Tool Module: Darwin's Natural Selection
All scientists now agree that all the species that we see today have evolved
from primitive forms of life that existed several million years ago. The existence
of biological evolution is thus recognized as a fact for which there are countless
pieces of historical evidence.
Biologists are less certain, however, as to what mechanisms were the
source of this evolution. Darwin’s great contribution is that he not only
revealed the phenomenon of evolution and supported it with many examples, but
also provided a number of indications as to how it may have occurred.
According to Darwin, the driving force behind evolution is a phenomenon
that he called natural selection. Today we know that natural selection is not
the only mechanism of evolution, but it has certainly played a preponderant role.
The process of natural selection may be summarized as follows:
- organisms display certain variations in all aspects of their biology and
- these variations are hereditary; individuals inherit them
from their parents and pass them on to their descendants;
- these hereditary
variations can have positive or negative effects on survival and reproduction,
depending on the environment in which the organism lives;
- those individuals
that display the variations that are the most favourable in their environment
will live longer and leave more descendants who also possess these variations;
after many generations, these favourable variations will be found in all individuals
in the population.
The more limited the resources in a given environment,
the more efficient this process will be, thus placing greater “evolutionary
pressure” on those individuals who are less well adapted to this particular
environment and favouring the reproduction of those individuals whose traits give
them an advantage in it.
Giraffes, for example, did not get their long
necks by stretching them to reach the leaves on trees (which is what people thought
before Darwin). Instead, within the entire giraffe population, some individuals
underwent mutations that gave them slightly longer necks than other giraffes.
This gave them an advantage, because they could obtain food more easily. Hence
they remained in better health and so produced more descendants. These descendants
inherited their slightly longer necks. If food became scarce and giraffes needed
to be able to reach the highest branches of trees to survive, then those giraffes
with shorter necks would die, leaving the entire habitat to the giraffes with
But if the environment in which a species lives should
change (as happens all the time), then a trait that used to constitute a handicap
could quite possibly become an asset for survival, and it will be the individuals
with this trait who will then leave more descendants.
It is therefore
important to note that mutations, which occur at random and are the origin of
any given trait in an individual, are never good or bad in and of themselves,
but only in relation to the environment in which this individual lives.
It should also be noted that it is the diversity of life as a whole
that ensures its future evolution.
Another point of interest is that
Darwin himself did not use the term “evolution”, which in his era
was too closely associated with the idea of steady progress toward an ideal. On
the contrary, in his view, life forms as elementary as an amoeba could be perfectly
adapted to their environment. In other words, human beings were no closer to any
evolutionary ideal than the other forms of life were.
Lastly, for Darwin,
not only were organisms’ physical characteristics subject to natural selection,
but so were their psychology and behaviour, thus explaining for the first time
how all of the highly sophisticated instincts observed in the animal kingdom may
have come to be.