What we have seen so far is micro-evolution. That means that the changes are small, even though they are significant. Also, they simply change the common characteristics of a particular species. But this does not properly explain how new species come into existence. That can be said to have happened only if this group of beetles we are thinking about, splits into two populations that cannot reproduce with each other. When this happens, they can be called two independent species. So, can we extend the reasoning we have used above to explain such speciation?
Consider what would happen if the bushes the beetles feed on are spread widely over a mountain range. The beetle population becomes very large as a result. But individual beetles feed mostly on a few nearby bushes throughout their lifetime. They do not travel far. So, in this huge population of beetles, there will be sub-populations in neighbourhoods. Since male and female beetles have to meet for reproduction to happen, most reproduction will be within these sub-populations. Of course, an occasional adventurous beetle might go from one site to another. Or a beetle is picked up by a crow from one site and dropped in the other site
without being eaten. In either case, the migrant beetle will reproduce with the local population. This will result in the genes of the migrant beetle entering a new population. This kind of gene flow is bound to happen between populations that are partly, but not completely separated. If, however, between two such sub-populations a large river comes into existence, the two populations will be further isolated. The levels of gene flow between them will decrease even further.
Acquired and Inherited Traits
We discussed the idea that the germ cells of sexually reproducing populations are made in specialised reproductive tissue. If the weight of the beetle is reduced because of starvation, that will not change the DNA of the germ cells. Therefore, low weight is not a trait that can be inherited by the progeny of a starving beetle. Therefore, even if some generations of beetles are low in weight because of starvation, that is not an example of evolution, since the change is not inherited over generations. Change in non-reproductive tissues cannot be passed on to the DNA of the germ cells. Therefore the experiences of an individual during its lifetime cannot be passed on to its progeny, and cannot direct evolution.
Consider another example of how an individual cannot pass on to its progeny the experiences of its lifetime. If we breed a group of mice, all their progeny will have tails, as expected. Now, if the tails of these mice are removed by surgery in each generation, do these tailless mice have tailless progeny? The answer is no, and it makes sense because removal of the tail cannot change the genes of the germ cells of the mice.
Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882)
Charles Darwin set out on a voyage when he was 22 years old. The five-year voyage took him to South America and the islands off its coast. The studies that he conducted during this voyage were to change forever the way we look at the variety of life on earth. Interestingly, after he got back to England, he never left its shores again. He stayed at home and conducted various experiments that led him to formulate his hypothesis that evolution took place due to natural selection. He did not know the mechanism whereby variations arose in the species. He would have been enlightened by Mendel’s experiments, but these two gentlemen did not know of each other or their work!
We often associate Darwin solely with the theory of evolution. But he was an accomplished naturalist, and one of the studies he conducted was to do with the role of earthworms in soil fertility.
This is the reason why the ideas of heredity and genetics that we have discussed earlier are so essential for understanding evolution. Even Charles Darwin, who came up with the idea of evolution of species by natural selection in the nineteenth century, could not work out the mechanism. It is ironic that he could have done so if he had seen the significance of the experiments his Austrian contemporary, Gregor Mendel, was doing. But then, Mendel too did not notice Darwin’s work as relevant to his!