3 Chapter 3: Natural Selection

Anastasia Chouvalova and Lisa Limeri

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, students will be able to:

3.1 Explain why the three conditions for natural selection, when present, necessarily lead to evolution by natural selection.

3.2 Define adaptation, fitness, evolution, and theory. For each term, explain how its use in science differs from its use in everyday English.

3.3 Define directional and stabilizing selection and explain how each influences the mean value of a trait and the variation around the mean.

3.4 Given data on how allele frequencies or trait means change over time in a population, identify episodes of directional and stabilizing selection.


All living organisms, from bacteria to baboons to blueberries, evolved at some point from a different species. Although it may seem that living things today stay much the same, that is not the case—evolution is an ongoing process.

The theory of evolution is the unifying theory of biology, meaning it is the framework within which biologists ask questions about the living world. Its power is that it provides direction for predictions about living things that are borne out in ongoing experiments. The Ukrainian-born American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote that “nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution” (Dobzhansky, 1964). He meant that the tenet that all life has evolved and diversified from a common ancestor is the foundation from which we approach all questions in biology.

Charles Darwin and Natural Selection

In the mid-nineteenth century, two naturalists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, independently conceived and described natural selection – the primary mechanism of evolution. Importantly, each naturalist spent time exploring the natural world on expeditions to the tropics. From 1831 to 1836, Darwin traveled around the world on H.M.S. Beagle, including stops in South America, Australia, and the southern tip of Africa. Wallace traveled to Brazil to collect insects in the Amazon rainforest from 1848 to 1852 and to the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862. Darwin’s journey, like Wallace’s later journeys to the Malay Archipelago, included stops at several island chains, the last being the Galápagos Islands west of Ecuador. On these islands, Darwin observed species of organisms on different islands that were clearly similar, yet had distinct differences. For example, the ground finches inhabiting the Galápagos Islands comprised several species with unique beak shapes (Figure 3.1). The species on the islands had a graded series of beak sizes and shapes with very small differences between the most similar ones. He observed that these finches closely resembled another finch species on the South American mainland. Darwin imagined that the island species might be species modified from one of the original mainland species. Upon further study, he realized that each finch’s varied beaks helped the birds acquire a specific type of food. For example, seed-eating finches had stronger, thicker beaks for breaking seeds, and insect-eating finches had spear-like beaks for stabbing their prey.

Figure 3.1 Darwin observed that beak shape varies among finch species. He postulated that ancestral species’ beaks had adapted over time to equip the finches to acquire different food sources.

Wallace and Darwin both observed similar patterns in other organisms and they independently developed the same explanation for how and why such changes could take place. Darwin called this mechanism natural selection. Natural selection postulates that individuals with traits that are most beneficial in their environment reproduce more prolifically, and this leads to that trait becoming more common in the population in the next generation. This increase in frequency of a trait is evolutionary change.

For example, Darwin observed a population of giant tortoises in the Galápagos Archipelago to have longer necks than those that lived on other islands with dry lowlands. These tortoises were “selected” because they could reach more leaves and access more food than those with short necks. In times of drought when fewer leaves would be available, those that could reach more leaves had a better chance to eat and survive than those that couldn’t reach the food source. Consequently, long-necked tortoises would be more likely to be reproductively successful and pass the long-necked trait to their offspring. Over time, only long-necked tortoises would become more abundant in the population.

Darwin argued that natural selection was an inevitable outcome of three principles that operated in nature. First, most characteristics of organisms are inherited, or passed from parent to offspring. Although no one, including Darwin and Wallace, knew how this happened at the time. Second, more offspring are produced than are able to survive and reproduce, so resources for survival and reproduction are limited. Thus, there is competition for those resources in each generation. Both Darwin and Wallace’s understanding of this principle came from reading economist Thomas Malthus’ essay that explained this principle in relation to human populations. Third, offspring vary among each other in regard to their characteristics and those variations are inherited. Darwin and Wallace reasoned that offspring with inherited characteristics which allow them to best compete for limited resources will survive and have more offspring than those individuals with variations that are less able to compete. Because characteristics are inherited, these traits will be better represented in the next generation. This will lead to change in populations over generations in a process that Darwin called descent with modification. Ultimately, natural selection leads to greater adaptation of the population to its local environment. It is the only mechanism known for adaptive evolution.

In 1858, Darwin and Wallace presented papers at the Linnean Society in London that discussed the idea of natural selection. The following year Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was published. His book outlined in considerable detail his arguments for evolution by natural selection.

Question #1

Which of the following correctly describes natural selection?

A. Individuals with beneficial traits reproduce more and thus the beneficial trait becomes more common in the next generation.
B. Individuals acquire more beneficial traits during their lifetime and thus the beneficial trait becomes more common in the next generation.
C. Populations mutate to create new, beneficial traits which help them survive better.
D. Individuals with different variations of traits reproduce randomly and thus there is no change in frequency in traits over time.

