Life, the Universe and... What?
The Origin of the Universe, Earth, and Life
The term "evolution" usually refers to the biological evolution of living things. But the processes by which planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe form and change over time are also types of "evolution." In all of these cases there is change over time, although the processes involved are quite different.
In the late 1920s the American astronomer Edwin Hubble made a very interesting and important discovery. Hubble made observations that he interpreted as showing that distant stars and galaxies are receding from Earth in every direction. Moreover, the velocities of recession increase in proportion with distance, a discovery that has been confirmed by numerous and repeated measurements since Hubble's time. The implication of these findings is that the universe is expanding.
Hubble's hypothesis of an expanding universe leads to certain deductions. One is that the universe was more condensed at a previous time. From this deduction came the suggestion that all the currently observed matter and energy in the universe were initially condensed in a very small and infinitely hot mass. A huge explosion, known as the Big Bang, then sent matter and energy expanding in all directions.
This Big Bang hypothesis led to more testable deductions. One such deduction was that the temperature in deep space today should be several degrees above absolute zero. Observations showed this deduction to be correct. In fact, the Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer (COBE) satellite launched in 1991 confirmed that the background radiation field has exactly the spectrum predicted by a Big Bang origin for the universe.
As the universe expanded, according to current scientific understanding, matter collected into clouds that began to condense and rotate, forming the forerunners of galaxies. Within galaxies, including our own Milky Way galaxy, changes in pressure caused gas and dust to form distinct clouds. In some of these clouds, where there was sufficient mass and the right forces, gravitational attraction caused the cloud to collapse. If the mass of material in the cloud was sufficiently compressed, nuclear reactions began and a star was born.
Some proportion of stars, including our sun, formed in the middle of a flattened spinning disk of material. In the case of our sun, the gas and dust within this disk collided and aggregated into small grains, and the grains formed into larger bodies called planetesimals ("very small planets"), some of which reached diameters of several hundred kilometers. In successive stages these planetesimals coalesced into the nine planets and their numerous satellites. The rocky planets, including Earth, were near the sun, and the gaseous planets were in more distant orbits.
The ages of the universe, our galaxy, the solar system, and Earth can be estimated using modern scientific methods. The age of the universe can be derived from the observed relationship between the velocities of and the distances separating the galaxies. The velocities of distant galaxies can be measured very accurately, but the measurement of distances is more uncertain. Over the past few decades, measurements of the Hubble expansion have led to estimated ages for the universe of between 7 billion and 20 billion years, with the most recent and best measurements within the range of 10 billion to 15 billion years.
The age of the Milky Way galaxy has been calculated in two ways. One involves studying the observed stages of evolution of different-sized stars in globular clusters. Globular clusters occur in a faint halo surrounding the center of the Galaxy, with each cluster containing from a hundred thousand to a million stars. The very low amounts of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium in these stars indicate that they must have formed early in the history of the Galaxy, before large amounts of heavy elements were created inside the initial generations of stars and later distributed into the interstellar medium through supernova explosions (the Big Bang itself created primarily hydrogen and helium atoms). Estimates of the ages of the stars in globular clusters fall within the range of 11 billion to 16 billion years.
A second method for estimating the age of our galaxy is based on the present abundances of several long-lived radioactive elements in the solar system. Their abundances are set by their rates of production and distribution through exploding supernovas. According to these calculations, the age of our galaxy is between 9 billion and 16 billion years. Thus, both ways of estimating the age of the Milky Way galaxy agree with each other, and they also are consistent with the independently derived estimate for the age of the universe.
Radioactive elements occurring naturally in rocks and minerals also provide a means of estimating the age of the solar system and Earth. Several of these elements decay with half lives between 700 million and more than 100 billion years (the half life of an element is the time it takes for half of the element to decay radioactively into another element). Using these time-keepers, it is calculated that meteorites, which are fragments of asteroids, formed between 4.53 billion and 4.58 billion years ago (asteroids are small "planetoids" that revolve around the sun and are remnants of the solar nebula that gave rise to the sun and planets). The same radioactive time-keepers applied to the three oldest lunar samples returned to Earth by the Apollo astronauts yield ages between 4.4 billion and 4.5 billion years, providing minimum estimates for the time since the formation of the moon.
The oldest known rocks on Earth occur in northwestern Canada (3.96 billion years), but well-studied rocks nearly as old are also found in other parts of the world. In Western Australia, zircon crystals encased within younger rocks have ages as old as 4.3 billion years, making these tiny crystals the oldest materials so far found on Earth.
