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Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science
fundamental level. The sequence of the chemical bases in DNA both specifies the order of amino acids in proteins and determines which proteins are synthesized in which cells. In this way, DNA is the ultimate source of both change and continuity in evolution. The modification of DNA through occasional changes or rearrangements in the base sequences underlies the emergence of new traits, and thus of new species, in evolution. At the same time, all organisms use the same molecular codes to translate DNA base sequences into protein amino acid sequences. This uniformity in the genetic code is powerful evidence for the interrelatedness of living things, suggesting that all organisms presently alive share a common ancestor that can be traced back to the origins of life on earth.
One common misconception among students is that individual organisms change their characteristics in response to the environment. In other words, students often think that the environment acts on individual organisms to generate physical characteristics that can then be passed on genetically to offspring. But selection can work only on the genetic variation that already is present in any new generation, and genetic variation occurs randomly, not in response
Discovery of a Missing Link
As a zoologist I have discovered many phenomena that can be rationally explained only as products of evolution, but none so striking as the ancestor of the ants. Prior to 1967 the fossil record had yielded no specimens of wasps or other Hymenopterous insects that might be interpreted as the ancestors of the ants. This hypothetical form was a missing link of major importance in the study of evolution. We did have many fossils of ants dating back 50 million years. These were different species from those existing today, but their bodies still possessed the basic body form of modern ants. The missing link of ant evolution was often cited by creationists as evidence against evolution. Other ant specialists and I were convinced that the linking fossils would be found, and that most likely they would be associated with the late Mesozoic era, a time when many dinosaur and other vertebrate bones were fossilized but few insects. And that is exactly what happened. In 1967 I had the pleasure of studying two specimens collected in amber (fossilized resin) from New Jersey, and dating to the late Mesozoic about 90 million years ago. They were nearly exact intermediates between solitary wasps and the highly
social modern ants, and so I gave them the scientific name Sphecomyrma, meaning ''wasp ant." Since that time many more Sphecomyrma specimens of similar age have been found in the United States, Canada, and Siberia, but none belonging to the modern type. With each passing year, such fossils and other kinds of evidence tighten our conception of the evolutionary origin of this important group of insects.