Three Requirements of Selection

The conditions for natural selection are identical to those for Artificial selection: variation, heritability, and differential reproduction. The key difference is that in artificial selection, humans determine differential reproduction based on traits that humans determine desirable. In natural selection, differential reproduction is based on an individual’s fit with their environment, called fitness.

Differential Reproduction in natural selection

When competition is severe enough that only some individuals reproduce, the next generation consists of offspring who inherit the desirable trait from their parents.

Natural selection occurs when a given allele produces a phenotype that allows an individual to have more offspring in their environment. Because many of those offspring will also carry the beneficial allele, and often the corresponding phenotype, they will have more offspring of their own that also carry the allele, thus, perpetuating the cycle. Over time, the allele will spread throughout the population. Some alleles will quickly become fixed in this way, meaning that every individual of the population will carry the allele, while detrimental mutations may be swiftly eliminated from the gene pool. In this way, natural selection results in a change in the allele frequency within a population. Natural selection can alter the population’s genetic makeup.

Reading Question #2

What is the difference between artificial and natural selection?

A. In artificial selection, humans determine differential reproduction, whereas in natural selection, the environment determines differential reproduction.

B. In artificial selection, differential reproduction matters, whereas in natural selection, differential survival matters.

C. Artificial selection involves genetically modified organisms whereas natural selection uses naturally-occurring variation.

D. Artificial selection involves mutations whereas natural selection does not.

Advancing the Theory of Evolution: The Modern Synthesis

Figure 3.2 The pea plant (Pisum sativum) was the focus of Mendel’s experiments. photo credit: Stefan.lefnaer

People did not understand the mechanisms of inheritance, or genetics, at the time Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were developing their idea of natural selection. This lack of knowledge was a stumbling block to understanding many aspects of evolution. The predominant (and incorrect) genetic theory of the time, blending inheritance, made it difficult to understand how natural selection might operate. Darwin and Wallace were unaware of Gregor Mendel’s experiments with pea plants that uncovered the principles of genetics. Scholars rediscovered Mendel’s work in the early twentieth century at which time geneticists were rapidly coming to an understanding of the basics of inheritance. Initially, the newly discovered particulate nature of genes made it difficult for biologists to understand how gradual evolution could occur. However, over the next few decades scientists integrated genetics and evolution in what became known as the modern synthesis – the coherent understanding of the relationship between natural selection and genetics that took shape by the 1940s. Generally, this concept is accepted today. In short, the modern synthesis describes how evolutionary processes, such as natural selection, can affect a population’s genetic makeup, and, in turn, how this can result in the gradual evolution of populations and species. The theory also connects population change over time (microevolution), with the processes that gave rise to new species and higher taxonomic groups with widely divergent characters, called macroevolution.

Career Connection: Field Biologist

Many people hike, explore caves, scuba dive, or climb mountains for recreation. What if your job entailed working in the wilderness? Field biologists by definition work outdoors in the “field.” The term field in this case refers to any location outdoors, even under water. A field biologist typically focuses research on a certain species, group of organisms, or a single habitat.

One objective of many field biologists includes discovering new, unrecorded species. Not only do such findings expand our understanding of the natural world, but they also lead to important innovations in fields such as medicine and agriculture. Plant and microbial species, in particular, can reveal new medicinal and nutritive knowledge. Other organisms can play key roles in ecosystems or, if rare, require protection. When discovered, researchers can use these important species as evidence for environmental regulations and laws.

Fitness and Adaptation

Charles Darwin coined the famous term “survival of the fittest.” We often think of “fitness” as being related to physical strength and endurance, but Darwin was referring to how well an individual “fits” with its environment. Of course sometimes physical strength improves evolutionary fitness, but it is not necessarily the case. Although Darwin focused on survival, it is important to remember that natural selection is really driven by differential reproduction. Survival is necessary for reproduction, so survival is important, but only if it leads to increased reproduction.

We call a heritable trait that improves an organism’s survival and reproduction in its present environment an adaptation. Scientists describe groups of organisms adapting to their environment when a genetic variation occurs over time that increases or maintains the population’s “fit” to its environment. A platypus’s webbed feet are an adaptation for swimming. A snow leopard’s thick fur is an adaptation for living in the cold. A cheetah’s fast speed is an adaptation for catching prey.

New adaptations can only arise via mutations. However, not all mutations are adaptations. Mutations can have one of three outcomes on the phenotype. A mutation could be harmful and reduce and organism’s fitness (meaning they will produce fewer offspring), in which case it is called a deleterious mutation. A mutation could produce a phenotype with a beneficial effect on fitness, in which case it is an adaptation. Finally, a mutation could have no effect on the phenotype’s fitness, in which cased it would be called a neutral mutation.