The best estimates of Earth's age are obtained by calculating the time required for development of the observed lead isotopes in Earth's oldest lead ores. These estimates yield 4.54 billion years as the age of Earth and of meteorites, and hence of the solar system.
The origins of life cannot be dated as precisely, but there is evidence that bacteria-like organisms lived on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, and they may have existed even earlier, when the first solid crust formed, almost 4 billion years ago. These early organisms must have been simpler than the organisms living today. Furthermore, before the earliest organisms there must have been structures that one would not call "alive" but that are now components of living things. Today, all living organisms store and transmit hereditary information using two kinds of molecules: DNA and RNA. Each of these molecules is in turn composed of four kinds of subunits known as nucleotides. The sequences of nucleotides in particular lengths of DNA or RNA, known as genes, direct the construction of molecules known as proteins, which in turn catalyze biochemical reactions, provide structural components for organisms, and perform many of the other functions on which life depends. Proteins consist of chains of subunits known as amino acids. The sequence of nucleotides in DNA and RNA therefore determines the sequence of amino acids in proteins; this is a central mechanism in all of biology.
Experiments conducted under conditions intended to resemble those present on primitive Earth have resulted in the production of some of the chemical components of proteins, DNA, and RNA. Some of these molecules also have been detected in meteorites from outer space and in interstellar space by astronomers using radiotelescopes. Scientists have concluded that the "building blocks of life" could have been available early in Earth's history.
An important new research avenue has opened with the discovery that certain molecules made of RNA, called ribozymes, can act as catalysts in modern cells. It previously had been thought that only proteins could serve as the catalysts required to carry out specific biochemical functions. Thus, in the early prebiotic world, RNA molecules could have been "autocatalytic"--that is, they could have replicated themselves well before there were any protein catalysts (called enzymes). Laboratory experiments demonstrate that replicating autocatalytic RNA molecules undergo spontaneous changes and that the variants of RNA molecules with the greatest autocatalytic activity come to prevail in their environments. Some scientists favor the hypothesis that there was an early "RNA world," and they are testing models that lead from RNA to the synthesis of simple DNA and protein molecules. These assemblages of molecules eventually could have become packaged within membranes, thus making up "protocells"--early versions of very simple cells.
For those who are studying the origin of life, the question is no longer whether life could have originated by chemical processes involving nonbiological components. The question instead has become which of many pathways might have been followed to produce the first cells.
Will we ever be able to identify the path of chemical evolution that succeeded in initiating life on Earth? Scientists are designing experiments and speculating about how early Earth could have provided a hospitable site for the segregation of molecules in units that might have been the first living systems. The recent speculation includes the possibility that the first living cells might have arisen on Mars, seeding Earth via the many meteorites that are known to travel from Mars to our planet.
Of course, even if a living cell were to be made in the laboratory, it would not prove that nature followed the same pathway billions of years ago. But it is the job of science to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena. The study of the origin of life is a very active research area in which important progress is being made, although the consensus among scientists is that none of the current hypotheses has thus far been confirmed. The history of science shows that seemingly intractable problems like this one may become amenable to solution later, as a result of advances in theory, instrumentation, or the discovery of new facts.
Creationist Views of the Origin of the Universe, Earth, and Life
Many religious persons, including many scientists, hold that God created the universe and the various processes driving physical and biological evolution and that these processes then resulted in the creation of galaxies, our solar system, and life on Earth. This belief, which sometimes is termed "theistic evolution," is not in disagreement with scientific explanations of evolution. Indeed, it reflects the remarkable and inspiring character of the physical universe revealed by cosmology, paleontology, molecular biology, and many other scientific disciplines.
The advocates of "creation science" hold a variety of viewpoints. Some claim that Earth and the universe are relatively young, perhaps only 6,000 to 10,000 years old. These individuals often believe that the present physical form of Earth can be explained by "catastrophism," including a worldwide flood, and that all living things (including humans) were created miraculously, essentially in the forms we now find them.
Other advocates of creation science are willing to accept that Earth, the planets, and the stars may have existed for millions of years. But they argue that the various types of organisms, and especially humans, could only have come about with supernatural intervention, because they show "intelligent design."
In this piece, both these "Young Earth" and "Old Earth" views are referred to as "creationism" or "special creation."
