EVOLUTION: A Very Short Introduction
By Brian and Deborah Charlesworth
Oxford University Press
Chapter 1: Introduction
The consensus among the scientific community is that the Earth is a planet orbiting a fairly typical star, one of many billions of stars in a galaxy among billions of galaxies in an expanding universe of enormous size, which originated about 14 billion years ago. The Earth itself formed as the result of a process of gravitational condensation of dust and gas, which also generated the Sun and other planets of the solar system, about 4.6 billion years ago.
All present-day living organisms are the descendants of self-replicating molecules that were formed by purely chemical means, more than 3.5 billion years ago. The successive forms of life have been produced by the process of “descent with modification,” as Darwin called it, and are related to eath other by a branching genealogy, the tree of life.
We human beings are most closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas, with whom we shared a common ancestor 6 to 7 million years ago. The mammals, the group to which we belong, shared a common ancestor with living species of reptiles about 300 million years ago. All vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibia, fishes) trace their ancestry back to a small fish-like creature that lacked a backbone, which lived over 500 million years ago. Further back in time, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the relationships between the major groups of animals, plants, and microbes, but, as we shall see, there are clear signs in their genetic material of common ancestry.
The findings of science imply that human beings are the product of impersonal forces, and that the habitable world forms a minute part of a universe of immense size and duration.
The study of evolution has revealed our intimate connections with the other species that inhabit the Earth; if global catastrophe is to be avoided, these connections must be respected. The purpose of this book is to introduce the general reader to some of the most important basic findings, concepts, and procedures of evolutionary biology, as it has developed since the first publications of Darwin and Wallace on the subject, over 140 years ago.
Evolution provides a set of unifying principles for the whole of biology; it also illuminates the relation of human beings to the universe and to each other. In addition, pressing medical problems are are posed by the rapid evolution of resistance by bacteria to antibiotics and of HIV to antiviral drugs.
In this book, we shall first introduce the main causal processes of evolution (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 provides some of the basic biological background, and shows how the similarities between living creatures can be understood in terms of evolution. Chapter 4 describes the evidence for evolution derived from Earth history, and from the patterns of geographical distribution of living species. Chapter 5 is concerned with the evolution of adaptations by natural selection, and Chapter 6 with the evolution of new species and of differences between species. In Chapter 7, we discuss some seemingly difficult problems for the theory of evolution. Chapter 8 provides a brief summary.
Brian Charlesworth is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, and since 1997 has been Royal Society Research Professor at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology. His wife, Deborah, is also a biology professor and a Fellow of the Royal Society.
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