Evolutionary biology

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Evolutionary biology is the subfield of biology that studies the evolutionary processes (natural selection, common descent, speciation) that produced the diversity of life on Earth. In the 1930s, the discipline of evolutionary biology emerged through what Julian Huxley called the modern synthesis of understanding, from previously unrelated fields of biological research, such as genetics and ecology, systematics and paleontology.


The investigational range of current research widened to encompass the genetic architecture of adaptation, molecular evolution, and the different forces that contribute to evolution, such as sexual selection, genetic drift, and biogeography. Moreover, the newer field of evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo") investigates how embryogenesis, the development of the embryo, is controlled, thus yielding a wider synthesis that integrates developmental biology with the fields of study covered by the earlier evolutionary synthesis.


Evolution is the central unifying concept in biology. Biology can be divided in various ways. One way is by the level of biological organization, from molecular to cell, organism to population. An earlier way is by perceived taxonomic group, with fields such as zoology, botany, and microbiology, reflecting what were once seen as the major divisions of life. A third way is by approach, such as field biology, theoretical biology, experimental evolution, and paleontology. These alternative ways of dividing up the subject can be combined with evolutionary biology to create subfields like evolutionary ecology and evolutionary developmental biology.

More recently, the merge between the biological science and applied sciences gave birth to new fields that are extensions of evolutionary biology, such as evolutionary robotics, engineering, [1] algorithms, [2] economics, [3] and architecture. [4] The basic mechanisms of evolution are applied directly or indirectly to come up with novel designs or solve problems that are difficult to solve otherwise. The research generated in these applied fields in turn contribute to progress, especially thanks to work on evolution in computer science and engineering fields such as mechanical engineering. [5]


The idea of evolution by natural selection was proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859, but evolutionary biology, as an academic discipline in its own right, emerged during the period of the modern synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s. [6] It was not until the 1980s that many universities had departments of evolutionary biology. In the United States, many universities have created departments of molecular and cell biology or ecology and evolutionary biology, in place of the older departments of botany and zoology. Palaeontology is often grouped with earth science.

Microbiology too is becoming an evolutionary discipline, now that microbial physiology and genomics are better understood. The quick generation time of bacteria and viruses such as bacteriophages makes it possible to explore evolutionary questions.

Many biologists have contributed to shaping the modern discipline of evolutionary biology. Theodosius Dobzhansky and E. B. Ford established an empirical research programme. Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and J. S. Haldane created a sound theoretical framework. Ernst Mayr in systematics, George Gaylord Simpson in paleontology and G. Ledyard Stebbins in botany helped to form the modern synthesis. James Crow, [7] Richard Lewontin, [8] Dan Hartl, [9] Marcus Feldman, [10] [11] and Brian Charlesworth [12] trained a generation of evolutionary biologists.

Current research topics

Current research in evolutionary biology covers diverse topics and incorporates ideas from diverse areas, such as molecular genetics and computer science.

Many scientists and researchers do not have enough background in evolutionary biology, making it difficult to use it in modern medicine. [13]

First, some fields of evolutionary research try to explain phenomena that were poorly accounted for in the modern evolutionary synthesis. These include speciation, [14] the evolution of sexual reproduction, [15] the evolution of cooperation, the evolution of ageing, and evolvability. [16]

Second, biologists ask the most straightforward evolutionary question: "what happened and when?". This includes fields such as paleobiology, as well as systematics and phylogenetics.

Third, the modern evolutionary synthesis was devised at a time when nobody understood the molecular basis of genes. Today, evolutionary biologists try to determine the genetic architecture of interesting evolutionary phenomena such as adaptation and speciation. They seek answers to questions such as how many genes are involved, how large are the effects of each gene, how interdependent are the effects of different genes, what do the genes do, and what changes happen to them (e.g., point mutations vs. gene duplication or even genome duplication). They try to reconcile the high heritability seen in twin studies with the difficulty in finding which genes are responsible for this heritability using genome-wide association studies. [17]

One challenge in studying genetic architecture is that the classical population genetics that catalysed the modern evolutionary synthesis must be updated to take into account modern molecular knowledge. This requires a great deal of mathematical development to relate DNA sequence data to evolutionary theory as part of a theory of molecular evolution. For example, biologists try to infer which genes have been under strong selection by detecting selective sweeps. [18]

Fourth, the modern evolutionary synthesis involved agreement about which forces contribute to evolution, but not about their relative importance. [19] Current research seeks to determine this. Evolutionary forces include natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, genetic draft, developmental constraints, mutation bias and biogeography.

