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Natural Selection

Natural Selection

NATURAL SELECTION APPLIED TO HUMAN BEHAVIOR

CRITIQUES OF NATURAL SELECTION IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Natural selection is the central process of evolutionary theory, presented by Charles Darwin (18091882) in his 1859 book The Origin of Species. Darwins theory of natural selection is really a simple idea. It states that (1) if there is variation among members of a species in their hereditary traits and (2) some of those traits are more conducive to survival and reproduction than others, then (3) the frequency of individuals carrying those traits will gradually increase in the population. The result is that the species total pool of hereditary traits will gradually change over generations, so long as environmental conditions do not dramatically change. Thus, natural selection is crucial to how a species adapts to its environment. Evolutionary theory describes how these functional, problem-solving adaptations originate and are maintained.

Theorists and researchers in the social sciences have increasingly applied the concept of natural selection to their explanations of human individual and social behaviors. A major impetus was the writings of twentieth-century evolutionary biologists and sociobiologists such as George Williams, Robert Trivers, Edward O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins. The 1980s and 1990s saw many social scientists, particularly psychologists, incorporating the theory of natural selection into accounts of human behavior. This effort has led to a new approach in psychology, called evolutionary psychology (EP).

NATURAL SELECTION APPLIED TO HUMAN BEHAVIOR

Unlike sociobiologists, who use natural selection to explain the behavior of social animals, evolutionary psychologists (EPs) focus primarily on how certain human behaviors may have evolved, how they are interrelated, and how or why they survive in the population. Whereas behavior geneticists are interested in how individual differences in human behavior can be explained by differences in genes, EPs are more interested in the evolved neural architecture that is shared by all humans, much of which may be outside of conscious awareness.

In 1992 anthropologist Jerome Barkow, psychologist Leda Cosmides, and anthropologist John Tooby edited The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. This book energized the EP field. It helped to popularize the idea that humans evolved distinct brain circuitry or information processing modules adapted to solve problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Researchers have proposed brain modules for speech and language, facial recognition, the recognition of emotional expressions, social reasoning, and many other aspects of information processing. A popular EP description of the brain is that it is analogous to a Swiss Army knife with its various specialized modules, a reflection of successful problem-solving adaptations during human evolutionary history.

EPs have applied the theory of natural selection to human behavior in several ways. These scientists argue that the majority of human cultural universals, including social traditions, laws, religions, and ethical positions arose out of the reproductive imperative to reproduce and leave behind as many offspring as possible. EPs argue that humans are neurologically predisposed to develop certain phobias (e.g., snakes, enclosed spaces, heights) that were presumably tied to the greatest dangers present in ancient ancestral environments, rather than developing fears toward the dangers of current technologically advanced society (e.g., guns, automobiles, electric sockets).

A good example of the EP application of selection is in the controversial area of gender differences. EPs have suggested that sexual selection (processes relating to how males and females compete for mates) has played an important role in human patterns of mate selection and jealousy. With regard to mate selection, these researchers argue that men have lower overall parental investment in offspring than women. If men are more interested in reproducing than in investing parental resources, then they will tend to find the reproductive potential of a prospective partner to be particularly attractive. Because they have greater parental investment, women will find a partners potential for providing resources and protection for offspring to be relatively more attractive. This analysis has been used to account for mens greater emphasis on their resources, such as occupation or income, and womens greater emphasis on factors related to their ability to reproduce, such as their age or appearance, when trying to attract a prospective mate.

With regard to jealousy, EPs argue that whereas women are always sure they are the mothers of their offspring (due to internal gestation), men can have doubts about fathering offspring. The implication of such differences in parental certainty is that males are more likely to take steps to make sure their investment of resources is legitimate. Thus, they will be more concerned with possible sexual rivals and place a high value on the chastity of a prospective mate. Male parental uncertainty predicts that men will attempt to coercively control female reproductive capacity by showing vigilance, mate concealment, violence, derogation of competitors, and threats to others.

CRITIQUES OF NATURAL SELECTION IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR

There are many criticisms of the application of the theory of natural selection to human behavior. One of the main criticisms is that EP is overly deterministic in its focus on biological or genetic destiny. Much human social, group, and cultural behavior is thought to have emergent properties that cannot be traced back to the evolved structure of individual brains. Thus, culture and socialization may be better explanations for gender differences than natural selection.

Critics argue that natural selection did not necessarily create human brain specialization for any adaptive purpose. Many aspects of modern human behavior can be described as non-adaptive side consequences of natural selection. Critics of the EP approach also argue that empirical evidence is not only lacking but is often impossible to obtain for many of its claims. Because researchers cannot recreate the evolutionary forces that affected ancient human ancestors (what EPs call the environment of evolutionary adaptation), these claims become nothing more than just-so stories telling us that people are this way because they are this way.

