Biology X | Heredity and Evolution | Acquired and Inherited Traits

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!

Origin of life on earth

Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us how life evolved from simple to more complex forms nd Mendel’s experiments give us the mechanism for the inheritance of traits from one generation to the next. But neither tells us anything about how life began on earth in the first place.

J.B.S. Haldane, a British scientist (who became a citizen of India later), suggested in 1929 that life must have developed from the simple inorganic molecules which were present on earth soon after it was formed. He speculated that the conditions on earth at that time, which were far from the conditions we see today, could have given rise to more complex organic molecules that were necessary for life. The first primitive

organisms would arise from further chemical synthesis.

How did these organic molecules arise? An answer was suggested by the experiment conducted by Stanley L. Miller and Harold C. Urey in 1953. They assembled an atmosphere similar to that thought to exist on early earth (this had molecules like ammonia, methane and hydrogen sulphide, but no oxygen) over water. This was maintained at a temperature just below 100°C and sparks were passed through the mixture of gases to simulate lightning. At the end of a week, 15% of the carbon (from methane) had been converted to simple compounds of carbon including amino acids which make up protein molecules. So, can life arise afresh on earth even now?


  1. What are the different ways in which individuals with a particular trait may increase in a population?
  2. Why are traits acquired during the life-time of an individual not inherited?
  3. Why are the small numbers of surviving tigers a cause of worry from the point of view of genetics?

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