Evolution does not occur in individuals but in populations. A population is an interbreeding group of individuals of one species in a given geographic area. A population evolves because the population contains the collection of genes called the gene pool. As changes in the gene pool occur, a population evolves.
Mutation, a driving force of evolution, is a random change in a population’s gene pool. It is a change in the nature of the DNA in one or more chromosomes. Mutations give rise to new alleles; therefore, they are the source of variation in a population.
Mutations may be harmful, but they may also be beneficial. For example, a mutation may permit organisms in a population to produce enzymes that will allow them to use certain food materials. Over time, these types of individuals survive, while those not having the mutations perish. Therefore, natural selection tends to remove the less-fit individuals, allowing more-fit individuals to survive and form a population of fit individuals.
Another mechanism of evolution may occur during the migration of individuals from one group to another. When the migrating individuals interbreed with the new population, they contribute their genes to the gene pool of the local population. This establishes gene flow in the population. Gene flow occurs, for example, when wind carries seeds far beyond the bounds of the parent plant population. As another example, animals may be driven off from a herd. This forces them to migrate to a new population, thereby bringing new genes to a gene pool. Gene flow tends to increase the similarity between remaining populations of the same species because it makes gene pools more similar to one another.
Another mechanism for evolution is genetic drift. Genetic drift occurs when a small group of individuals leaves a population and establishes a new one in a geographically isolated region. For example, when a small population of fish is placed in a lake, the fish population will evolve into one that is different from the original. Fitness of a population is not considered in genetic drift, nor does genetic drift occur in a very large population.
Clearly, the most important influence on evolution is natural selection, which occurs when an organism is subject to its environment. The fittest survive and contribute their genes to their offspring, producing a population that is better adapted to the environment. The genes of less-fit individuals are eventually lost. The important selective force in natural selection is the environment.
Environmental fitness may be expressed in several ways. For example, it may involve an individual’s ability to avoid predators, it may imply a greater resistance to disease, it may enhance ability to obtain food, or it may mean resistance to drought. Fitness may also be measured as enhanced reproductive ability, such as in the ability to attract a mate. Better-adapted individuals produce relatively more offspring and pass on their genes more efficiently than less-adapted individuals.
Several types of natural selection appear to act in populations. One type, stabilizing selection, occurs when the environment continually eliminates individuals at extremes of a population. Another type of natural selection is disruptive selection. Here, the environment favors extreme types in a population at the expense of intermediate forms, thereby splitting the population into two or more populations. A third type of natural selection is directional selection. In this case, the environment acts for or against an extreme characteristic, and the likely result is the replacement of one gene group with another gene group. The development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the modern era is an example of directional selection.
A species is a group of individuals that share a number of features and are able to interbreed with one another. (When individuals of one species mate with individuals of a different species, any offspring are usually sterile.) A species is also defined as a population whose members share a common gene pool.
The evolution of a species is speciation, which can occur when a population is isolated by geographic barriers, such as occurred in the isolation of Australia, New Zealand, and the Galapagos Islands. The variety of life forms found in Australia but nowhere else is the characteristic result of speciation by geographic barriers.
Speciation can also occur when reproductive barriers develop. For example, when members of a population develop anatomical barriers that make mating with other members of the population difficult, a new species can develop. The timing of sexual activity is another example of a reproductive barrier. Spatial difference, such as one species inhabiting treetops while another species occurs at ground level, is another reason why species develop.
Darwin’s theory included the fact that evolutionary changes take place slowly. In many cases, the fossil record shows that a species changed gradually over time. The theory that evolution occurs gradually is known as gradualism.
In contrast to gradualism is the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which is a point of discussion among scientists. According to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, some species have long, stable periods of existence interrupted by relatively brief periods of rapid change.
Both groups of scientists agree that natural selection is the single most important factor in evolutionary changes in species. Whether the change is slow and gradual, or punctuated and rapid, one thing is certain: Organisms have evolved over time.