Charles Darwin's voyage on the HMS Beagle and his ideas about evolution and natural selection.

Key points:

  • Charles Darwin was a British naturalist who proposed the theory of biological evolution by natural selection.
  • Darwin defined evolution as "descent with modification," the idea that species change over time, give rise to new species, and share a common ancestor.
  • The mechanism that Darwin proposed for evolution is natural selection. Because resources are limited in nature, organisms with heritable traits that favor survival and reproduction will tend to leave more offspring than their peers, causing the traits to increase in frequency over generations.
  • Natural selection causes populations to become adapted, or increasingly well-suited, to their environments over time. Natural selection depends on the environment and requires existing heritable variation in a group.

What is evolution?

The basic idea of biological evolution is that populations and species of organisms change over time. Today, when we think of evolution, we are likely to link this idea with one specific person: the British naturalist Charles Darwin.
In the 1850s, Darwin wrote an influential and controversial book called On the Origin of Species. In it, he proposed that species evolve (or, as he put it, undergo "descent with modification"), and that all living things can trace their descent to a common ancestor.
Darwin also suggested a mechanism for evolution: natural selection, in which heritable traits that help organisms survive and reproduce become more common in a population over time.
In this article, we'll take a closer look at Darwin's ideas. We'll trace how they emerged from his worldwide travels on the ship HMS Beagle, and we'll also walk through an example of how evolution by natural selection can work.

Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle

Darwin's seminal book, On the Origin of Species, set forth his ideas about evolution and natural selection. These ideas were largely based on direct observations from Darwin's travels around the globe. From 1831 to 1836, he was part of a survey expedition carried out by the ship HMS Beagle, which included stops in South America, Australia, and the southern tip of Africa. At each of the expedition's stops, Darwin had the opportunity to study and catalog the local plants and animals.
Over the course of his travels, Darwin began to see intriguing patterns in the distribution and features of organisms. We can see some of the most important patterns Darwin noticed in distribution of organisms by looking at his observations of the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.
Darwin found that nearby islands in the Galápagos had similar but nonidentical species of finches living on them. Moreover, he noted that each finch species was well-suited for its environment and role. For instance, species that ate large seeds tended to have large, tough beaks, while those that ate insects had thin, sharp beaks. Finally, he observed that the finches (and other animals) found on the Galápagos Islands were similar to species on the nearby mainland of Ecuador, but different from those found elsewhere in the world2^2.
Darwin didn't figure all of this out on his trip. In fact, he didn't even realize all the finches were related but distinct species until he showed his specimens to a skilled ornithologist (bird biologist) years later3^3! Gradually, however, he came up with an idea that could explain the pattern of related but different finches.
According to Darwin's idea, this pattern would make sense if the Galápagos Islands had long ago been populated by birds from the neighboring mainland. On each island, the finches might have gradually adapted to local conditions (over many generations and long periods of time). This process could have led to the formation of one or more distinct species on each island.
If this idea was correct, though, why was it correct? What mechanism could explain how each finch population had acquired adaptations, or features that made it well-suited to its immediate environment? During his voyage, and in the years after, Darwin developed and refined a set of ideas that could explain the patterns he had observed during his voyage. In his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin outlined his two key ideas: evolution and natural selection.


Darwin proposed that species can change over time, that new species come from pre-existing species, and that all species share a common ancestor. In this model, each species has its own unique set of heritable (genetic) differences from the common ancestor, which have accumulated gradually over very long time periods. Repeated branching events, in which new species split off from a common ancestor, produce a multi-level "tree" that links all living organisms.
Darwin referred to this process, in which groups of organisms change in their heritable traits over generations, as “descent with modification." Today, we call it evolution. Darwin's sketch above illustrates his idea, showing how one species can branch into two over time, and how this process can repeat multiple times in the "family tree" of a group of related species.

