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Natural selection is a mechanism first proposed in biology in the 19th century by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). The two biologists noted that organisms which were better adapted to their environment tended to survive longer. Better-adapted organisms also tend to reproduce more than less well-adapted organisms. Darwin and Wallace predicted that over time, inheritable traits favorable for a given environment/habitat would become more common in that environment/habitat.
People have a strange misconception[note 1] that natural selection doesn't work in human society. This is a dangerous concept and needs to be examined carefully before (dis)believing a Wikipedia or RationalWiki page or booking a flight in a post-Wright brothers airplane.
If members of a population exhibit a specific phenotype which gives them a reproductive advantage over other members of the population not exhibiting that phenotype natural selection will tend to increase the proportion of the population with the favourable phenotype. This is based on the current selection pressures in the environment. Due to this reproductive advantage, the group with the phenotype should produce more viable offspring that over time will increase their percentage in the overall population.
Genetic variation thus occurs due to several factors.
Spontaneous genetic mutations
These mutations change the genes within the chromosomes of the organism and can result in new polypeptides being produced. These abnormal polypeptides can have significant affects on the biochemistry of the organism, for example sickle cell anemia occurs because one base within the gene for beta-hemoglobin is altered. Mutations may occur for several reasons such as chemical mutagens or exposure to ionizing radiation, or because of errors made when DNA is copied inside a cell at the first stage of mitosis. Although most mutations are harmful due to their random nature (see the example regarding sickle cell anemia), beneficial mutations may also occur. Mutations will not be inherited unless the affected cells are gamete producing cells or gametes themselves.
For example, there may be a spontaneous mutation in a germline (gamete producing) cell of an agouti (brown) rabbit that changes the cell's genetic code so that it no longer codes for melanin in fur. This mutation is then passed down into gametes produced by this cell, and if the affected rabbit is bred with a white one there will be a chance of white offspring, even if the brown rabbit breeds true (cannot normally produce white offspring). There are also alleles that produce chinchilla and Himalayan coats.
Meiosis and random fertilization of gametes
Meiosis is the division of diploid germline cells in the gonads of an organism to produce haploid gametes for sexual reproduction. During this process sections of homologous chromosomes (bivalents can get entangled and 'swap', in a process called crossing over, to form chiasmata. This process is random and produces unique gametes. Secondly, during the formation of gametes the distribution of the maternal and paternal chromosomes is random, causing further variation.
During fertilization, the genetic material (DNA) of a male gamete combines with the genetic material from a female gamete. The exact gametes which combine is also a random process. By these two processes gametes with unique genomes combine randomly to produce a unique offspring, and hence variation.
Continuing the rabbit example, whether the gamete coding for the albino polypeptide will fertilize another gamete containing the albino allele (this happens if both the sperm of the male and the egg of the female carry the albino allele) or not relies on coincidence. As the albino allele is recessive, there must be two copies present in the cells for it to be expressed.
Variation produces individuals within a population that have unique characteristics, such as different coat colors, blood groups or genetic disorders.
Inhabitants of given habitats may face pressures. These can include, but are not limited to:
- competition for food and water
- competition for space
- competition for mates
These environmental pressures can account for apparent over-reproduction by many species, especially those commonly regarded as prey species, and have large parts to play in population growth.
But what determines which individual organisms will survive? The key factor is the genome of the individual. Some individuals may have variations of the species' genome that enables them to cope better with given selection pressures. For example, if large butterflies are more visible to predating birds, then the allele for large butterflies will be slowly removed from the population as more of the large insects are killed before they can reproduce. Conversely, if small butterflies appear unattractive to the opposite sex they may be unable to mate and their allele for smallness will diminish within the gene pool. Such pressures provide mechanisms that change the frequency of a particular allele within a population.
Another example carries on the theme of rabbits' coat-color: if rabbits live in a temperate region where there is plenty of foliage of a predominant green/brown color then agouti rabbits will have better protection from predatory foxes than albino rabbits, which would be selected against, reducing the albino allele frequency. However, if the climate were to change and become arctic, the albino rabbits would have more of an advantage in camouflage and be selected for, increasing their allele frequency. (This case, of course, assumes that the rabbits would be able to survive in arctic conditions.)
Examples of natural selection
Following are good examples of natural selection in action.
As bacteria are exposed to increasing amounts of antibiotics only those that have or mutate genes for resistance survive as they are selected for. This is a problem in medicine as many antibiotic drugs are becoming less and less effective. The problem can be solved by:
- Ensuring that patients complete the course prescribed by them by their doctor.
- Only prescribing antibiotics when necessary - many people expect to be given a medicine when they visit their doctor even if one is not necessary.
- Using two or more antibiotics at once can help ensure that those bacteria that are resistant to one of the drugs is killed by the other. This system has the additional advantage of ensuring that, in order to survive the antibiotic attack, non-resistant bacteria would have to simultaneously mutate in such way as to evade both antibiotics.
Sickle cell anemia
Sickle cell anemia is a condition where red blood blood cells have a sickle shape, caused by faulty hemoglobin genes. Sufferers with full sickle cell anemia have two alleles for the condition, and none of their red blood cells are formed correctly. These cells get stuck in blood capillaries and cannot carry oxygen properly -- this is clearly not advantageous and many sufferers die early in life. Even though death occurs in homozygous carriers, in some parts of East Africa up to 50% of babies carry the genes for sickle cell anemia and 14% have anemia. A heterozygous individual, with one normal allele and one sickle cell allele, will have mostly normal red blood cells and a few sickle red blood cells. This condition is not harmful and the carriers can live a normal life, and gain the advantage of being less vulnerable to malaria because the protoctist plasmodium that causes malaria cannot survive in sickle red blood cells.
Common misunderstandings about natural selection
The "goal" of natural selection
Natural selection does not have an ultimate "goal" or form and does not require guidance. The "result" of natural selection varies according to the environment. Since the environment is always changing, natural selection results in ever-changing forms of life. Sadly, this misconception is prevalent in less rigorous works of science fiction, with the idea of inevitable evolution into "energy beings" being a highly exasperating trope for readers with a basic familiarity of physics.
Natural selection will over the long term select organisms that are better adapted to the current environment. These organisms have to be able to survive long enough to reproduce, and produce viable offspring capable of the same, in order to ensure the continuing survival of their genetic traits. They do not have to be perfectly adapted to their environment; they only have to be able to survive in it.
Furthermore, an organism may be well adapted to one environment but not be able to survive in another, therefore there is no such thing as a perfect organism. Again, this misconception is also common in science fiction, as a description of whatever big bad monster the protagonists are fighting.
"Natural selection = mutation"
Natural selection is not mutation. It does not make anything new, alter anything, etc... Natural selection can cause extinction based on survival of the fittest, but the processes of creation and mutation lie outside the field of natural selection. Natural selection simply "selects" from what variation is available at that specific moment, this variation having been caused by mutation. Evolution is the process of mutation followed by natural selection.
- Critters A game about natural selection.
- That's humans for you: full of strange misconceptions.
- Biology 2, Jones M. & Gregory J., 2001, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-79714-4
- Biology 2, Jones M. & Gregory J., 2001, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-79714-4