An evolutionary approach is key to much current research in organismal biology and ecology, such as in life history theory. Annotation of genes and their function relies heavily on comparative approaches. The field of evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo") investigates how developmental processes work, and compares them in different organisms to determine how they evolved.


Some scientific journals specialise exclusively in evolutionary biology as a whole, including the journals Evolution , Journal of Evolutionary Biology , and BMC Evolutionary Biology . Some journals cover sub-specialties within evolutionary biology, such as the journals Systematic Biology , Molecular Biology and Evolution and its sister journal Genome Biology and Evolution, and Cladistics.

Other journals combine aspects of evolutionary biology with other related fields. For example, Molecular Ecology , Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B , The American Naturalist and Theoretical Population Biology have overlap with ecology and other aspects of organismal biology. Overlap with ecology is also prominent in the review journals Trends in Ecology and Evolution and Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics . The journals Genetics and PLoS Genetics overlap with molecular genetics questions that are not obviously evolutionary in nature.

See also

Related Research Articles

Outline of biology Hierarchical outline list of articles related to biology

Biology – The natural science that involves the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy.

Evolution change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations

Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. These characteristics are the expressions of genes that are passed on from parent to offspring during reproduction. Different characteristics tend to exist within any given population as a result of mutation, genetic recombination and other sources of genetic variation. Evolution occurs when evolutionary processes such as natural selection and genetic drift act on this variation, resulting in certain characteristics becoming more common or rare within a population. It is this process of evolution that has given rise to biodiversity at every level of biological organisation, including the levels of species, individual organisms and molecules.

Heredity Passing of traits to offspring from the speciess parents or ancestor

Heredity, also called inheritance or biological inheritance, is the passing on of traits from parents to their offspring; either through asexual reproduction or sexual reproduction, the offspring cells or organisms acquire the genetic information of their parents. Through heredity, variations between individuals can accumulate and cause species to evolve by natural selection. The study of heredity in biology is genetics.

Microevolution The change in allele frequencies that occurs over time within a population

Microevolution is the change in allele frequencies that occurs over time within a population. This change is due to four different processes: mutation, selection, gene flow and genetic drift. This change happens over a relatively short amount of time compared to the changes termed macroevolution which is where greater differences in the population occur.

Sociobiology Subdiscipline of biology that studies social behavior

Sociobiology is a field of biology that aims to examine and explain social behavior in terms of evolution. It draws from disciplines including psychology, ethology, anthropology, evolution, zoology, archaeology, and population genetics. Within the study of human societies, sociobiology is closely allied to Darwinian anthropology, human behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary developmental biology Field of research that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to infer the ancestral relationships

Evolutionary developmental biology is a field of biological research that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to infer the ancestral relationships between them and how developmental processes evolved.

Modern synthesis (20th century) Combination of Darwins theory of evolution with natural selection and Mendels findings on heredity

The modern synthesis was the early 20th-century synthesis reconciling Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel's ideas on heredity in a joint mathematical framework. Julian Huxley coined the term in his 1942 book, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis.

Molecular evolution The process of change in the sequence composition of cellular molecules across generations

Molecular evolution is the process of change in the sequence composition of cellular molecules such as DNA, RNA, and proteins across generations. The field of molecular evolution uses principles of evolutionary biology and population genetics to explain patterns in these changes. Major topics in molecular evolution concern the rates and impacts of single nucleotide changes, neutral evolution vs. natural selection, origins of new genes, the genetic nature of complex traits, the genetic basis of speciation, evolution of development, and ways that evolutionary forces influence genomic and phenotypic changes.

Population genetics Study of genetic differences within and between populations including the study of adaptation, speciation, and population structure

Population genetics is a subfield of genetics that deals with genetic differences within and between populations, and is a part of evolutionary biology. Studies in this branch of biology examine such phenomena as adaptation, speciation, and population structure.

History of biology History of the study of life from ancient to modern times

The history of biology traces the study of the living world from ancient to modern times. Although the concept of biology as a single coherent field arose in the 19th century, the biological sciences emerged from traditions of medicine and natural history reaching back to ayurveda, ancient Egyptian medicine and the works of Aristotle and Galen in the ancient Greco-Roman world. This ancient work was further developed in the Middle Ages by Muslim physicians and scholars such as Avicenna. During the European Renaissance and early modern period, biological thought was revolutionized in Europe by a renewed interest in empiricism and the discovery of many novel organisms. Prominent in this movement were Vesalius and Harvey, who used experimentation and careful observation in physiology, and naturalists such as Linnaeus and Buffon who began to classify the diversity of life and the fossil record, as well as the development and behavior of organisms. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek revealed by means of microscopy the previously unknown world of microorganisms, laying the groundwork for cell theory. The growing importance of natural theology, partly a response to the rise of mechanical philosophy, encouraged the growth of natural history.