There are no valid scientific data or calculations to substantiate the belief that Earth was created just a few thousand years ago. This piece of mine has summarized the vast amount of evidence for the great age of the universe, our galaxy, the solar system, and Earth from astronomy, astrophysics, nuclear physics, geology, geochemistry, and geophysics. Independent scientific methods consistently give an age for Earth and the solar system of about 5 billion years, and an age for our galaxy and the universe that is two to three times greater. These conclusions make the origin of the universe as a whole intelligible, lend coherence to many different branches of science, and form the core conclusions of a remarkable body of knowledge about the origins and behavior of the physical world.
Nor is there any evidence that the entire geological record, with its orderly succession of fossils, is the product of a single universal flood that occurred a few thousand years ago, lasted a little longer than a year, and covered the highest mountains to a depth of several meters. On the contrary, intertidal and terrestrial deposits demonstrate that at no recorded time in the past has the entire planet been under water. Moreover, a universal flood of sufficient magnitude to form the sedimentary rocks seen today, which together are many kilometers thick, would require a volume of water far greater than has ever existed on and in Earth, at least since the formation of the first known solid crust about 4 billion years ago. The belief that Earth's sediments, with their fossils, were deposited in an orderly sequence in a year's time defies all geological observations and physical principles concerning sedimentation rates and possible quantities of suspended solid matter.
Geologists have constructed a detailed history of sediment deposition that links particular bodies of rock in the crust of Earth to particular environments and processes. If petroleum geologists could find more oil and gas by interpreting the record of sedimentary rocks as having resulted from a single flood, they would certainly favor the idea of such a flood, but they do not. Instead, these practical workers agree with academic geologists about the nature of depositional environments and geological time. Petroleum geologists have been pioneers in the recognition of fossil deposits that were formed over millions of years in such environments as meandering rivers, deltas, sandy barrier beaches, and coral reefs.
The example of petroleum geology demonstrates one of the great strengths of science. By using knowledge of the natural world to predict the consequences of our actions, science makes it possible to solve problems and create opportunities using technology. The detailed knowledge required to sustain our civilization could only have been derived through scientific investigation.
The arguments of creationists are not driven by evidence that can be observed in the natural world. Special creation or supernatural intervention is not subjectable to meaningful tests, which require predicting plausible results and then checking these results through observation and experimentation. Indeed, claims of "special creation" reverse the scientific process. The explanation is seen as unalterable, and evidence is sought only to support a particular conclusion by whatever means possible.
Evidence Supporting Biological Evolution
A long path leads from the origins of primitive "life," which existed at least 3.5 billion years ago, to the profusion and diversity of life that exists today. This path is best understood as a product of evolution.
Contrary to popular opinion, neither the term nor the idea of biological evolution began with Charles Darwin and his foremost work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Many scholars from the ancient Greek philosophers on had inferred that similar species were descended from a common ancestor. The word "evolution" first appeared in the English language in 1647 in a nonbiological connection, and it became widely used in English for all sorts of progressions from simpler beginnings. The term Darwin most often used to refer to biological evolution was "descent with modification," which remains a good brief definition of the process today.
Darwin proposed that evolution could be explained by the differential survival of organisms following their naturally occurring variation--a process he termed "natural selection." According to this view, the offspring of organisms differ from one another and from their parents in ways that are heritable--that is, they can pass on the differences genetically to their own offspring. Furthermore, organisms in nature typically produce more offspring than can survive and reproduce given the constraints of food, space, and other environmental resources. If a particular off spring has traits that give it an advantage in a particular environment, that organism will be more likely to survive and pass on those traits. As differences accumulate over generations, populations of organisms diverge from their ancestors.
Darwin's original hypothesis has undergone extensive modification and expansion, but the central concepts stand firm. Studies in genetics and molecular biology--fields unknown in Darwin's time--have explained the occurrence of the hereditary variations that are essential to natural selection. Genetic variations result from changes, or mutations, in the nucleotide sequence of DNA, the molecule that genes are made from. Such changes in DNA now can be detected and described with great precision.
Genetic mutations arise by chance. They may or may not equip the organism with better means for surviving in its environment. But if a gene variant improves adaptation to the environment (for example, by allowing an organism to make better use of an available nutrient, or to escape predators more effectively--such as through stronger legs or disguising coloration), the organisms carrying that gene are more likely to survive and reproduce than those without it. Over time, their descendants will tend to increase, changing the average characteristics of the population. Although the genetic variation on which natural selection works is based on random or chance elements, natural selection itself produces "adaptive" change--the very opposite of chance.
