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Natural selection is the gradual, non-random process by which biological traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers. It is a key mechanism of evolution. The term "natural selection" was popularized by Charles Darwin who intended it to be compared with artificial selection, what we now call selective breeding.
The Swedish chicken study was one of several recent breakthroughs in the youthful field of epigenetics, which primarily studies the epigenome, the protective package of proteins around which genetic material – strands of DNA – is wrapped. The epigenome plays a crucial role in determining which genes actually express themselves in a creature's traits: in effect, it switches certain genes on or off, or turns them up or down in intensity. It isn't news that the environment can alter the epigenome; what's news is that those changes can be inherited. And this doesn't, of course, apply only to chickens: some of the most striking findings come from research involving humans.
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Joseph Conrad, by contrast, experienced different sides of the British-dominated world and turned them to quite different fictive ends. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents in present-day Ukraine, he spent his childhood trailing his parents, political exiles, across the Russian Empire. At seventeen, Conrad trained to become a sailor, and pursued most of a twenty-year career at sea in the British merchant marine—around Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa—before becoming a full-time writer in English, his third language, in the 1890s. His fiction drew heavily on his experience in Asian waters in particular, and on the European continent; his most famous work today, the novella Heart of Darkness, fictionalized his journey in 1890 up the Congo River, to present an indelible indictment of European imperialism.
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Evolution: Library: Ernst Mayr and the Evolutionary Synthesis
Yet epigenetics suggests this isn't the whole story. If what happens to you during your lifetime – living in a stress-inducing henhouse, say, or overeating in northern Sweden – can affect how your genes express themselves in future generations, the absolutely simple version of natural selection begins to look questionable. Rather than genes simply "offering up" a random smorgasbord of traits in each new generation, which then either prove suited or unsuited to the environment, it seems that the environment plays a role in creating those traits in future generations, if only in a short-term and reversible way. You begin to feel slightly sorry for the much-mocked pre-Darwinian zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, whose own version of evolution held, most famously, that giraffes have long necks because their ancestors were "obliged to browse on the leaves of trees and to make constant efforts to reach them". As a matter of natural history, he probably wasn't right about how giraffes' necks came to be so long. But Lamarck was scorned for a much more general apparent mistake: the idea that lifestyle might be able to influence heredity. "Today," notes David Shenk, "any high school student knows that genes are passed on unchanged from parent to child, and to the next generation and the next. Lifestyle cannot alter heredity. Except now it turns out that it can . . ."
It might not be immediately obvious why this has such profound implications for evolution. In the way it's generally understood, the whole point of natural selection – the so-called "modern synthesis" of Darwin's theories with subsequent discoveries about genes – is its beautiful, breathtaking, devastating simplicity. In each generation, genes undergo random mutations, making offspring subtly different from their parents; those mutations that enhance an organism's abilities to thrive and reproduce in its own particular environment will tend to spread through populations, while those that make successful breeding less likely will eventually peter out.
Darwin was Right | Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection
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Inevitably, those of us who aren't professional scientists have to take a lot of science on trust. And one of the things that makes it so easy to trust the standard view of evolution, in particular, is amply illustrated by the legend of the Nasa astronomers: the doubters are so deluded or dishonest that one needn't waste time with them. Unfortunately, that also makes it embarrassingly awkward to ask a question that seems, in the light of recent studies and several popular books, to be growing ever more pertinent. What if Darwin's theory of evolution – or, at least, Darwin's theory of evolution as most of us learned it at school and believe we understand it – is, in crucial respects, not entirely accurate?
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Variation exists within all populations of organisms. This occurs partly because random mutations cause changes in the genome of an individual organism, and these mutations can be passed to offspring. Throughout the individuals’ lives, their genomes interact with their environments to cause variations in traits. (The environment of a genome includes the molecular biology in the cell, other cells, other individuals, populations, species, as well as the abiotic environment.) Individuals with certain variants of the trait may survive and reproduce more than individuals with other variants. Therefore the population evolves. Factors that affect reproductive success are also important, an issue that Charles Darwin developed in his ideas on sexual selection, for example. Natural selection acts on the phenotype, or the observable characteristics of an organism, but the genetic (heritable) basis of any phenotype that gives a reproductive advantage will become more common in a population (see allele frequency). Over time, this process can result in populations that specialize for particular ecological niches and may eventually result in the emergence of new species. In other words, natural selection is an important process (though not the only process) by which evolution takes place within a population of organisms. As opposed to artificial selection, in which humans favour specific traits, in natural selection the environment acts as a sieve through which only certain variations can pass.
Evolutionary Ethics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Such talk, naturally, is liable to drive evolutionary biologists into a rage, or, in the case of Richard Dawkins, into even more of a rage than usual. They have a point: nobody wants to provide ammunition to the proponents of creationism or "intelligent design", and it's true that few of the studies now coming to public prominence are all that revolutionary to the experts. But in the culture at large, we may be on the brink of a major shift in perspective, with enormous implications for how most of us think about how life came to be the way it is. As the science writer David Shenk puts it in his new book, The Genius in All of Us, "This is big, big stuff – perhaps the most important [discoveries] in the science of heredity since the gene."
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