Index of evolutionary biology articles Wikimedia list article

This is a list of topics in evolutionary biology.

<i>Genetics and the Origin of Species</i> book by Theodosius Dobzhansky

Genetics and the Origin of Species is a 1937 book by the Ukrainian-American evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. It is regarded as one of the most important works of the modern synthesis, and was one of the earliest. The book popularized the work of population genetics to other biologists, and influenced their appreciation for the genetic basis of evolution. In his book, Dobzhansky applied the theoretical work of Sewall Wright (1889-1988) to the study of natural populations, allowing him to address evolutionary problems in a novel way during his time. Dobzhansky implements theories of mutation, natural selection, and speciation throughout his book to explain habits of populations and the resulting effects on their genetic behavior. The book explains evolution in depth as a process over time that accounts for the diversity of all life on Earth. The study of evolution was present, but greatly neglected at the time. Dobzhansky illustrates that evolution regarding the origin and nature of species during this time in history was deemed mysterious, but had expanding potential for progress to be made in its field.

Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their physical structure, chemical processes, molecular interactions, physiological mechanisms, development and evolution. Despite the complexity of the science, there are certain unifying concepts that consolidate it into a single, coherent field. Biology recognizes the cell as the basic unit of life, genes as the basic unit of heredity, and evolution as the engine that propels the creation and extinction of species. Living organisms are open systems that survive by transforming energy and decreasing their local entropy to maintain a stable and vital condition defined as homeostasis.

History of molecular evolution History of the field of study of molecular evolution

The history of molecular evolution starts in the early 20th century with "comparative biochemistry", but the field of molecular evolution came into its own in the 1960s and 1970s, following the rise of molecular biology. The advent of protein sequencing allowed molecular biologists to create phylogenies based on sequence comparison, and to use the differences between homologous sequences as a molecular clock to estimate the time since the last common ancestor. In the late 1960s, the neutral theory of molecular evolution provided a theoretical basis for the molecular clock, though both the clock and the neutral theory were controversial, since most evolutionary biologists held strongly to panselectionism, with natural selection as the only important cause of evolutionary change. After the 1970s, nucleic acid sequencing allowed molecular evolution to reach beyond proteins to highly conserved ribosomal RNA sequences, the foundation of a reconceptualization of the early history of life.

History of evolutionary thought The history of evolutionary thought in biology

Evolutionary thought, the recognition that species change over time and the perceived understanding of how such processes work, has roots in antiquity – in the ideas of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese as well as in medieval Islamic science. With the beginnings of modern biological taxonomy in the late 17th century, two opposed ideas influenced Western biological thinking: essentialism, the belief that every species has essential characteristics that are unalterable, a concept which had developed from medieval Aristotelian metaphysics, and that fit well with natural theology; and the development of the new anti-Aristotelian approach to modern science: as the Enlightenment progressed, evolutionary cosmology and the mechanical philosophy spread from the physical sciences to natural history. Naturalists began to focus on the variability of species; the emergence of paleontology with the concept of extinction further undermined static views of nature. In the early 19th century Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) proposed his theory of the transmutation of species, the first fully formed theory of evolution.

Diethard Tautz German geneticist and evolutionary biologist

Diethard Tautz is a German biologist and geneticist, who is primarily concerned with the molecular basis of the evolution of mammals. Since 2006 he is director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön.

Outline of evolution Hierarchical outline list of articles related to evolution

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to evolution:

Extended evolutionary synthesis

The extended evolutionary synthesis consists of a set of theoretical concepts argued to be more comprehensive than the earlier modern synthesis of evolutionary biology that took place between 1918 and 1942. The extended evolutionary synthesis was called for in the 1950s by C. H. Waddington, argued for on the basis of punctuated equilibrium by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge in the 1980s, and was reconceptualized in 2007 by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller.

History of speciation Wikimedia history article

The scientific study of speciation — how species evolve to become new species — began around the time of Charles Darwin in the middle of the 19th century. Many naturalists at the time recognized the relationship between biogeography and the evolution of species. The 20th century saw the growth of the field of speciation, with major contributors such as Ernst Mayr researching and documenting species' geographic patterns and relationships. The field grew in prominence with the modern evolutionary synthesis in the early part of that century. Since then, research on speciation has expanded immensely.


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