Biology X | Heredity and Evolution | Evolution by Stages

Evolution by Stages

A question that arises here is – if complicated organs, such as the eye, are selected for the advantage they provide, how can they be generated by a single DNA change? Surely such complex organs will be created

bit-by-bit over generations? But how can each intermediate change be selected for? There are a number of possible explanations. Even an intermediate stage (Fig. 9.11), such as a rudimentary eye, can be useful to some extent. This might be enough to give a fitness advantage. In fact, the eye – like the wing – seems to be a very popular adaptation. Insects have them, so does an octopus, and so do vertebrates. And the structure of the eye in each of these organisms is different – enough for them to have separate evolutionary origins.


Also, a change that is useful for one property to start with can become useful later for quite a different function. Feathers, for example, can start out as providing insulation in cold weather (Fig. 9.12). But later, they might become useful for flight. In fact, some dinosaurs had feathers, although they could not fly using the feathers. Birds seem to have later adapted the feathers to flight. This, of course, means that birds are very closely related to reptiles, since dinosaurs were reptiles!


It is all very well to say that very dissimilarlooking structures evolve from a common ancestral design. It is true that analysis of the organ structure in fossils allows us to make estimates of how far back evolutionary relationships go. But those are guesses about what happened in history. Are there any current examples of such a process? The wild cabbage plant is a good example. Humans have, over more than two thousand years, cultivated wild cabbage as a food plant, and generated different vegetables from it by selection (see Fig. 9.13). This is, of course, artificial selection rather than natural selection. So some farmers have wanted to select for very short distances between leaves, and have bred the cabbage we eat. Some have wanted to select for arrested flower development, and have bred broccoli, or for sterile flowers, and have made the cauliflower. Some have selected for swollen parts, and come up with kohlrabi. Some have simply looked for slightly larger leaves, and come up with a leafy vegetable called kale. Would we have thought that all these structures are descended from the same ancestor if we had not done it ourselves?


Another way of tracing evolutionary relationships depends on the original idea that we started with. That idea was that changes in DNA during reproduction are the basic events in evolution. If that is the case, then comparing the DNA of different species should give us a direct estimate of how much the DNA has changed during the formation of these species. This method is now extensively used to define evolutionary relationships.

Molecular phylogeny

We have been discussing how changes in the DNA during cell division would lead to changes in the proteins that are made from this new DNA. Another point that has been made is that these changes would accumulate from one generation to the next. Could this be used to trace the changes in DNA backwards in time and find out where each change diverged from the other? Molecular phylogeny does exactly this. This approach is based on the idea that organisms which are more distantly related will accumulate a greater number of differences in their DNA. Such studies trace the evolutionary relationships and it has been highly gratifying to find that the relationships among different organisms shown by molecular phylogeny match the classification scheme that we learnt in Class IX.


  1. Give an example of characteristics being used to determine how close two species are in evolutionary terms.
  2. Can the wing of a butterfly and the wing of a bat be considered homologous organs? Why or why not?
  3. What are fossils? What do they tell us about the process of evolution?

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