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    Evidence for evolution (article)

    Evidence for evolution: anatomy, molecular biology, biogeography, fossils, & direct observation.

    Evolution and natural selection

    Evidence for evolution

    Evidence for evolution: anatomy, molecular biology, biogeography, fossils, & direct observation.

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    Key points:

    Evidence for evolution comes from many different areas of biology:

    Anatomy. Species may share similar physical features because the feature was present in a common ancestor (homologous structures).Molecular biology. DNA and the genetic code reflect the shared ancestry of life. DNA comparisons can show how related species are.Biogeography. The global distribution of organisms and the unique features of island species reflect evolution and geological change.Fossils. Fossils document the existence of now-extinct past species that are related to present-day species.Direct observation. We can directly observe small-scale evolution in organisms with short lifecycles (e.g., pesticide-resistant insects).

    Introduction

    Evolution is a key unifying principle in biology. As Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

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    But what, exactly, are the features of biology that make more sense through the lens of evolution? To put it another way, what are the indications or traces that show evolution has taken place in the past and is still happening today?

    Evolution happens on large and small scales

    Before we look at the evidence, let's make sure we are on the same page about what evolution is. Broadly speaking, evolution is a change in the genetic makeup (and often, the heritable features) of a population over time. Biologists sometimes define two types of evolution based on scale:

    Macroevolution, which refers to large-scale changes that occur over extended time periods, such as the formation of new species and groups.Microevolution, which refers to small-scale changes that affect just one or a few genes and happen in populations over shorter timescales.

    Microevolution and macroevolution aren’t really two different processes. They’re the same process – evolution – occurring on different timescales. Microevolutionary processes occurring over thousands or millions of years can add up to large-scale changes that define new species or groups.

    The evidence for evolution

    In this article, we'll examine the evidence for evolution on both macro and micro scales.

    First, we'll look at several types of evidence (including physical and molecular features, geographical information, and fossils) that provide evidence for, and can allow us to reconstruct, macroevolutionary events.

    At the end of the article, we'll finish by seeing how microevolution can be directly observed, as in the emergence of pesticide-resistant insects.

    Anatomy and embryology

    Darwin thought of evolution as "descent with modification," a process in which species change and give rise to new species over many generations. He proposed that the evolutionary history of life forms a branching tree with many levels, in which all species can be traced back to an ancient common ancestor.

    Branching diagram that appeared in Charles Darwin's On the origin of species, illustrating the idea that new species form from pre-existing species in a branching process that occurs over extended periods of time.

    Image credit: "Darwin's tree of life, 1859," by Charles Darwin (public domain).

    In this tree model, more closely related groups of species have more recent common ancestors, and each group will tend to share features that were present in its last common ancestor. We can use this idea to "work backwards" and figure out how organisms are related based on their shared features.

    Homologous features

    If two or more species share a unique physical feature, such as a complex bone structure or a body plan, they may all have inherited this feature from a common ancestor. Physical features shared due to evolutionary history (a common ancestor) are said to be homologous.

    To give one classic example, the forelimbs of whales, humans, birds, and dogs look pretty different on the outside. That's because they're adapted to function in different environments. However, if you look at the bone structure of the forelimbs, you'll find that the pattern of bones is very similar across species. It's unlikely that such similar structures would have evolved independently in each species, and more likely that the basic layout of bones was already present in a common ancestor of whales, humans, dogs, and birds.

    The similar bone arrangement of the human, bird, and whale forelimb is a structural homology. Structural homologies indicate a shared common ancestor.

    Image credit: "Understanding evolution: Figure 7," by OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0.

    Some homologous structures can be seen only in embryos. For instance, all vertebrate embryos (including humans) have gill slits and a tail during early development. The developmental patterns of these species become more different later on (which is why your embryonic tail is now your tailbone, and your gill slits have turned into your jaw and inner ear)

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    Mastering Biology Ch 13

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    (GROUPING CHART) Can you place each example into the appropriate category of scientific evidence of evolution?

    Click card to see definition 👆

    OBSERVATION FOR NATURAL SELECTION IN ACTION

    1. development of pesticide resistance in insects

    2. changes in average beak size in finches following wet or dry years

    FOSSIL RECORD

    1. discovery of bones from many different dinosaur species

    2. transitional forms that link whales with land-dwelling ancestors that are now extinct

    BIOGEOGRAPHY

    1. unique collection of marsupial mammals in australia

    2. resemblance of island species to nearby mainland species

    ANATOMICAL AND MOLECULAR HOMOLOGIES

    1. similar forelimb anatomy in different species of mammals

    2. same genetic language of dna and similar genes in yeasts, fruit flies, and humans

    Click again to see term 👆

    1. Which one of the following statements most closely agrees with the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, as put forth by Darwin?

    Click card to see definition 👆

    Organisms better adapted to their immediate environment are most likely to survive and reproduce.

    Click again to see term 👆

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    Terms in this set (18)

    (GROUPING CHART) Can you place each example into the appropriate category of scientific evidence of evolution?

    OBSERVATION FOR NATURAL SELECTION IN ACTION

    1. development of pesticide resistance in insects

    2. changes in average beak size in finches following wet or dry years

    FOSSIL RECORD

    1. discovery of bones from many different dinosaur species

    2. transitional forms that link whales with land-dwelling ancestors that are now extinct

    BIOGEOGRAPHY

    1. unique collection of marsupial mammals in australia

    2. resemblance of island species to nearby mainland species

    ANATOMICAL AND MOLECULAR HOMOLOGIES

    1. similar forelimb anatomy in different species of mammals

    2. same genetic language of dna and similar genes in yeasts, fruit flies, and humans

    1. Which one of the following statements most closely agrees with the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, as put forth by Darwin?

    Organisms better adapted to their immediate environment are most likely to survive and reproduce.

    Which mechanism for evolution was proposed by Lamarck?

    evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics

    A challenge to traditional (pre-1860) ideas about species came from embryology, where it was discovered that __________.

    embryos of dissimilar organisms, such as sharks and humans, resemble each other

    The oldest known fossils are from about ______ years ago.

    3.5 billion

    The study of comparative anatomy __________.

    provides information about the evolutionary history of species

    Which of the following are homologous?

    the forelimb of a dog and the forelimb of a cat

    (FLOW CHART) Can you identify the process by which natural selection acts on an insect population exposed to pesticides?

    1. pesticide is applied to a population of insects

    2. some insects have a gene that makes them resistant to the pesticide. these insects survive. insects without the gene die.

    3. the surviving insects reproduce. the frequency of the resistant insects in the population increases.

    Which one of the following was an assumption of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection?

    Populations produce more offspring than their environment can support.

    Homology is evidence of ______.

    common ancestry

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