Whether a trait is favorable, harmful, or neutral depends on the environment in which it exists. Environmental conditions can change over time, and a trait that was adaptive in one situation could be neutral or harmful in another. Consider the example of the Galápagos finches that first inspired Darwin. Peter and Rosemary Grant and their colleagues have studied Galápagos finch populations every year since 1976. The Grants found changes from one generation to the next in beak shape distribution with the medium ground finch on the Galápagos island of Daphne Major. The birds inherit variation in their bill shape with some having wide deep bills and others having thinner bills. During a period in which rainfall was higher than normal because of an El Niño, there was a lack of large hard seeds of which the large-billed birds ate; however, there was an abundance of the small soft seeds which the small-billed birds ate. Therefore, the small-billed birds were able to survive and reproduce. In the years following this El Niño, the Grants measured beak sizes in the population and found that the average bill size was smaller. Since bill size is an inherited trait, parents with smaller bills had more offspring and the bill evolved into a much smaller size. As conditions improved in 1987 and larger seeds became more available, the trend toward smaller average bill size ceased.

Reading Question #3

In an evolutionary context, what does fitness refer to?

A. The strength of an organism.
B. The maximum speed at which an organism can move.
C. The amount of muscle mass in an organism.
D. How well an organism fits with its environment.

Reading Question #4

What is the relationship between fitness and adaptation?

A. Adaptation refers to an organism’s degree of fitness.
B. An adaptation is a trait that improves an organism’s fitness.
C. Fitness refers to an organism’s ability to adapt.
D. Adaptation is interchangeable with the term fitness.

The Result of Selection is Changes in Allele Frequency in a Population

With the Modern Synthesis, we know that organisms’ traits are determined by the alleles they have for a given gene. A gene for a particular trait may have several variants (called alleles) that code for different traits. Traits are passed on as alleles as they are inherited from parent to offspring. In the early twentieth century, biologists in the area of population genetics began to study how selective forces change a population through changes in allele and genotypic frequencies.

The allele frequency is the frequency at which a specific allele appears within a population. In population genetics, scientists define the term evolution as a change in the allele’s frequency in a population.

To summarize, variation in a trait is caused by the existence of alleles for a given gene existing in a population. When a particular allele results in an adaptation (a trait that increases an organism’s fitness), that individual can reproduce more successfully than others who lack that allele. Thus, individuals carrying the beneficial allele pass it onto the next generation more successfully than individuals with the less beneficial allele; and the beneficial allele becomes more frequent in the next generation. The next generation then has a higher frequency of the beneficial trait due to this underlying change in allele frequency.

Types of Selection

Selection pressures describe environmental conditions that determine which traits are fit in that environment. Selection can affect population variation in different ways depending on the selection pressure at work. Some of the more common  variations are called stabilizing selection, directional selection, and disruptive selection. As natural selection influences the allele frequencies in a population, individuals can either become more or less genetically similar and the phenotypes can become more similar or more disparate.

Stabilizing Selection

Stabilizing selection occurs when natural selection favors an average phenotype, selecting against extreme variation (Figure 3.3). In a mouse population that live in the woods, for example, natural selection is likely to favor mice that best blend in with the forest floor and are less likely for predators to spot. Assuming the ground is a fairly consistent shade of brown, those mice whose fur is most closely matched to that color will be most likely to survive and reproduce, passing on their genes for their brown coat. Mice that carry alleles that make them a bit lighter or a bit darker will stand out against the ground and be more likely to fall victim to predation. As a result of this selection, the population’s phenotypic variation will decrease.

Directional Selection

When the environment changes, populations will often undergo directional selection (Figure 3.3), which selects for phenotypes at one end of the spectrum of existing variation. A classic example of this type of selection is the evolution of the peppered moth in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the moths were predominately light in color, which allowed them to blend in with the light-colored trees and lichens in their environment. However, as soot began spewing from factories, the trees darkened, and the light-colored moths became easier for predatory birds to spot. Over time, the frequency of the moth’s melanic form increased because they had a higher survival rate in habitats affected by air pollution because their darker coloration blended with the sooty trees. Similarly, the hypothetical mouse population may evolve to take on a different coloration if something were to cause the forest floor where they live to change color. The result of this type of selection is a shift in the population’s genetic variability toward the new, fit phenotype.

