Evolution

 

Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. These characteristics are the expressions of genes that are passed on from parent to offspring during reproduction. Different characteristics tend to exist within any given population as a result of mutation, genetic recombination and other sources of genetic variation. Evolution occurs when evolutionary processes such as natural selection (including sexual selection) and genetic drift act on this variation, resulting in certain characteristics becoming more common or rare within a population. It is this process of evolution that has given rise to biodiversity at every level of biological organisation, including the levels of species, individual organisms and molecules.
All life on Earth shares a last universal common ancestor (LUCA) that lived approximately 3.53.8 billion years ago. The fossil record includes a progression from early biogenic graphite, to microbial mat fossils, to fossilised multicellular organisms. Existing patterns of biodiversity have been shaped by repeated formations of new species (speciation), changes within species (anagenesis) and loss of species (extinction) throughout the evolutionary history of life on Earth. Morphological and biochemical traits are more similar among species that share a more recent common ancestor, and can be used to reconstruct phylogenetic trees.
In contrast to these materialistic views, Aristotelianism considered all natural things as actualisations of fixed natural possibilities, known as forms. This was part of a medieval teleological understanding of nature in which all things have an intended role to play in a divine cosmic order. Variations of this idea became the standard understanding of the Middle Ages and were integrated into Christian learning, but Aristotle did not demand that real types of organisms always correspond one-for-one with exact metaphysical forms and specifically gave examples of how new types of living things could come to be.
The crucial break from the concept of constant typological classes or types in biology came with the theory of evolution through natural selection, which was formulated by Charles Darwin in terms of variable populations. Partly influenced by An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) by Thomas Robert Malthus, Darwin noted that population growth would lead to a "struggle for existence" in which favourable variations prevailed as others perished. In each generation, many offspring fail to survive to an age of reproduction because of limited resources. This could explain the diversity of plants and animals from a common ancestry through the working of natural laws in the same way for all types of organism. Darwin developed his theory of "natural selection" from 1838 onwards and was writing up his "big book" on the subject when Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a version of virtually the same theory in 1858. Their separate papers were presented together at an 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society of London. At the end of 1859, Darwin's publication of his "abstract" as On the Origin of Species explained natural selection in detail and in a way that led to an increasingly wide acceptance of Darwin's concepts of evolution at the expense of alternative theories. Thomas Henry Huxley applied Darwin's ideas to humans, using paleontology and comparative anatomy to provide strong evidence that humans and apes shared a common ancestry. Some were disturbed by this since it implied that humans did not have a special place in the universe.
Heritable traits are passed from one generation to the next via DNA, a molecule that encodes genetic information. DNA is a long biopolymer composed of four types of bases. The sequence of bases along a particular DNA molecule specify the genetic information, in a manner similar to a sequence of letters spelling out a sentence. Before a cell divides, the DNA is copied, so that each of the resulting two cells will inherit the DNA sequence. Portions of a DNA molecule that specify a single functional unit are called genes; different genes have different sequences of bases. Within cells, the long strands of DNA form condensed structures called chromosomes. The specific location of a DNA sequence within a chromosome is known as a locus. If the DNA sequence at a locus varies between individuals, the different forms of this sequence are called alleles. DNA sequences can change through mutations, producing new alleles. If a mutation occurs within a gene, the new allele may affect the trait that the gene controls, altering the phenotype of the organism. However, while this simple correspondence between an allele and a trait works in some cases, most traits are more complex and are controlled by quantitative trait loci (multiple interacting genes).