Another area of controversy concerns the rate and extent of natural selection when applied to humans. Several lines of research suggest that natural selection in humans can occur quite rapidly. For example, researchers have identified increases in recent gene variants related to brain development and size, resistance to HIV infection in parts of Africa, lactose tolerance (i.e., the ability for humans to digest milk sugars), intelligence increases among certain ethnic groups (such as Ashkenazi Jews), and salt retention and hypertension among African slave descendants. In these cases advocates of rapid selection propose a relatively recent appearance of genetic changes or rapid proliferation of those changes throughout the human population. However, the possibility of rapid selection has been questioned by epidemiologists and evolutionary biologists. Critics argue that in many cases the relevant genetic mechanisms or variants that can account for such rapid evolutionary changes have not been identified. Rather, environmental, cultural, or more complicated biocultural influences may account for the observed changes.

Some social scientists argue that natural selection has decreased in importance for humans. Rapid cultural, medical, and technological changes are thought to be more strongly linked to contemporary human survival and reproduction than genetic factors. For example, improvements in public health mean that newborns are much more likely to survive to reproductive age today than they were 500 years ago. Such improvements are thought to neutralize the process by which less adaptive genes are removed from the population. In addition, successful scientific efforts to manipulate the human genome are likely to replace or compete with natural or sexual selection pressures in the future.

The application of the theory of natural selection to the social sciences has made great strides since the 1980s. A good deal of social, political, and scientific controversy and criticism has accompanied social scientists efforts. Establishing whether and to what extent natural selection applies to human behavior is an ongoing and difficult process. Whether the criticisms will hold up or merely reflect the growing pains of a new discipline remains to be seen.

SEE ALSO Darwin, Charles; Darwinism, Social; Determinism; Determinism, Biological; Durkheim, Émile; Enlightenment; Evolutionary Psychology; Functionalism; Hypertension; Nature vs. Nurture; Popper, Karl; Racism; Slavery; Sociobiology; Teleology; Weber, Max

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barkow, Jerome H., Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds. 1992. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. 1997. Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer. Center for Evolutionary Psychology. http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html.

Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray.

Rose, Hilary, and Steven Rose, eds. 2000. Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Harmony Books.

Wilson, Edward O. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf.

Thomas M. Brinthaupt

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Natural Selection

Natural Selection

Natural selection is the process by which individuals with characteristics that are advantageous for reproduction in a specific environment leave more offspring in the next generation, thereby increasing the proportion of their genes in the population gene pool over time. Natural selection is the principal mechanism of evolutionary change, and is the most important idea in all biology. Natural selection, the unifying concept of life, was first proposed by Charles Darwin, and represents his single greatest contribution to science.

Natural selection occurs in any reproducing population faced with a changing or variable environment. The environment includes not only physical factors such as climate or terrain, but also living factors such as predators, prey, and other members of a population.

Mechanism of Natural Selection

The mechanism of natural selection depends on several phenomena:

  • Heredity: Offspring inherit their traits from their parents, in the form of genes.
  • Heritable individual variation: Members of a population have slight differences among them, whether in height, eyesight acuity, beak shape, rate of egg production, or other traits that may affect survival and reproduction. If a trait has a genetic basis, it can be passed on to offspring.
  • Overproduction of offspring: In any given generation, populations tend to create more progeny than can survive to reproductive age.
  • Competition for resources: Because of excess population, individuals must compete for food, nesting sites, mates, or other resources that affect their ability to successfully reproduce.

Given all these factors, natural selection unavoidably occurs. Those members of a population that reproduce the most will, by definition, leave more offspring for the next generation. These offspring inherit their parents' traits, and are therefore also likely to succeed in competition for resources (assuming the environment continues to pose the same challenges as those faced by parents). Over several generations, the proportion of offspring in a population that are descended from the successful ancestor increases, and traits that made the ancestor successful therefore also increase in frequency. Natural selection leads to adaptation, in which an organism's traits conform to the environment's conditions for existence.

Consequences of Natural Selection

Natural selection is truly the ultimate inventor. A short list of some of its many "inventions" includes flight, celestial navigation, echolocation, insulation, infrared sensors, hypodermic needles, plus all sorts of useful biologically active chemicals such as antibiotics, analgesics, emetics, diuretics, laxatives, tranquilizers, contraceptives, hallucinogens, pain killers, and many, many more. Each of these has been fashioned by natural selection to meet the needs of particular organisms in specific environments.

Pesticide-resistant insects and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are well-documented examples of natural selection in action. In each case, humans have provided the environmental challenge in the form of poisons acting on the population. Preexisting variations in susceptibility to the poison mean that some organisms survive while others die without reproducing. Offspring of survivors have the same variation, and the most resistant of those survive best to reproduce. Over time, populations of resistant insects or bacteria are formed. (This is why taking the full prescription of an antibiotic is important; it kills the entire microbe population, preventing any from reproducing.)