Disruptive Selection

Sometimes two or more distinct phenotypes can each have their advantages for natural selection, while the intermediate phenotypes are, on average, less fit. Scientists call this disruptive (also called diversifying) selection (Figure 3.3) We see this in many animal populations that have multiple male forms. Large, dominant alpha males use brute force to obtain mates, while small males can sneak in for furtive copulations with the females in an alpha male’s territory. In this case, both the alpha males and the “sneaking” males will be selected for, but medium-sized males, who can’t overtake the alpha males and are too big to sneak copulations, are selected against. Diversifying selection can also occur when environmental changes favor individuals on either end of the phenotypic spectrum. Imagine a mouse population living at the beach where there is light-colored sand interspersed with patches of tall grass. In this scenario, light-colored mice that blend in with the sand would be favored, as well as dark-colored mice that can hide in the grass. Medium-colored mice, alternatively would not blend in with either the grass or the sand, and thus predators would most likely eat them. The result of this type of selection is increased genetic variability as the population becomes more diverse.


Figure 3.3 Different types of natural selection can impact the distribution of phenotypes within a population. In (a) stabilizing selection, an average phenotype is favored. In (b) directional selection, a change in the environment shifts the spectrum of observed phenotypes. In (c) diversifying selection, two or more extreme phenotypes are selected for, while the average phenotype is selected against.

Misconceptions of Evolution

Although the theory of evolution generated some controversy when Darwin first proposed it, biologists almost universally accepted it within 20 years after publication of On the Origin of Species. Nevertheless, evolution is a nuanced theory and misconceptions about how it works abound.

Evolution Is “Just” a Theory

Some people attempt to diminish the importance of the theory of evolution by purposefully confounding the everyday usage of the word “theory” with the way scientists use the word. In science, we understand a “theory” to be a body of thoroughly tested and verified explanations for a set of observations of the natural world. Scientists have a theory of the atom, a theory of gravity, and the theory of relativity, each which describes understood facts about the world. In the same way, the theory of evolution describes facts about the living world. As such, a theory in science has survived significant efforts to discredit it by scientists. In contrast, a “theory” in common vernacular is a word meaning a guess or suggested explanation. This meaning is more akin to the scientific concept of “hypothesis.” When critics of evolution say it is “just a theory,” they are implying that there is little evidence supporting it and that it is still in the process of rigorous testing. This is a mischaracterization.

Individuals Evolve

Evolution is the change in a population’s genetic composition over time, specifically over generations, resulting from differential reproduction of individuals with certain alleles. Individuals do change over their lifetime, obviously, but this is development and involves changes programmed by the set of genes the individual acquired at birth in coordination with the individual’s environment. When thinking about the evolution of a characteristic, it is most accurate to think about the change of the average value of the characteristic in the population over time. For example, when natural selection leads to bill-size change in medium ground finches in the Galápagos, this does not mean that individual bills on the finches are changing. If one measures the average bill size among all individuals in the population at one time and then measures them in the population several years later, this average value will be different as a result of evolution. Although some individuals may survive from the first time to the second, they will still have the same bill size; however, there will be many new individuals who contribute to the shift in average bill size.

Organisms Evolve on Purpose

Statements such as “organisms evolve in response to a change in an environment” are quite common, but such statements can lead to two types of misunderstandings. First, do not interpret the statement to mean that individual organisms evolve. The statement is shorthand for “a population evolves in response to a changing environment.” However, a second misunderstanding may arise by interpreting the statement to mean that the evolution is somehow intentional. A changed environment results in some individuals in the population, those with particular phenotypes, benefiting and therefore producing proportionately more offspring than other phenotypes. This results in change in the population if the characteristics are genetically determined.

It is also important to understand that the variation that natural selection works on is already in a population and does not arise in response to an environmental change. For example, applying antibiotics to a population of bacteria will, over time, select a population of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics). The resistance, which a gene causes, did not arise because of applying the antibiotic. The gene for resistance was already present in the bacteria’s gene pool, likely at a low frequency. The antibiotic, which kills the bacterial cells without the resistance gene, strongly selects individuals that are resistant, since these would be the only ones that survived and divided. Experiments have demonstrated that mutations for antibiotic resistance do not arise as a result of antibiotic.


Natural selection describes a process in which individuals who are better at obtaining resources and escaping predation are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on their heritable traits to future generations. Through this process individuals become more adapted to their environment and if this continues for several generations, there will eventually be a measurable change in the genetic composition of a population. This is what scientists define as evolutionary change.

Question #5

What is the result of natural selection?

A. Evolution
B. Change in allele frequency
C. New mutations
D. A and B
E. A, B, and C

References and Acknowledgements

Dobzhansky, T. (1964). “Biology, Molecular and Organismic.” American Zoologist, 4(4): 449.

Adapted from Clark, M.A., Douglas, M., and Choi, J. (2018). Biology 2e. OpenStax. Retrieved from https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction



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Introductory Biology 2 Copyright © 2023 by Anastasia Chouvalova and Lisa Limeri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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