In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Evidence of Evolution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Educational Resources and Databases
  • Human Evolution
  • Evolution in the Fossil Record

Evolutionary Biology The Evidence of Evolution
Kenneth Olsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0031


Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” This statement, the title of a 1973 essay by the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (b. 1900–d. 1975), encapsulates the central position that evolution holds in biology. While public understanding and acceptance of evolution is notoriously low, with fewer than half of adults in countries such as the United States and Turkey accepting evolution as fact (J. D. Miller, E. C. Scott, and S. Okamoto, Public acceptance of evolution, Science 313 (2006): 765–766), the overwhelming scientific consensus is that evolution is an incontrovertible component of our planet’s history and ongoing biology. Indeed, virtually all aspects of biology can be viewed in one way or another as providing evidence of evolution. Evolution is what accounts for the signs of shared biological ancestry that appear throughout our natural world, ranging from anatomy and development, to fossils, to genome structure and gene sequences. Evolution also explains the vast number of living species on the planet, as well as their adaptations into different ecological niches. Evolution can be defined as changes in lineages of organisms over successive generations. These changes may be described at the level of genes and genetic variation, or at the level of observable traits (phenotypes). Because evolution is a process that has both shaped the history of life on Earth and continues to operate today, the lines of evidence for evolution outlined in the sections below fall into two general categories: those documenting ongoing or very recent evolution (Evolution Caused by Human Activity, Evolution in Wild Species, Human Evolution), and those documenting shared ancestral origins of now-diverged lineages (Evolution in the Fossil Record, Evidence of Shared Ancestry).

General Overviews

The citations in this section provide overviews of evolutionary theory and evidence for evolution. Darwin 1859 provides the foundation, albeit incomplete, for all modern evolutionary theory. Because Darwin lacked an understanding of Mendelian inheritance, he was unable to adequately explain how traits favored under natural selection could be differentially transmitted over successive generations. The rediscovery of Mendel’s laws in the early 20th century, and the subsequent integration of Darwin’s theory with population genetics, systematics, paleontology, and other disciplines, led to the “Modern Synthesis” of the mid-20th century. With some modifications (such as to incorporate insights from molecular biology), the Modern Synthesis has continued to provide a basic framework for modern evolutionary theory. Mayr 1982 provides a useful scientific retrospective on the development of the Modern Synthesis. Jacob 1977 is important in articulating the idea that evolution does not create perfect adaptations, but rather generates workable solutions with available genetic and developmental materials. Losos, et al. 2013 provides a scholarly overview of evolutionary theory. With the growth in creationist attacks on evolution in the United States in the last three decades, most contemporary overviews of evolution that are written for nonscientists are oriented to provide counterarguments to creationist objections. Coyne 2009 and Dawkins 2009 provide two such examples. Carroll 2006 focuses specifically on genetic data as evidence, while Sober 2008 develops a formal philosophical argument in support of evolution.

  • Carroll, S. B. 2006. The making of the fittest: DNA and the ultimate forensic record of evolution. New York: W. W. Norton.

    Written for the general audience by one of the foremost researchers in the field of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), this book uses lucid writing and accessible examples to explain why DNA provides clear evidence of shared common ancestry and evolution by natural selection.

  • Coyne, J. A. 2009. Why evolution is true. New York: Viking.

    Another work for the general reader, written by an eminent evolutionary geneticist, this book provides an expansive discussion of the many diverse lines of support for evolution and the flaws in creationist arguments.

  • Darwin, C. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: Murray.

    The foundation of evolutionary theory. Chapters 1–4 (pp. 7–130) clearly lay out Darwin’s mechanism of evolution by natural selection. Read the first edition, as later editions include convoluted attempts to describe inheritance.

  • Dawkins, R. 2009. The greatest show on earth: The evidence for evolution. New York: Free Press.

    Not one to suffer fools gladly, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins uses clear writing and colorful examples to illustrate the abundance of evidence for evolution while skewering creationist thinking.

  • Jacob, F. 1977. Evolution and tinkering. Science 196:1161–1166.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.860134

    This article is the first to widely introduce the idea that evolution proceeds through the co-option of existing parts for new functions, producing imperfect but workable adaptive solutions. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Losos, J. B., D. A. Baum, D. J. Futuyma, H. E. Hoekstra, R. E. Lenski, and A. J. Mooreet al., eds. 2013. The Princeton guide to evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Many chapters of this edited volume directly or indirectly provide evidence of evolution. Chapter I.3 (pp. 28–39, “The Evidence for Evolution,” by Gregory C. Mayer) focuses specifically on evidence of evolution.

  • Mayr, E. 1982. The growth of biological thought: Diversity, evolution, and inheritance. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

    An expansive work by one of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. Chapter 12 (pp. 535–570) provides a comprehensive historical account of the development of the Modern Synthesis in the mid-20th century. Chapter 13 (pp. 571–627) examines further 20th-century developments within the paradigm of the Modern Synthesis.

  • Sober, E. 2008. Evidence and evolution: The logic behind the science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511806285

    Written by a philosopher of science, this book explores the epistemological underpinnings of evolutionary theory and flaws in creationist arguments based on intelligent design.

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