though the process of selection may be, if feeble man can do much by his powers of artificial selection, I can see no limit to the amount of change... which may be effected in the long course of time by nature's power of selection".[11]p109[44]
Rye is a now a crop. Originally it was a mimetic weed of wheat

Nikolai Vavilov showed that rye, originally a weed, came to be a crop plant by unintentional selection. Rye is a tougher plant than wheat: it survives in harsher conditions. Having become a crop like the wheat, rye was able to become a crop plant in harsh areas, such as hills and mountains.[45][46]

There is no real difference in the genetic processes underlying artificial and natural selection, and the concept of artificial selection was used by Charles Darwin as an illustration of the wider process of natural selection. There are practical differences. Experimental studies of artificial selection show that "the rate of evolution in selection experiments is at least two orders of magnitude (that is 100 times) greater than any rate seen in nature or the fossil record".[47]p157

Artificial new species

Some have thought that artificial selection could not produce new species. It now seems that it can.

New species have been created by domesticated animal husbandry, but the details are not known or not clear. For example, domestic sheep were created by hybridisation, and no longer produce viable offspring with Ovis orientalis, one species from which they are descended.[48] Domestic cattle, on the other hand, can be considered the same species as several varieties of wild ox, gaur, yak, etc., as they readily produce fertile offspring with them.[49]

The best-documented new species came from laboratory experiments in the late 1980s. William Rice and G.W. Salt bred fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, using a maze with three different choices of habitat such as light/dark and wet/dry. Each generation was put into the maze, and the groups of flies that came out of two of the eight exits were set apart to breed with each other in their respective groups.

After thirty-five generations, the two groups and their offspring were isolated reproductively because of their strong habitat preferences: they mated only within the areas they preferred, and so did not mate with flies that preferred the other areas.[50][51]

Diane Dodd was also able to show how reproductive isolation can develop from mating preferences in Drosophila pseudoobscura fruit flies after only eight generations using different food types, starch and maltose.[52]

Drosophila speciation experiment

Dodd's experiment has been easy for others to repeat. It has also been done with other fruit flies and foods.[53]

Observable changes

Some biologists say that evolution has happened when a trait that is caused by genetics becomes more or less common in a group of organisms.[54] Others call it evolution when new species appear.

Changes can happen quickly in the smaller, simpler organisms. For example, many bacteria that cause disease can no longer be killed with some of the antibiotic medicines. These medicines have only been in use about eighty years, and at first worked extremely well. The bacteria have evolved so that they are no longer affected by antibiotics anymore.[55] The drugs killed off all the bacteria except a few which had some resistance. These few resistant bacteria produced the next generation.

The Colorado beetle is famous for its ability to resist pesticides. Over the last 50 years it has become resistant to 52 chemical compounds used in insecticides, including cyanide.[56] This is natural selection speeded up by the artificial conditions. However, not every population is resistant to every chemical.[57] The populations only become resistant to chemicals used in their area.

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