Scientists also have gained an understanding of the processes by which new species originate. A new species is one in which the individuals cannot mate and produce viable descendants with individuals of a preexisting species. The split of one species into two often starts because a group of individuals becomes geographically separated from the rest. This is particularly apparent in distant remote islands, such as the Galápagos and the Hawaiian archipelago, whose great distance from the Americas and Asia means that arriving colonizers will have little or no opportunity to mate with individuals remaining on those continents. Mountains, rivers, lakes, and other natural barriers also account for geographic separation between populations that once belonged to the same species.
Once isolated, geographically separated groups of individuals become genetically differentiated as a consequence of mutation and other processes, including natural selection. The origin of a species is often a gradual process, so that at first the reproductive isolation between separated groups of organisms is only partial, but it eventually becomes complete. Scientists pay special attention to these intermediate situations, because they help to reconstruct the details of the process and to identify particular genes or sets of genes that account for the reproductive isolation between species.
A particularly compelling example of speciation involves the 13 species of finches studied by Darwin on the Galápagos Islands, now known as Darwin's finches. The ancestors of these finches appear to have emigrated from the South American mainland to the Galápagos. Today the different species of finches on the island have distinct habitats, diets, and behaviors, but the mechanisms involved in speciation continue to operate. A research group led by Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University has shown that a single year of drought on the islands can drive evolutionary changes in the finches. Drought diminishes supplies of easily cracked nuts but permits the survival of plants that produce larger, tougher nuts. Droughts thus favor birds with strong, wide beaks that can break these tougher seeds, producing populations of birds with these traits. The Grants have estimated that if droughts occur about once every 10 years on the islands, a new species of finch might arise in only about 200 years.
The following sections consider several aspects of biological evolution in greater detail, looking at paleontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, embryology, and molecular biology for further evidence supporting evolution.
The Fossil Record
Although it was Darwin, above all others, who first marshalled convincing evidence for biological evolution, earlier scholars had recognized that organisms on Earth had changed systematically over long periods of time. For example, in 1799 an engineer named William Smith reported that, in undisrupted layers of rock, fossils occurred in a definite sequential order, with more modern-appearing ones closer to the top. Because bottom layers of rock logically were laid down earlier and thus are older than top layers, the sequence of fossils also could be given a chronology from oldest to youngest. His findings were confirmed and extended in the 1830s by the paleontologist William Lonsdale, who recognized that fossil remains of organisms from lower strata were more primitive than the ones above. Today, many thousands of ancient rock deposits have been identified that show corresponding successions of fossil organisms.
Thus, the general sequence of fossils had already been recognized before Darwin conceived of descent with modification. But the paleontologists and geologists before Darwin used the sequence of fossils in rocks not as proof of biological evolution, but as a basis for working out the original sequence of rock strata that had been structurally disturbed by earthquakes and other forces.
In Darwin's time, paleontology was still a rudimentary science. Large parts of the geological succession of stratified rocks were unknown or inadequately studied.
Darwin, therefore, worried about the rarity of intermediate forms between some major groups of organisms.
Today, many of the gaps in the paleontological record have been filled by the research of paleontologists. Hundreds of thousands of fossil organisms, found in well-dated rock sequences, represent successions of forms through time and manifest many evolutionary transitions. As mentioned earlier, microbial life of the simplest type was already in existence 3.5 billion years ago. The oldest evidence of more complex organisms (that is, eucaryotic cells, which are more complex than bacteria) has been discovered in fossils sealed in rocks approximately 2 billion years old. Multicellular organisms, which are the familiar fungi, plants, and animals, have been found only in younger geological strata. The following list presents the order in which increasingly complex forms of life appeared:
Life Forms & Millions of Years Since First Known Appearance (Approximate)
Microbial (procaryotic cells)........ 3,500
Complex (eucaryotic cells)......... 2,000
First multicellular animals............ 670
Shell-bearing animals................. 540
Vertebrates (simple fishes)......... 490
Nonhuman primates................... 60
Earliest apes............................ 25
Australopithecine....................... 4 [ancestors of humans]
Modern humans........................ 0.15 (150,000 years)
So many intermediate forms have been discovered between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, and along the primate lines of descent that it often is difficult to identify categorically when the transition occurs from one to another particular species. Actually, nearly all fossils can be regarded as intermediates in some sense; they are life forms that come between the forms that preceded them and those that followed.
The fossil record thus provides consistent evidence of systematic change through time--of descent with modification. From this huge body of evidence, it can be predicted that no reversals will be found in future paleontological studies. That is, amphibians will not appear before fishes, nor mammals before reptiles, and no complex life will occur in the geological record before the oldest eucaryotic cells. This prediction has been upheld by the evidence that has accumulated until now: no reversals have been found.
