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Charles Darwin and Natural Selection

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

The actual mechanism for evolution was independently conceived of and described by two naturalists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, in the mid-nineteenth century. Importantly, each spent time exploring the natural world on expeditions to the tropics. From 1831 to 1836, Darwin traveled around the world on H.M.S.Beagle, visiting South America, Australia, and the southern tip of Africa. Wallace traveled to Brazil to collect insects in the Amazon rainforest from 1848 to 1852 and to the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862. Darwin’s journey, like Wallace’s later journeys in the Malay Archipelago, included stops at several island chains, the last being the Galápagos Islands (west of Ecuador). On these islands, Darwin observed species of organisms on different islands that were clearly similar, yet had distinct differences. For example, the ground finches inhabiting the Galápagos Islands comprised several species that each had a unique beak shape (Figure 11.2). He observed both that these finches closely resembled another finch species on the mainland of South America and that the group of species in the Galápagos formed a graded series of beak sizes and shapes, with very small differences between the most similar. Darwin imagined that the island species might be all species modified from one original mainland species. In 1860, he wrote, “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” 1

Figure 11.2 Darwin observed that beak shape varies among finch species. He postulated that the beak of an ancestral species had adapted over time to equip the finches to acquire different food sources. This illustration shows the beak shapes for four species of ground finch: 1. Geospiza magnirostris (the large ground finch), 2. G. fortis (the medium ground finch), 3. G. parvula (the small tree finch), and 4. Certhidea olivacea (the green-warbler finch).

Wallace and Darwin both observed similar patterns in other organisms and independently conceived a mechanism to explain how and why such changes could take place. Darwin called this mechanism natural selection. Natural selection, Darwin argued, was an inevitable outcome of three principles that operated in nature. First, the characteristics of organisms are inherited, or passed from parent to offspring. Second, more offspring are produced than are able to survive; in other words, resources for survival and reproduction are limited. The capacity for reproduction in all organisms outstrips the availability of resources to support their numbers. Thus, there is a competition for those resources in each generation. Both Darwin and Wallace’s understanding of this principle came from reading an essay by the economist Thomas Malthus, who discussed this principle in relation to human populations. Third, offspring vary among each other in regard to their characteristics and those variations are inherited. Out of these three principles, Darwin and Wallace reasoned that offspring with inherited characteristics that allow them to best compete for limited resources will survive and have more offspring than those individuals with variations that are less able to compete. Because characteristics are inherited, these traits will be better represented in the next generation. This will lead to change in populations over generations in a process that Darwin called “descent with modification.”

Papers by Darwin and Wallace (Figure 11.3) presenting the idea of natural selection were read together in 1858 before the Linnaean Society in London. The following year Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species,was published, which outlined in considerable detail his arguments for evolution by natural selection.

Figure 11.3 (a) Charles Darwin and (b) Alfred Wallace wrote scientific papers on natural selection that were presented together before the Linnean Society in 1858.

Demonstrations of evolution by natural selection can be time consuming. One of the best demonstrations has been in the very birds that helped to inspire the theory, the Galápagos finches. Peter and Rosemary Grant and their colleagues have studied Galápagos finch populations every year since 1976 and have provided important demonstrations of the operation of natural selection. The Grants found changes from one generation to the next in the beak shapes of the medium ground finches on the Galápagos island of Daphne Major. The medium ground finch feeds on seeds. The birds have inherited variation in the bill shape with some individuals having wide, deep bills and others having thinner bills. Large-billed birds feed more efficiently on large, hard seeds, whereas smaller billed birds feed more efficiently on small, soft seeds. During 1977, a drought period altered vegetation on the island. After this period, the number of seeds declined dramatically: the decline in small, soft seeds was greater than the decline in large, hard seeds. The large-billed birds were able to survive better than the small-billed birds the following year. The year following the drought when the Grants measured beak sizes in the much- reduced population, they found that the average bill size was larger (Figure 11.4). This was clear evidence for natural selection (differences in survival) of bill size caused by the availability of seeds. The Grants had studied the inheritance of bill sizes and knew that the surviving large-billed birds would tend to produce offspring with larger bills, so the selection would lead to evolution of bill size. Subsequent studies by the Grants have demonstrated selection on and evolution of bill size in this species in response to changing conditions on the island. The evolution has occurred both to larger bills, as in this case, and to smaller bills when large seeds became rare.

Figure 11.4 A drought on the Galápagos island of Daphne Major in 1977 reduced the number of small seeds available to finches, causing many of the small-beaked finches to die. This caused an increase in the finches’ average beak size between 1976 and 1978.