The Evidence of Evolution
- LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0031
- 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).
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.
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.
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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- Adaptive Radiation
- Amniotes, Diversification of
- Ancient DNA
- Behavioral Ecology
- Canalization and Robustness
- Cancer, Evolutionary Processes in
- Character Displacement
- Cognition, Evolution of
- Constraints, Evolutionary
- Contemporary Evolution
- Convergent Evolution
- Cooperation and Conflict: Microbes to Humans
- Cooperative Breeding in Insects and Vertebrates
- Cryptic Female Choice
- Darwin, Charles
- Disease Virulence, Evolution of
- Diversification, Diversity-Dependent
- Ecological Speciation
- Epigenetics and Behavior
- Epistasis and Evolution
- Eusocial Insects as a Model for Understanding Altruism, Co...
- Evidence of Evolution, The
- Evolution and Development: Genes and Mutations Underlying ...
- Evolution and Development of Individual Behavioral Variati...
- Evolution, Cultural
- Evolution of Animal Mating Systems
- Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance
- Evolution of New Genes
- Evolution of Plant Mating Systems
- Evolution of Specialization
- Evolutionary Biology of Aging
- Evolutionary Biomechanics
- Evolutionary Computation
- Evolutionary Developmental Biology
- Evolutionary Ecology of Communities
- Experimental Evolution
- Field Studies of Natural Selection
- Founder Effect Speciation
- Frequency-Dependent Selection
- Fungi, Evolution of
- Gene Duplication
- Gene Expression, Evolution of
- Gene Flow
- Genetics, Ecological
- Genome Evolution
- Geographic Variation
- Group Selection
- History of Evolutionary Thought, 1860–1925
- History of Evolutionary Thought before Darwin
- History of Evolutionary Thought Since 1930
- Human Behavioral Ecology
- Human Evolution
- Hybrid Speciation
- Hybrid Zones
- Identifying the Genomic Basis Underlying Phenotypic Variat...
- Inbreeding and Inbreeding Depression
- Inclusive Fitness
- Innovation, Evolutionary
- Islands as Evolutionary Laboratories
- Kin Selection
- Land Plants, Evolution of
- Landscape Genetics
- Landscapes, Adaptive
- Language, Evolution of
- Latitudinal Diversity Gradient, The
- Macroevolution, Clade-Level Interactions and
- Macroevolutionary Rates
- Male-Male Competition
- Mass Extinction
- Mate Choice
- Maternal Effects
- Medicine, Evolutionary
- Meiotic Drive
- Modern Synthesis, The
- Molecular Clocks
- Molecular Phylogenetics
- Mutation Rate and Spectrum
- Mutualism, Evolution of
- Natural Selection in Human Populations
- Natural Selection in the Genome, Detecting
- Neutral Theory
- New Zealand, Evolutionary Biogeography of
- Niche Construction
- Niche Evolution
- Non-Human Animals, Cultural Evolution in
- Origin and Early Evolution of Animals
- Origin of Eukaryotes
- Origin of Life, The
- Paradox of Sex
- Parental Care, Evolution of
- Personality Differences, Evolution of
- Phenotypic Plasticity
- Phylogenetic Comparative Methods and Tests of Macroevoluti...
- Phylogenetic Trees, Interpretation of
- Polyploid Speciation
- Population Genetics
- Population Structure
- Post-Copulatory Sexual Selection
- Psychology, Evolutionary
- Punctuated Equilibria
- Quantitative Genetic Variation and Heritability
- Reaction Norms, Evolution of
- Reproductive Proteins, Evolution of
- Selection, Directional
- Selection, Disruptive
- Selection Gradients
- Selection, Natural
- Selection, Sexual
- Selfish Genes
- Sequential Speciation and Cascading Divergence
- Sexual Conflict
- Sexual Selection and Speciation
- Sexual Size Dimorphism
- Speciation Genetics and Genomics
- Speciation, Geography of
- Speciation, Sympatric
- Species Concepts
- Species Delimitation
- Sperm Competition
- Systems Biology
- Taxonomy and Classification
- Tetrapod Evolution
- The Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology
- Theory, Coalescent
- Trends, Evolutionary
- Wallace, Alfred Russel