Inferences about common descent derived from paleontology are reinforced by comparative anatomy. For example, the skeletons of humans, mice, and bats are strikingly similar, despite the different ways of life of these animals and the diversity of environments in which they flourish. The correspondence of these animals, bone by bone, can be observed in every part of the body, including the limbs; yet a person writes, a mouse runs, and a bat flies with structures built of bones that are different in detail but similar in general structure and relation to each other.
Scientists call such structures homologies and have concluded that they are best explained by common descent. Comparative anatomists investigate such homologies, not only in bone structure but also in other parts of the body, working out relationships from degrees of similarity. Their conclusions provide important inferences about the details of evolutionary history, inferences that can be tested by comparisons with the sequence of ancestral forms in the paleontological record.
The mammalian ear and jaw are instances in which paleontology and comparative anatomy combine to show common ancestry through transitional stages. The lower jaws of mammals contain only one bone, whereas those of reptiles have several. The other bones in the reptile jaw are homologous with bones now found in the mammalian ear. Paleontologists have discovered intermediate forms of mammal-like reptiles (Therapsida) with a double jaw joint--one composed of the bones that persist in mammalian jaws, the other consisting of bones that eventually became the hammer and anvil of the mammalian ear.
The Distribution of Species
Biogeography also has contributed evidence for descent from common ancestors. The diversity of life is stupendous. Approximately 250,000 species of living plants, 100,000 species of fungi, and one million species of animals have been described and named, each occupying its own peculiar ecological setting or niche; and the census is far from complete. Some species, such as human beings and our companion the dog, can live under a wide range of environments. Others are amazingly specialized. One species of a fungus (Laboulbenia) grows exclusively on the rear portion of the covering wings of a single species of beetle (Aphaenops cronei) found only in some caves of southern France. The larvae of the fly Drosophila carcinophila can develop only in specialized grooves beneath the flaps of the third pair of oral appendages of a land crab that is found only on certain Caribbean islands.
How can we make intelligible the colossal diversity of living beings and the existence of such extraordinary, seemingly whimsical creatures as the fungus, beetle, and fly described above? And why are island groups like the Galápagos so often inhabited by forms similar to those on the nearest mainland but belonging to different species? Evolutionary theory explains that biological diversity results from the descendants of local or migrant predecessors becoming adapted to their diverse environments. This explanation can be tested by examining present species and local fossils to see whether they have similar structures, which would indicate how one is derived from the other. Also, there should be evidence that species without an established local ancestry had migrated into the locality.
Wherever such tests have been carried out, these conditions have been confirmed. A good example is provided by the mammalian populations of North and South America, where strikingly different native organisms evolved in isolation until the emergence of the isthmus of Panama approximately 3 million years ago. Thereafter, the armadillo, porcupine, and opossum -- mammals of South American origin -- migrated north, along with many other species of plants and animals, while the mountain lion and other North American species made their way across the isthmus to the south.
The evidence that Darwin found for the influence of geographical distribution on the evolution of organisms has become stronger with advancing knowledge. For example, approximately 2,000 species of flies belonging to the genus Drosophila are now found throughout the world. About one-quarter of them live only in Hawaii. More than a thousand species of snails and other land mollusks also are found only in Hawaii. The biological explanation for the multiplicity of related species in remote localities is that such great diversity is a consequence of their evolution from a few common ancestors that colonized an isolated environment. The Hawaiian Islands are far from any mainland or other islands, and on the basis of geological evidence they never have been attached to other lands. Thus, the few colonizers that reached the Hawaiian Islands found many available ecological niches, where they could, over numerous generations, undergo evolutionary change and diversification. No mammals other than one bat species lived in the Hawaiian Islands when the first human settlers arrived; similarly, many other kinds of plants and animals were absent.
The Hawaiian Islands are not less hospitable than other parts of the world for the absent species. For example, pigs and goats have multiplied in the wild in Hawaii, and other domestic animals also thrive there. The scientific explanation for the absence of many kinds of organisms, and the great multiplication of a few kinds, is that many sorts of organisms never reached the islands, because of their geographic isolation. Those that did reach the islands diversified over time because of the absence of related organisms that would compete for resources.
Similarities During Development
Embryology, the study of biological development from the time of conception, is another source of independent evidence for common descent. Barnacles, for instance, are sedentary crustaceans with little apparent similarity to such other
crustaceans as lobsters, shrimps, or copepods. Yet barnacles pass through a free-swimming larval stage in which they look like other crustacean larvae. The similarity of larval stages supports the conclusion that all crustaceans have homologous parts and a common ancestry.
