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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Evolution of Evolutionary Thinking
  • Foundations of the Modern Theory: The Mendelian/Biometrician Controversy
  • The Modern Synthesis
  • Evolution and Development
  • Speciation
  • Behavioral Ecology
  • Evolutionary Ecology
  • Phylogenetics and the Comparative Method

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

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Evolutionary Biology Evolution
Andrew Berry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0100


The term “evolution” is widely applied to a huge range of biological phenomena—from grand patterns in the history of life to the specifics of population genetic process. Instead of trying to define the term in some kind of all-encompassing way that embraces these many ideas and many scales of analysis, we prefer to start with a narrow formalism—a focus on process—from which the grander and more nebulous applications of the term may be derived. Evolution is change in the genetic composition of a population over time. The word is also sometimes applied loosely (and incorrectly) to consistent generation-to-generation change that is environmentally, rather than genetically, induced. Typically, evolution involves changes in a population’s allele and/or genotype frequencies between generations. Of the several factors that may cause evolution, natural selection is the most important, both in eliminating deleterious mutations that compromise an organism and in fixing adaptive mutations. Evolution has traditionally been parsed into micro-evolution (processes that occur within a population) and macro-evolution (processes that occur in the formation of new species or in the formation of new higher taxa). It is a basic premise of the standard theory of evolution that macro-evolution can be explained in terms of micro-evolution: macro-evolution is simply an extrapolation of micro-evolution over long periods of time. Some, however, have argued that micro- and macro-evolutionary processes are fundamentally different and that the two are decoupled. The standard extrapolationist perspective predicts both what Darwin termed “descent with modification”—change from generation to generation that sustained over time has produced the extraordinary diversity of life that we see around us—and the hierarchical pattern of phylogenetic relationship seen among those living forms. The term “evolution” is therefore frequently applied to the natural world’s grand patterns of similarity, difference, and relatedness. Although the word “evolution” (and its cognates) is ineradicably associated with Darwin, it was barely used by Darwin. The final word of the first edition of On the Origin of Species sees its only use in the book: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Evolution remains controversial in areas in the world with poor access to secular education, and, also, in the United States. While there are plenty of disputes about the specifics of mechanism and about the interpretation of particular instances, there is, however, no controversy within the scientific community about the fact that evolution has occurred.

General Overviews

Evolution is a challenging field to summarize because it is inherently interdisciplinary, embracing as it does a wide range of subfields ranging from the mathematical minutiae of population genetics to the geochemical inferences underpinning interpretation of the early fossil record. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is of course the field’s founding document, and, despite its frequently prolix Victorian prose, it remains surprisingly fresh and readable. Reading it provides an opportunity that is perhaps unique in the history of science: it is possible to experience the unveiling of a truly seismic scientific revolution in the (relatively) user-friendly words of the architect of that revolution. There are several estimable textbooks that introduce the field: Futuyma and Kirkpatrick 2017 is arguably the industry standard; Zimmer and Emlen 2016 is the newest; and Freeman and Herron 2014 also provides an up-to-date and comprehensive treatment. Barton, et al. 2007 (Evolution) has not been updated since its 2007 first edition, but it remains a valuable resource in being somewhat more advanced in its treatment than the others. For more technical, multi-authored overviews, see the encyclopedic treatments (both of which run to nearly a thousand pages) of Ruse and Travis 2009 and Losos 2014. Dobzhansky’s famous 1973 essay is a reminder of the power and reach of an idea, which as Miller, et al. 2006 shows, remains astonishingly unaccepted in the United States.

  • Barton, Nicholas H., Derek E. G. Briggs, Jonathan A. Eisen, David Goldstein, and Nipam H. Patel. 2007. Evolution. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

    At ten years old, this book is now somewhat out of date, especially in fast-moving areas such as genomics. However, it has the virtue of an author team with a variety of expertise (for example, Barton is a population geneticist; Briggs a palaeontologist; Patel an expert in evolution and development). This means that each section is written with real authority. The result is a text that is more advanced than the others listed here.

  • Costa, James C. 2009. The annotated origin of species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This is a reprint of the first edition of The Origin of Species (1859), which is the most direct statement of Darwin’s ideas. In the subsequent five editions put out during his lifetime, Darwin’s message was diluted as he responded to criticism. This version provides a facsimile reproduction of each page of the text along with helpful annotations.

  • Coyne, Jerry A. 2009. Why evolution is true. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A popular but rigorous and reasonably up-to-date presentation of the evidence, some of it stemming from Darwin’s own observations, in support of evolution. The book was written with Creationists in mind, but it is a useful compendium for working biologists as well.

  • Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1973. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher 35.3: 125–129.

    DOI: 10.2307/4444260

    A famous statement about the power and reach of the theory of evolution by natural selection. We can analyze biological phenomena in, for example, purely engineering terms. But we will not understand the precise relationship between form and function without an appreciation of the historical dimension—the previous states from which the current state is derived.

  • Freeman, Scott, and Jon C. Herron. 2014. Evolutionary analysis. 5th ed. San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings.

    This has long been the main competition to Futuyma. Its approach is less traditional, with greater emphasis on case study and experiment. For example, the first chapter focuses on the evolutionary lessons that can be learned from studies of HIV.

  • Futuyma, Douglas J., and Mark Kirkpatrick. 2017. Evolution. 4th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

    Evolution is a slimmed-down version of Futuyma’s earlier text, Evolutionary Biology, which first appeared in 1979 and signed off in 1998 with a hefty, encyclopedic third edition. The first edition of Evolution came out in 2005. Densely written, Evolution is nevertheless eminently readable and provides a balanced mix of classical ideas and experiments and new material.

  • Losos, Jonathan, ed. 2014. The Princeton guide to evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Currently the best single source on evolution. With 107 chapters (divided into eight sections, such as “Natural Selection and Adaptation”) written by an army of experts, this is an excellent synopsis of the state of the field.

  • Miller, J. D., E. C. Scott, and S. Okamoto. 2006. Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313:765–766.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1126746

    A paper that generated the league table, by nation, of support for evolution. In a survey of thirty-four countries, mostly European (though Japan and Turkey were included), the United States was found to rank thirty-third (only Turkey ranked lower) for acceptance of evolutionary ideas. Consistently over years of surveying, about 40 percent of Americans are anti-evolution.

  • Ruse, Michael, and Joseph Travis, eds. 2009. Evolution: The first four billion years. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    The first half of this book offers sixteen essays on evolutionary topics and the second half an alphabetic compilation of topics. The alphabetic organization is a little confusing (if you are interested in the Ediacaran fauna, for example, you have to turn to “O” for “Organismic evolution and radiation before the Cambrian”) but makes for an enjoyably unpredictable “dip in” read (“Leslie Orgel” is the entry after “Organismic evolution and radiation before the Cambrian”). Again, there are many contributors.

  • Zimmer, Carl, and Douglas J. Emlen. 2016. Evolution: Making sense of life. 2d ed. Colorado: Roberts.

    This collaboration between Zimmer, a New York Times science writer, and Emlen, an evolutionary biologist, has yielded a superbly produced and wonderfully accessible book.

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