Misconceptions About Natural Selection

Natural selection is easy to understand, but it is misunderstood much too often. Natural selection is not synonymous with evolution. Evolution refers to any genetic change in a population, whereas natural selection specifies one particular way in which such changes are brought about. Natural selection is the most important agent of evolutionary change simply because it results in adaptation of an organism to its environment. Other possible mechanisms of evolution besides natural selection include gene flow, meiotic drive, and genetic drift.

A persistent misconception is that natural selection occurs mainly through differences between organisms in death rates, or differential mortality. Differential mortality can be selective but only to the degree that it creates differences between individuals in the number of reproductive offspring they produce. Reproductive rate, rather than death rate, drives natural selection. A cautious tomcat that seldom crosses busy streets might live to a ripe old age without leaving behind as many descendent kittens as another less staid tomcat killed on a highway at a much younger age. If the short-lived cat leaves more descendants, its genes will spread faster than those of the long-lived cat, and natural selection will favor a short life span. Unless living longer allows or results in higher reproductive success, long life is not favored by natural selection.

Adaptations fashioned by natural selection suit an organism to its particular environment. For instance, a maple tree's broad leaves are well adapted to temperate climates, but unsuited to arctic cold. Similarly, a human's ability to store fat is an adaptation to environments in which fat is scarce, but is poorly suited to the modern fast-food environment. In this respect, natural selection is somewhat shortsighted, since it cannot "see" beyond the next generation.

Natural selection cannot preferentially create favorable variations, but instead must work with what is at hand. For instance, treatment with antibiotics does not create antibiotic-resistant mutants. Instead, it favors microbes that, by chance, already have genes for resistance.

Phrases such as "the struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest" have had an unfortunate consequence. They tend to emphasize predation and fighting for food as the prevalent means of selection. This reinforces erroneous emphasis on differential death rates, with the strongest and fastest individuals being considered as having a selective advantage over weaker and slower individuals. But if this were true, every species would continually gain in strength and speed.

Because this is not happening, selection against increased strength and speed (counterselection) must be occurring and must limit the process. Animals can sometimes be too aggressive for their own good; an extremely aggressive individual may spend so much time and energy chasing its prey that it spends less than average time and energy on mating and reproduction, and as a result, leaves fewer offspring than average. Likewise, an individual could be too submissive and spend too much time and energy running away from others. Usually, intermediate levels of aggressiveness result in the highest fitness.

Natural selection does not operate "for the benefit of the species." Birds lay fewer eggs during drought years. Is this because competition for limited food supplies would be detrimental to the species, and do birds hold back "for the good of their species"? Such arguments have a fatal flaw: "cheaters" that laid as many eggs as possible would reap a higher reproductive success than individuals that voluntarily decreased their clutch size. Over time, cheater genes would spread through a population, and genes for holding-back would become rare.

However, the same phenomenon can be interpreted more plausibly in terms of natural selection at the level of individuals. During droughts, parental birds cannot bring as many insects to their nest and therefore cannot feed and fledge as many chicks as they can when food supplies are more ample. Laying extra eggs means most chicks would die of starvation. Birds can actually leave more surviving offspring to breed in the next generation by laying fewer eggs.

Any individual that sacrifices its own reproductive success for the benefit of a group is at a selective disadvantage within that group to any other individual not making such a sacrifice. Classical selection will always favor individuals that maximize their own selfish reproductive success. Natural selection recognizes only one currency: babies. Although we might wish otherwise, beauty, brains, or brawn need not be favored unless such traits are translated into more offspring than average. If ugly, dumb, weak individuals pass on more genes, those traits will prevail in future generations.

Whenever one organism leaves more successful offspring than others, in time its genes will come to dominate the population gene pool. Ultimately, natural selection operates only by differential reproductive success. An individual's ability to perpetuate itself as measured by its reproductive success is known as its Darwinian fitness.

see also Adaptation; Convergent Evolution; Evolution; Population Genetics; Sexual Selection

Eric R. Pianka

Bibliography

Pianka, Eric R. Evolutionary Ecology, 6th ed. San Francisco, CA: Addison-Wesley-Longman, 2000.

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Natural Selection

Natural Selection

Natural selection is the differential survival and reproduction of individuals with particular phenotypes , the physical manifestation of genotypes . Natural selection works only on the phenotypes of individuals. Natural selection produces adaptation when the phenotype is heritable. Natural selection is the most important cause of biological evolution.