Similarly, a wide variety of organisms from fruit flies to worms to mice to humans have very similar sequences of genes that are active early in development. These genes influence body segmentation or orientation in all these diverse groups. The presence of such similar genes doing similar things across such a wide range of organisms is best explained by their having been present in a very early common ancestor of all of these groups.
New Evidence from Molecular Biology
The unifying principle of common descent that emerges from all the foregoing lines of evidence is being reinforced by the discoveries of modern biochemistry and molecular biology.
The code used to translate nucleotide sequences into amino acid sequences is essentially the same in all organisms. Moreover, proteins in all organisms are invariably composed of the same set of 20 amino acids. This unity of composition and function is a powerful argument in favor of the common descent of the most diverse organisms.
In 1959, scientists at Cambridge University in the UK determined the three-dimensional structures of two proteins that are found in almost every multicelled animal: hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein that carries oxygen in the blood. Myoglobin receives oxygen from hemoglobin and stores it in the tissues until needed. These were the first three-dimensional protein structures to be solved, and they yielded some key insights. Myoglobin has a single chain of 153 amino acids wrapped around a group of iron and other atoms (called "heme") to which oxygen binds. Hemoglobin, in contrast, is made of up four chains: two identical chains consisting of 141 amino acids, and two other identical chains consisting of 146 amino acids. However, each chain has a heme exactly like that of myoglobin, and each of the four chains in the hemoglobin molecule is folded exactly like myoglobin. It was immediately obvious in 1959 that the two molecules are very closely related.
During the next two decades, myoglobin and hemoglobin sequences were determined for dozens of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, worms, and molluscs. All of these sequences were so obviously related that they could be compared with confidence with the three-dimensional structures of two selected standards--whale myoglobin and horse hemoglobin. Even more significantly, the differences between sequences from different organisms could be used to construct a family tree of hemoglobin and myoglobin variation among organisms. This tree agreed completely with observations derived from paleontology and anatomy about the common descent of the corresponding organisms.
Similar family histories have been obtained from the three-dimensional structures and amino acid sequences of other proteins, such as cytochrome c (a protein engaged in energy transfer) and the digestive proteins trypsin and chymotrypsin. The examination of molecular structure offers a new and extremely powerful tool for studying evolutionary relationships. The quantity of information is potentially huge -- as large as the thousands of different proteins contained in living organisms, and limited only by the time and resources of molecular biologists.
As the ability to sequence the nucleotides making up DNA has improved, it also has become possible to use genes to reconstruct the evolutionary history of organisms. Because of mutations, the sequence of nucleotides in a gene gradually changes over time. The more closely related two organisms are, the less different their DNA will be. Because there are tens of thousands of genes in humans and other organisms, DNA contains a tremendous amount of information about the evolutionary history of each organism.
Genes evolve at different rates because, although mutation is a random event, some proteins are much more tolerant of changes in their amino acid sequence than are other proteins. For this reason, the genes that encode these more tolerant, less constrained proteins evolve faster. The average rate at which a particular kind of gene or protein evolves gives rise to the concept of a "molecular clock." Molecular clocks run rapidly for less constrained proteins and slowly for more constrained proteins, though they all time the same evolutionary events.
The figure on this page compares three molecular clocks: for cytochrome c proteins, which interact intimately with other macromolecules and are quite constrained in their amino acid sequences; for the less rigidly constrained hemoglobins, which interact mainly with oxygen and other small molecules; and for fibrinopeptides, which are protein fragments that are cut from larger proteins (fibrinogens) when blood clots. The clock for fibrinopeptides runs rapidly; 1 percent of the amino acids change in a little longer than 1 million years. At the other extreme, the molecular clock runs slowly for cytochrome c; a 1 percent change in amino acid sequence requires 20 million years. The hemoglobin clock is intermediate.
The concept of a molecular clock is useful for two purposes. It determines evolutionary relationships among organisms, and it indicates the time in the past when species started to diverge from one another. Once the clock for a particular gene or protein has been calibrated by reference to some event whose time is known, the actual chronological time when all other events occurred can be determined by examining the protein or gene tree.
An interesting additional line of evidence supporting evolution involves sequences of DNA known as "pseudogenes." Pseudogenes are remnants of genes that no longer function but continue to be carried along in DNA as excess baggage. Pseudogenes also change through time, as they are passed on from ancestors to descendants, and they offer an especially useful way of reconstructing evolutionary relationships.
