Understanding Evolution

Understanding Evolution

Understanding Evolution

Understanding Evolution

Excerpt

Evolution is biology's distinctive contribution to knowledge. The late Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the leading evolutionists of this century, has said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." And beyond biology, among the questions that unendingly engage human curiosity--What am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?--the concept of evolution is endlessly invoked for answers.

This text confines itself to the biological questions--What are living things? Where did they come from? What trends are apparent among them?--and uses Darwinian natural selection as the central theoretical explanation. Strictly speaking, natural selection says nothing directly about the nature of living things or where they came from in the sense of the origin of life. But given living things on this earth, natural selection is a powerful explanation for understanding why life is organized into well-adapted species and why there are species with varying degrees of similarities or differences. Indeed, the central effort of this book is to understand organismic diversity as a consequence of the action of natural selection. From that point of view, we must examine the nature of the living things affected by natural selection and also inquire into their primordial origins.

That forces us to realize two things about the study of evolution today: First, it is an exciting area of current research with its well-focused problems, its unique theoretical constructs and experimental methods, and its body of trained researchers and scholarly journals. Second, that unique body of research is continually spilling over and influencing ecology, physiology, systematics, cell biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, development, genetics, and all the other subdisciplines in biology, and extending also to anthropology, psychology, sociology, and beyond, and being influenced by them in return. Hence a textbook on evolution must not deal with evolution solely from the perspectives of population genetics or of speciation or of phylogeny. Such narrowly focused views minimize and downgrade the intellectual importance of . . .

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