Processes and Patterns of Evolution
Natural selection can only take place if there is variation, or differences, among individuals in a population. Importantly, these differences must have some genetic basis; otherwise, the selection will not lead to change in the next generation. This is critical because nongenetic reasons can cause variation among individuals such as an individual's height because of better nutrition rather than different genes.
Genetic diversity in a population comes from two main mechanisms: mutation and sexual reproduction. Mutation, a change in DNA, is the ultimate source of new alleles, or new genetic variation in any population. The genetic changes that mutation causes can have one of three outcomes on the phenotype. A mutation affects the organism's phenotype in a way that gives it reduced fitness—lower likelihood of survival or fewer offspring. A mutation may produce a phenotype with a beneficial effect on fitness. Many mutations will also have no effect on the phenotype's fitness. We call these neutral mutations. Mutations may also have a whole range of effect sizes on the organism's fitness that expresses them in their phenotype, from a small effect to a great effect. Sexual reproduction also leads to genetic diversity: when two parents reproduce, unique combinations of alleles assemble to produce the unique genotypes and thus phenotypes in each offspring.
We call a heritable trait that helps an organism's survival and reproduction in its present environment an adaptation. Scientists describe groups of organisms adapting to their environment when a genetic variation occurs over time that increases or maintains the population's “fit” to its environment. A platypus's webbed feet are an adaptation for swimming. A snow leopard's thick fur is an adaptation for living in the cold. A cheetah's fast speed is an adaptation for catching prey.
Whether or not a trait is favorable depends on the current environmental conditions. The same traits are not always selected because environmental conditions can change. For example, consider a plant species that grew in a moist climate and did not need to conserve water. Large leaves were selected because they allowed the plant to obtain more energy from the sun. Large leaves require more water to maintain than small leaves, and the moist environment provided favorable conditions to support large leaves. After thousands of years, the climate changed, and the area no longer had excess water. The direction of natural selection shifted so that plants with small leaves were selected because those populations were able to conserve water to survive the new environmental conditions.
The evolution of species has resulted in enormous variation in form and function. Sometimes, evolution gives rise to groups of organisms that become tremendously different from each other. We call two species that evolve in diverse directions from a common point divergent evolution. We can see such divergent evolution in the forms of the reproductive organs of flowering plants which share the same basic anatomies; however, they can look very different as a result of selection in different physical environments and adaptation to different kinds of pollinators (Figure).
In other cases, similar phenotypes evolve independently in distantly related species. For example, flight has evolved in both bats and insects, and they both have structures we refer to as wings, which are adaptations to flight. However, bat and insect wings have evolved from very different original structures. We call this phenomenon convergent evolution, where similar traits evolve independently in species that do not share a common ancestry. The two species came to the same function, flying, but did so separately from each other.
These physical changes occur over enormous time spans and help explain how evolution occurs. Natural selection acts on individual organisms, which can then shape an entire species. Although natural selection may work in a single generation on an individual, it can take thousands or even millions of years for an entire species' genotype to evolve. It is over these large time spans that life on earth has changed and continues to change.