Natural selection

Importantly, Darwin didn't just propose that organisms evolved. If that had been the beginning and end of his theory, he wouldn't be in as many textbooks as he is today! Instead, Darwin also proposed a mechanism for evolution: natural selection. This mechanism was elegant and logical, and it explained how populations could evolve (undergo descent with modification) in such a way that they became better suited to their environments over time.
Darwin's concept of natural selection was based on several key observations:
  • Traits are often heritable. In living organisms, many characteristics are inherited, or passed from parent to offspring. (Darwin knew this was the case, even though he did not know that traits were inherited via genes.)
  • More offspring are produced than can survive. Organisms are capable of producing more offspring than their environments can support. Thus, there is competition for limited resources in each generation.
  • Offspring vary in their heritable traits. The offspring in any generation will be slightly different from one another in their traits (color, size, shape, etc.), and many of these features will be heritable.
Based on these simple observations, Darwin concluded the following:
  • In a population, some individuals will have inherited traits that help them survive and reproduce (given the conditions of the environment, such as the predators and food sources present). The individuals with the helpful traits will leave more offspring in the next generation than their peers, since the traits make them more effective at surviving and reproducing.
  • Because the helpful traits are heritable, and because organisms with these traits leave more offspring, the traits will tend to become more common (present in a larger fraction of the population) in the next generation.
  • Over generations, the population will become adapted to its environment (as individuals with traits helpful in that environment have consistently greater reproductive success than their peers).
Darwin's model of evolution by natural selection allowed him to explain the patterns he had seen during his travels. For instance, if the Galápagos finch species shared a common ancestor, it made sense that they should broadly resemble one another (and mainland finches, who likely shared that common ancestor). If groups of finches had been isolated on separate islands for many generations, however, each group would have been exposed to a different environment in which different heritable traits might have been favored, such as different sizes and shapes of beaks for using different food sources. These factors could have led to the formation of distinct species on each island.

Example: How natural selection can work

To make natural selection more concrete, let's consider a simplified, hypothetical example. In this example, a group of mice with heritable variation in fur color (black vs. tan) has just moved into a new area where the rocks are black. This environment features hawks, which like to eat mice and can see the tan ones more easily than the black ones against the black rock.
Because the hawks can see and catch the tan mice more easily, a relatively large fraction of the tan mice are eaten, while a much smaller fraction of the black mice are eaten. If we look at the ratio of black mice to tan mice in the surviving ("not-eaten") group, it will be higher than in the starting population.
Fur color is a heritable trait (one that can be passed from parent to child). So, the increased fraction of black mice in the surviving group means an increased fraction of black baby mice in the next generation. After several generations of selection, the population might be made up almost entirely of black mice. This change in the heritable features of the population is an example of evolution.

Key points about natural selection

When I was first learning about natural selection, I had some questions (and misconceptions!) about how it worked. Here are explanations about some potentially confusing points, which may help you get a better sense of how, when, and why natural selection takes place.

Natural selection depends on the environment

Natural selection doesn't favor traits that are somehow inherently superior. Instead, it favors traits that are beneficial (that is, help an organism survive and reproduce more effectively than its peers) in a specific environment. Traits that are helpful in one environment might actually be harmful in another.

Natural selection acts on existing heritable variation

Natural selection needs some starting material, and that starting material is heritable variation. For natural selection to act on a feature, there must already be variation (differences among individuals) for that feature. Also, the differences have to be heritable, determined by the organisms' genes.

Heritable variation comes from random mutations

The original source of the new gene variants that produce new heritable traits, such as fur colors, is random mutation (changes in DNA sequence). Random mutations that are passed on to offspring typically occur in the germline, or sperm and egg cell lineage, of organisms. Sexual reproduction "mixes and matches" gene variants to make more variation.

Natural selection and the evolution of species

Let's take a step back and consider how natural selection fits in with Darwin's broader vision of evolution, one in which all living things share a common ancestor and are descended from that ancestor in a huge, branching tree. What is happening at each of those branch points?
In the example of Darwin's finches, we saw that groups in a single population may become isolated from one another by geographical barriers, such as ocean surrounding islands, or by other mechanisms. Once isolated, the groups can no longer interbreed and are exposed to different environments. In each environment, natural selection is likely to favor different traits (and other evolutionary forces, such as random drift, may also operate separately on the groups). Over many generations, differences in heritable traits can accumulate between the groups, to the extent that they are considered separate species.
Based on various lines of evidence, scientists think that this type of process has repeated many, many times during the history of life on Earth. Evolution by natural selection and other mechanisms underlies the incredible diversity of present-day life forms, and the action of natural selection can explain the fit between present-day organisms and their environments.