With functioning genes, one possible explanation for the relative similarity between genes from different organisms is that their ways of life are similar -- for example, the genes from a horse and a zebra could be more similar because of their similar habitats and behaviours than the genes from a horse and a tiger. But this possible explanation does not work for pseudogenes, since they perform no function. Rather, the degree of similarity between pseudogenes must simply reflect their evolutionary relatedness. The more remote the last common ancestor of two organisms, the more dissimilar their pseudogenes will be.
The evidence for evolution from molecular biology is overwhelming and is growing quickly. In some cases, this molecular evidence makes it possible to go beyond the paleontological evidence. For example, it has long been postulated that whales descended from land mammals that had returned to the sea. From anatomical and paleontological evidence, the whales' closest living land relatives seemed to be the even-toed hoofed mammals (modern cattle, sheep, camels, goats, etc.). Recent comparisons of some milk protein genes (beta-casein and kappa-casein) have confirmed this relationship and have suggested that the closest land-bound living relative of whales may be the hippopotamus. In this case, molecular biology has augmented the fossil record.
Creationism and the Evidence for Evolution
Some creationists cite what they say is an incomplete fossil record as evidence for the failure of evolutionary theory. The fossil record was incomplete in Darwin's time, but many of the important gaps that existed then have been filled by subsequent paleontological research. Perhaps the most persuasive fossil evidence for evolution is the consistency of the sequence of fossils from early to recent. Nowhere on
Earth do we find, for example, mammals in Devonian (the age of fishes) strata, or human fossils coexisting with dinosaur remains. Undisturbed strata with simple unicellular organisms predate those with multicellular organisms, and invertebrates precede vertebrates; nowhere has this sequence been found inverted. Fossils from adjacent strata are more similar than fossils from temporally distant strata. The most reasonable scientific conclusion that can be drawn from the fossil record is that descent with modification has taken place as stated in evolutionary theory.
Special creationists argue that "no one has seen evolution occur." This misses the point about how science tests hypotheses. We don't see Earth going around the sun or the atoms that make up matter. We "see" their consequences. Scientists infer that atoms exist and Earth revolves because they have tested predictions derived from these concepts by extensive observation and experimentation.
Furthermore, on a minor scale, we "experience" evolution occurring every day. The annual changes in influenza viruses and the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are both products of evolutionary forces. Indeed, the rapidity with which organisms with short generation times, such as bacteria and viruses, can evolve under the influence of their environments is of great medical significance. Many laboratory experiments have shown that, because of mutation and natural selection, such microorganisms can change in specific ways from those of immediately preceding generations.
On a larger scale, the evolution of mosquitoes resistant to insecticides is another example of the tenacity and adaptability of organisms under environmental stress. Similarly, malaria parasites have become resistant to the drugs that were used extensively to combat them for many years. As a consequence, malaria is on the increase, with more than 300 million clinical cases of malaria occurring every year.
Molecular evolutionary data counter a recent proposition called "intelligent design theory." Proponents of this idea argue that structural complexity is proof of the direct hand of God in specially creating organisms as they are today. These arguments echo those of the 18th century cleric William Paley who held that the vertebrate eye, because of its intricate organization, had been specially designed in its present form by an omnipotent Creator. Modern-day intelligent design proponents argue that molecular structures such as DNA, or molecular processes such as the many steps that blood goes through when it clots, are so irreducibly complex that they can function only if all the components are operative at once. Thus, proponents of intelligent design say that these structures and processes could not have evolved in the stepwise mode characteristic of natural selection.
However, structures and processes that are claimed to be "irreducibly" complex typically are not on closer inspection. For example, it is incorrect to assume that a complex structure or biochemical process can function only if all its components are present and functioning as we see them today. Complex biochemical systems can be built up from simpler systems through natural selection. Thus, the "history" of a protein can be traced through simpler organisms. Jawless fish have a simpler hemoglobin than do jawed fish, which in turn have a simpler hemoglobin than mammals.
The evolution of complex molecular systems can occur in several ways. Natural selection can bring together parts of a system for one function at one time and then, at a later time, recombine those parts with other systems of components to produce a system that has a different function. Genes can be duplicated, altered, and then amplified through natural selection. The complex biochemical cascade resulting in blood clotting has been explained in this fashion.