Charles Darwin was the creator of the concept of evolution by natural selection. In his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, the most important book on evolution, Darwin put forth his argument and supported it with multiple examples. Darwin's idea of natural selection was heavily influenced by an essay on human population growth written in 1798 by English economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus pointed out that every organism has the ability to produce more individuals than the environment can support, and that many individuals die without reproducing. Darwin recognized that variation among individuals is always present, and that some individuals with particular combinations of traits are more likely to survive than other individuals with different combinations of traits. With so much variation, and more individuals being produced than can survive, the individuals with the combination of traits that are best suited to their environment will survive better and reproduce more than other individuals. This is natural selection as Darwin described it.

Darwin also identified artificial selection, which works in the same way as natural selection except that humans are the selective force rather than the environment. Artificial selection, for example, has produced domesticated animals. One of the best illustrations of artificial selection is the breeding of dogs, as humans selectively bred dogs to have specific characteristics. Beagles were bred to bark as they chased after foxes. Labrador retrievers were bred to swim and to carry game birds that had been shot down over water back to shore. Other characteristics selected for included body size, color, hair length, and personality. Dogs are all the same species, but there are clearly huge amounts of variation among breeds.

Darwin also identified a third type of selection, sexual selection . Sexual selection is the differential ability of individuals to win mates and reproduce. Most animal species have sexual dimorphism, that is, the different sexes have different traits. Sexual dimorphism results from sexual selection. Bird songs, elaborate coloration, and the other characteristics that help males attract mates are sexually selected traits. For example, male guppies have bright spots of pigmentation that attract females. Males that are more brightly colored mate with more females.

There are three forms of selection: directional, stabilizing, and diversifying. Directional selection changes the average value of a trait in some populations . For example, female guppies that prefer to mate with male guppies that have more orange spots will increase the average number of orange spots on males in the next generation. Stabilizing selection reduces variation in a population by selecting against the extreme individuals. In a similar example, females liked males that had only five spots of orange, but disliked males with more or less than five spots. Diversifying selection increases the variation in a population by favoring the extreme individuals, for example males with lots of orange spots or with no orange spots, and disfavoring males with average amounts of orange spots.

see also Adaptation; Biological Evolution; Darwin, Charles.

Laura A. Higgins

Bibliography

Andersson, Malte. Sexual Selection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Campbell, Neil A., Jane B. Reece, and Lawrence G. Mitchell. Biology, 5th ed. Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1999.

Endler, John A. Natural Selection in the Wild. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Futuyma, Douglas J. Evolutionary Biology, 3rd ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc., 1998.

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natural selection

natural selection The process that, according to Darwinism, brings about the evolution of new species of animals and plants. Darwin noted that the size of any population tends to remain constant despite the fact that more offspring are produced than are needed to maintain it. He also saw that variations existed between individuals of the population and concluded that disease, competition, and other forces acting on the population eliminated those individuals less well adapted to their environment. The survivors would pass on any heritable advantageous characteristics (i.e. characteristics with survival value) to their offspring and in time the composition of the population would change in adaptation to a changing environment. Over a long period of time this process could give rise to organisms so different from the original population that new species are formed. See also adaptive radiation. Compare punctuated equilibrium.

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natural selection

natural selection In evolution, theory that advantageous change in an organism tends to be passed on to successive generations. Changes arise out of natural genetic variation, especially mutation. Those that give an individual organism a greater capacity for survival and reproduction in a particular environment help it to produce more offspring bearing the same beneficial characteristic or trait. Thus white rabbits will survive better than brown ones in a wintry environment. This theory was proposed by English naturalist Charles Darwin in his book The Origin of Species (1859). It is still regarded as the key mechanism of evolution. When humans breed plants and animals to perpetuate desired traits, this is called artificial selection.

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natural selection

nat·u·ral se·lec·tion • n. Biol. the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. The theory of its action was first fully expounded by Charles Darwin and is now believed to be the main process that brings about evolution. Compare with survival of the fittest (see survival).

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natural selection

natural selection(‘survival of the fittest’) A complex process in which the total environment determines which members of a species survive to reproduce and so pass on their genes to the next generation. This need not involve a struggle between organisms. Natural selection is not necessarily the only mechanism for evolution (see neutrality theory of evolution).

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natural selection

natural selection (‘survival of the fittest’) A complex process in which the total environment determines which members of a species survive to reproduce and so pass on their genes to the next generation. This need not necessarily involve a struggle between organisms.

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natural selection

natural selection (‘survival of the fittest’) A complex process in which the total environment determines which members of a species survive to reproduce and so pass on their genes to the next generation. This need not necessarily involve a struggle between organisms.

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natural selection

natural selection (‘survival of the fittest’) Complex process in which the total environment determines which members of a species survive to reproduce and so pass on their genes to the next generation. This need not necessarily involve a struggle between organisms.

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Natural Selection

Natural Selection

See Evolution, Biological; Selection. Levels of

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natural selection

natural selection: see selection.

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natural selection

natural selection See DARWINISM.

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