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T5 - Natural and Artifical Selection

I can differentiate between natural and artificial selection


Humans have relied on artificial selection ever since we first put seeds in the ground some ten thousand years ago. Today, our continuing efforts to develop crops and animals for food, work, and companions have expanded beyond breeding to include genetic engineering. Dismay about our effects on the environment is encouraging us to see ourselves more as a part of nature than above it. Evolution by natural selection is not just an explanation of the history of life. The process of Darwin’s theory clearly continues, changing our world and ourselves - both despite and because of our best efforts to control it. And we have reached beyond Darwin’s wildest expectations; we now have direct observations of natural selection to add to the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

Artificial Selection 

The range of variations induced in relatively short periods of time by animal breeders convinced Darwin that natural selection across geologic time could have produced the great diversity of present life. Domestication of animals has resulted in the remarkable variety of dogs (Figure below) from wolves, as well as cattle, horses, llamas, camels, and a few evolutionary dead-ends, such as the donkey.

Selective breeding has led to dramatic differences among breeds in a relatively short time, yet dogs are still able to interbreed with wolves - the wild species from which they originated. Darwin used his observations of artificial selection, as he called it, to derive and promote his theory of evolution by natural selection.

However, artificial selection has resulted in the achievement that extends far beyond our immediate, intentional goals. Our initial cultivation of plants such as corn (Figure below) played a role in the eventual development of human civilization.

Over time, selective breeding has modified teosinte's few fruitcases (left) into modern corn's rows of exposed kernels (right). Cultivation of crops such as corn and wheat gave early humans the freedom to develop civilizations.

Since Darwin’s time, selective breeding has become even more sophisticated. We have further hybridized high-yield hybrids with local varieties throughout the world, intentionally adapting them to local climates and pests. 

Natural Selection

Darwin defined natural selection as the "principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved," and he later regretted that he had not named it “natural preservation.” Today it is often defined as the process by which a certain trait becomes more common within a population. Let’s look once more at the parts of this process, and then we will consider its consequences.

Natural selection involves overproduction of offspring, heritable variation, preferential survival of individuals having variations favorable for the environment, and reproduction by survivors. This diagram shows two selection events, with reproduction after each one.

Species produce more offspring than can survive.

Malthus argued that human populations grow exponentially if unchecked, but that disease, starvation, or war will limit population growth eventually. High birth rates and high death rates were characteristic of human history. Darwin himself had ten children; three died before maturity. Darwin reasoned that all species had the capacity to grow. However, his observations showed that most populations remained stable due to environmental limits. He concluded that many offspring must die. The phrases overproduction of offspring and struggle for existence summarize this idea.

By chance, heritable variations exist within a species.

Darwin did not know that genes made of DNA determine traits. Much later, scientists learned that mutations in DNA can change genes and produce variations in traits. However, his observations of animal breeding and his detailed studies of barnacles and orchids convinced him that small, heritable variations in traits were common among individuals within a species. Darwin probably recognized that sexual reproduction increased variety in offspring. He expressed considerable concern that his own health problems might be heritable, especially when his beloved daughter Annie grew ill and died. He believed that his marriage to his cousin may have contributed to his children's weaknesses.

Offspring with favorable variations are more likely to survive to reproduce.

Although heritable variations appeared to be random, death, Darwin reasoned, was not. Offspring which, by chance, had variations which “fit” or adapted them to their environment would have a greater chance to survive to maturity and a greater chance to reproduce. Offspring without such adaptations were more likely to die. Thus, well-adapted individuals produce more offspring. Differential survival and reproduction is a cornerstone of natural selection.

Gradually, individuals with favorable variations make up more of the population.

Can an individual organism evolve? No. The accommodation of an individual organism to its environment is not evolution. Though an individual organism can be better adapted to its environment, it still must mate with others of its species, so by definition, it is not a new species. It is just an individual with a better chance of survival in its environment. It is the gradual accumulation of many adaptations that, over many generations within one lineage of organisms, results in a new species. These adaptations occur through genetic change.

