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Can evolution be seen?
I hope you are safe and well. This weeks question is on evolution. To help us decipher the facts on these biological questions like these, I’m excited to introduce Eva Hamrod, our first biology editor who studies stem cell biology at King’s College London. With the help of 13 other experts, she wrote an insightful consensus article this week:
Can evolution be observed and therefore proven?
CONSENSUS: 100% Affirmative via 13 experts
‘Evolution’ means small changes that happen over time. Biologist Dr Kathryn Hall likens evolution to being ‘a lot like the old parlour game of whispers, you start out saying "the rose is red" and by the end of the game it is "the goat is dead" or something like that’. We sometimes talk about the evolution of cultural things like language or music, as well as the scientific ‘theory of evolution’.
The theory of evolution was developed by Charles Darwin to explain what he saw whilst sailing around the Galapagos islands - finches had different beak shapes on the different islands. Even more surprising was that their beaks matched the kind of food that was available on that island. The finches on the islands with lots of insects had needle-thin beaks, whilst those on the islands with large seeds and nuts had much broader beaks.
What was Darwin's explanation? Baby finches are always a little bit different from each other and their parents (just like us). Some finches might, by chance, be born with a beak that is perfect for the environment they are in. These finches eat much better than their friends, and are more likely to survive into adulthood and have lots of children of their own. Bit by bit, eventually most of the finches on the island will have that kind of beak. This process is called ‘natural selection’ or ‘survival of the fittest’, and is the basis of how evolution works.
The theory of evolution is supported by lots of examples from the real world (see below). As evolutionary biologist Dr Travis Hagey explains: ‘[in science] a theory is a broad explanation based on years and years of experiments ... For example the theory of gravity, the theory that bacteria and viruses make us sick, the theory that material is made up of atoms, and the theory of evolution are just a few.’
What's the Evidence for Evolution?
Even though evolution happens over generations, there are many examples where we can see it in action. A great example is the peppered moth in the UK, so called because of its white appearance with black speckles. Between 1848 and 1895, the population of peppered moths that had completely dark wings rose so much that they became much more common than the original white version. At this time, the industrial revolution was happening in the UK, leading to air pollution which made tree surfaces, which the moths rest on, dark in colour. This meant that the darker moths were better able to camouflage and hide from predators. Interestingly, since some laws have reduced the amount of air pollution in many places in the UK, the original white speckled moth is becoming more common again.
Whilst moths are an example of when we have inadvertently caused the evolution of an animal, all domesticated animals are a result of evolution that we have actively controlled. As Dr Hagey explains: ‘Instead of "survival of the fittest" deciding which individuals get the chance to breed each generation, in these cases, humans have been deciding which individuals get the chance to breed, but either way, it still resulted in the group of organisms changing slightly generation to generation, and over multiple generations, the group of organisms look, act, and have DNA that is much different than where they started’. One example of this are chickens, which are very different from their wild cousins - the red jungle fowl.
Video showing how bacteria rapidly evolve over 11 days
Organisms like bacteria and yeast grow and breed very quickly (in minutes or hours), which means we can see their evolution in the lab over much shorter timescales. Geneticist Dr Richard Edward writes how, over many generations, yeast in his lab can evolve to grow in an environment that it originally couldn’t survive in. In the same way, evolution means bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics. This is seen in patients in hospitals, and can also be recreated in the lab as Dr Markus Friedrich, an evolutionary biologist from Wayne State University shared a fascinated 2-min video of evolution in real-time.
There are many ways to observe evolution in real time. The best example I am aware of is the beautifully visualized adaptive evolution of bacteria along a gradient of antibiotic concentration on a “Mega-Plate” by the Kishony laboratory at Harvard Medical School
Apart from the ones shown here, there are many examples of evolution in plants, animals and bacteria. All of these observations fit with the theory of evolution - it is our best explanation of what is happening, just like the theory of gravity is our best explanation of why things fall to the ground. As ecologist Dr Ross Alford puts it:
The notion that evolution is random and unobservable is not supported by science at all; in fact science demonstrates clearly that it is lack of evolution that is impossible.
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Ben McNeil, Founder of Metafact
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