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Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science
found the answer, although he proposed some hypotheses. Darwin did not know that a contemporary, Gregor Mendel, had provided an important part of the solution. In his classic 1865 paper describing crossbreeding of varieties of peas, Mendel demonstrated that organisms acquire traits through discrete units of heredity which later came to be known as genes. The variation produced through these inherited traits is the raw material on which natural selection acts.
Mendel's paper was all but forgotten until 1890, when it was rediscovered and contributed to a growing wave of interest and research in genetics. But it was not immediately clear how to reconcile new findings about the mechanisms of inheritance with evolution through natural selection. Then, in the 1930s, a group of biologists demonstrated how the results of genetics research could both buttress and extend evolutionary theory. They showed that all variations, both slight and dramatic, arose through changes, or mutations, in genes. If a mutation enabled an organism to survive or reproduce more effectively, that mutation would tend to be preserved and spread in a population through natural selection. Evolution was thus seen to depend both on genetic mutations and on natural selection. Mutations provided abundant genetic variation, and natural selection sorted out the useful changes from the deleterious ones.
Selection by natural processes of favored variants explained many observations on the geography of species differences—why, for example, members of the same bird species might be larger and darker in the northern part of their range, and smaller and paler in the southern part. In this case, differences might be explained by the advantages of large size and dark coloration in forested, cold regions. And, if the species occupied the entire range continuously, genes favoring light color and small size would be able to flow into the northern population, and vice versa—prohibiting their separation into distinct species that are reproductively isolated from one another.
How new species are formed was a mystery that eluded biologists until information about genetics and the geographical distribution of animals and plants could be put together. As a result, it became clear that the most important source of new species is the process of geographical isolation—through which barriers to gene flow can be created. In the earlier example, the interposition of a major mountain barrier, or the origin of an intermediate desert, might create the needed isolation.
Other situations also encourage the formation of new species. Consider fish in a river that, over time, changes course so as to isolate a tributary. Or think of a set of oceanic islands, distant from the mainland and just far enough from one another that interchange among their populations is rare. These are ideal circumstances for creating reproductive barriers and allowing populations of the same species to diverge from one another under the influence of natural selection. After a time, the species become sufficiently different that even when reunited they remain reproductively isolated. They have become so different that they are unable to interbreed.
In the 1950s, the study of evolution entered a new phase. Biologists began to be able to determine the exact molecular structure of the proteins in living things—that is, the actual sequences of the amino acids that make up each protein. Almost immediately, it became clear that certain proteins that serve the same function in different species have very similar amino acid sequences. The protein evidence was completely consistent with the idea of a common evolutionary history for the planet's living things. Even more important, this knowledge provided important clues about the history of evolution that could not be obtained through the fossil record.
The discovery of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953 extended the study of evolution to the most