Natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin and generally accepted by the scientific community as the best explanation of speciation as evidenced in the fossil record. The basic concept is that environmental conditions (or "nature") determine (or "select") how well particular traits of organisms can serve the survival and reproduction of the organism; organisms lacking these traits might die before reproducing, or be less fecund. As long as environmental conditions remain the same, or similar enough that these traits continue to be adaptive, such traits will become more common within populations.
The theory starts from the premise that an organism's traits vary in a nondeterministic way from parent to offspring, a process called "individuation" by Darwin. The theory of natural selection does not make any specific claims as to how this process works, although more recent scientific discoveries in genetics explain several mechanisms that occur in the process of reproduction: in the case of both asexual and sexual reproduction, random mutation (including DNA transcription errors); in the case of sexual reproduction (which mixes the DNA of two parents into an offspring), gene flow and genetic drift are also important mechanisms.
If a particular variation makes the offspring which manifest it better suited to survival or to successful reproduction, that offspring and its descendents will be more likely to survive than those offspring without the variation. The original traits, as well as any maladaptive variations, will disappear as the offspring who carry them are replaced by their more successful relatives.
Therefore, certain traits are preserved due to the selective advantage they provide to their holders, allowing the individual to leave more offspring than individuals without the trait(s). Eventually, through many iterations of this process, organisms will develop more and more complex adaptive traits.
What makes one trait more likely to succeed is highly dependent on environmental factors, including the species' predators, food sources, physical environment, and so on. When members of a species become separated, such as geographically, they face different environments, and tend to develop in different directions. After a long period of time, their traits will have developed along different paths to such an extent that they can no longer interbreed, at which point they are considered separate species. This is why a species will sometimes separate into multiple species, rather than simply being replaced by a newer form of the species (from this fact Darwin suggested that all species today have evolved from a common ancestor).
Additionally, some scientists have theorized that an adapation which serves to make the organism more adaptable in the future will also tend to supplant its competitors even though it provides no specific advantage in the near term. Descendants of that organism will be more varied and therefore more resistant to extinction due to environmental catastrophes and extinction events. This has been proposed as one reason for the rise of mammals.
Natural selection can be expressed as the following general algorithm:
Natural selection can be expressed as the following general algorithm (taken from the conclusion of The Origin of Species):
- IF there are organisms that reproduce, and
- IF offspring inherit traits from their progenitor(s), and
- IF there is variability of traits, and
- IF the environment cannot support all members of a growing population,
- THEN those members of the population with less-adaptive traits (determined by the environment) will die out, and
- THEN those members with more-adaptive traits (determined by the environment) will thrive
The result is the evolution of species.
Note that this is a continuing process -- it accounts for how species change, and can account for both the extinction of one species and the creation of a new one.
Note also that the above algorithm need not apply solely to biological organisms; it applies to all organisms that reproduce in a way that involves both inheritance and variation. Thus, a form of natural selection could occur in the non-biological realm (see, for example, Genetic programming). Note also that this formulation does not rule out selection occurring at all biological levels (e.g. gene, organism, group). Finally, note that the particular process of introducing new traits does not matter. Darwin first outlined his theory in two unpublished manuscripts written in 1842 and 1844 and more fully developed it for publication in The Origin of Species, especially Chapter 4.
Darwin ends his book with an often quoted passage: "There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into on; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." Perhaps the most radical claim of Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection is that "elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner" have evolved out of the simplest forms of life and according to a few simple principles. It is this fundamental claim that has inspired some of Darwin's most ardent supporters--and that has provoked the most profound opposition. Some groups prefer to believe in divine intervention or guidance of the process, such as those favoring the Intelligent design school of thought.