Through chance variation, overproduction of offspring, and differential survival and reproduction, the proportion of individuals with a favorable trait (or favorable phenotype) will increase. The result is a population of individuals adapted to their environment. It is the variation within a species that increases the likelihood that at least some members of a species will be adapted to their environment and survive under changed conditions.

It is important to note that natural selection is not directed or intentional. It depends on chance variations - due to genetic variations - and can work only with the “raw material” of existing species. Occasionally, variations which have no particular adaptive logic may survive. However, the limits set by resources and environment usually mean an increase in traits which help survival or reproduction, and the loss of traits which harm them. Gradually, species change. Eventually, changes accumulate and a new species is formed.

Let’s compare natural selection to inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarck’s idea mentioned above). How would Darwin’s mechanism explain the long necks of giraffes?

  1. Heritable variation: In the past, some giraffes had short necks, and some had long necks.
  2. Overproduction of offspring: Giraffes produced more young than the trees in their environment could support.
  3. Differential survival and reproduction: Because the long-necked giraffes could feed from taller trees, they were more likely to survive and produce more offspring. Short-necked giraffes were more likely to starve before they could reproduce.
  4. Species change: The long-necked giraffes passed their long necks on to their calves, so that each generation, the population contained more long-necked giraffes.

Recall that Lamarck believed that giraffes could stretch their necks to reach tall trees, and pass their stretched necks on to offspring. If this were true, evolution would reward effort toward a goal. Darwin showed that evolution is not goal-directed. Instead, the environment reinforces variations which occur by chance.

Darwin delighted in the great diversity of life, but also saw unity within that diversity. He saw striking patterns in the similarities and differences. Seeking an explanation for those patterns, he developed the concept of natural selection. Natural selection explains how today’s organisms could be related – through “descent with modification” from common ancestors. Natural selection explains the story told by the fossil record – the long history of life on Earth. Natural selection is a scientific answer (if only partial) to the old questions: Who are we? How did we come to be?

In the light of natural selection, it is easy to see that variation – differences among individuals within a population – increases the chance that at least some individuals will survive if the environment changes. Here is a strong argument against cloning humans: if we were all genetically identical – if variation (or genetic variation) did not exist – a virus which previously could kill just some of us would either kill all of us, or none of us. Throughout the long history of life, variation has provided insurance that inevitable changes in the environmental will not mean the extinction of a species. Similarly, the diversity of species ensures that environmental change will not mean the extinction of life. Life has evolved (or, the Earth’s changing environment has selected) variation and diversity because they ensure survival. Causes of mutation may have pre-existed, but in a sense, life has embraced them. Sexual reproduction has evolved to add further to variation and diversity.

Adaptations are logical because the environment imposes limits on organisms, selecting against those who do not “fit.” Adaptations arise through gradual accumulation of chance variations, so they cannot be predicted, despite the fact that they appear to be goal-directed or intentional. Adaptations relate to every aspect of life: food, water, oxygen, nutrients, shelter, growth, response, reproduction, movement, behavior, ability to learn. Adaptations connect organisms to the resources in their environments. You are born with your adaptations; they are not changes you make to fit yourself into an environment. If the environment changes, the adaptive value of some of your inherited characteristics may also change. Our human appetites for salt and fat, for example, may remain from our past, when fat and salt were rare in our environment; now that they are easily available, we consume more than is good for us. Biologist E.O. Wilson believes adaptations reach every aspect of human life - that social, political, and even religious behaviors are rooted in our genes. Of course, we can learn – and learning allows us to adapt within our lifetimes to environmental change. The ability to learn is itself an adaptation – perhaps our greatest gift. But more and more, we are discovering that much of our behavior – including learning - is genetically programmed – a gift from our ancestors similar to vision and hearing, or breathing and digestion.

Natural selection explains how species change.
This video discusses the underlying causes of natural selection and evolution  http://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy#p