Similarly, evolutionary mechanisms are capable of explaining the origin of highly complex anatomical structures. For example, eyes may have evolved independently many times during the history of life on Earth. The steps proceed from a simple eye spot made up of light-sensitive retinula cells (as is now found in the flatworm), to formation of individual photosensitive units (ommatidia) in insects with light focusing lenses, to the eventual formation of an eye with a single lens focusing images onto a retina. In humans and other vertebrates, the retina consists not only of photoreceptor cells but also of several types of neurons that begin to analyze the visual image. Through such gradual steps, very different kinds of eyes have evolved, from simple light-sensing organs to highly complex systems for vision.
Studies in evolutionary biology have led to the conclusion that human beings arose from ancestral primates. This association was hotly debated among scientists in Darwin's day. But today there is no significant scientific doubt about the close evolutionary relationships among all primates, including humans.
Many of the most important advances in paleontology over the past century relate to the evolutionary history of humans. Not one but many connecting links -- intermediate between and along various branches of the human family tree -- have been found as fossils. These linking fossils occur in geological deposits of intermediate age. They document the time and rate at which primate and human evolution occurred.
Scientists have unearthed thousands of fossil specimens representing members of the human family. A great number of these cannot be assigned to the modern human species, Homo sapiens. Most of these specimens have been well dated, often by means of radiometric techniques. They reveal a well-branched tree, parts of which trace a general evolutionary sequence leading from ape-like forms to modern humans.
Paleontologists have discovered numerous species of extinct apes in rock strata that are older than four million years, but never a member of the human family at that great age. Australopithecus, whose earliest known fossils are about four million years old, is a genus with some features closer to apes and some closer to modern humans. In brain size, Australopithecus was barely more advanced than apes. A number of features, including long arms, short legs, intermediate toe structure, and features of the upper limb, indicate that the members of this species spent part of the time in trees. But they also walked upright on the ground, like humans. Bipedal tracks of Australopithecus have been discovered, beautifully preserved with those of other extinct animals, in hardened volcanic ash. Most of our Australopithecus ancestors died out close to two-and-a-half million years ago, while other Australopithecus species, which were on side branches of the human tree, survived alongside more advanced hominids for another million years.
Distinctive bones of the oldest species of the human genus, Homo, date back to rock strata about 2.4 million years old. Physical anthropologists agree that Homo evolved from one of the species of Australopithecus. By two million years ago, early members of Homo had an average brain size one-and-a-half times larger than that of Australopithecus, though still substantially smaller than that of modern humans. The shapes of the pelvic and leg bones suggest that these early Homo were not part-time climbers like Australopithecus but walked and ran on long legs, as modern humans do. Just as Australopithecus showed a complex of ape-like, human-like, and intermediate features, so was early Homo intermediate between Australopithecus and modern humans in some features, and close to modern humans in other respects. The earliest stone tools are of virtually the same age as the earliest fossils of Homo. Early Homo, with its larger brain than Australopithecus, was a maker of stone tools.
The fossil record for the interval between 2.4 million years ago and the present includes the skeletal remains of several species assigned to the genus Homo. The more recent species had larger brains than the older ones. This fossil record is complete enough to show that the human genus first spread from its place of origin in Africa to Europe and Asia a little less than two million years ago. Distinctive types of stone tools are associated with various populations. More recent species with larger brains generally used more sophisticated tools than more ancient species.
Molecular biology also has provided strong evidence of the close relationship between humans and apes. Analysis of many proteins and genes has shown that humans are genetically similar to chimpanzees and gorillas and less similar to orangutans and other primates.
DNA has even been extracted from a well-preserved skeleton of the extinct human creature known as Neanderthal, a member of the genus Homo and often considered either as a subspecies of Homo sapiens or as a separate species. Application of the molecular clock, which makes use of known rates of genetic mutation, suggests that Neanderthal's lineage diverged from that of modern Homo sapiens less than half a million years ago, which is entirely compatible with evidence from the fossil record.
Based on molecular and genetic data, evolutionists favor the hypothesis that modern Homo sapiens, individuals very much like us, evolved from more archaic humans about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. They also believe that this transition occurred in Africa, with modern humans then dispersing to Asia, Europe, and eventually Australasia and the Americas.
Discoveries of hominid remains during the past three decades in East and South Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere have combined with advances in molecular biology to initiate a new discipline--molecular paleoanthropology. This field of inquiry is providing an ever-growing inventory of evidence for a genetic affinity between human beings and the African apes.
Opinion polls show that many people believe that divine intervention actively guided the evolution of human beings. Science cannot comment on the role that supernatural forces might play in human affairs. But scientific investigations have concluded that the same forces responsible for the evolution of all other life forms on Earth can account for the evolution of human beings.
~ Main e-reference: Wikipedia (thank you, Wiki!)