We have seen that reproductive processes give rise to new individuals that are similar, but subtly different. We have discussed how some amount of variation is produced even during asexual reproduction. And the number of successful variations are maximised by the process of sexual reproduction. If we observe a field of sugarcane we find very little variations among the individual plants. But in a number of animals including human beings, which reproduce sexually, quite distinct variations are visible among different individuals. In this chapter, we shall be studying the mechanism by which variations are created and inherited. The long-term consequences of the accumulation of variations are also an interesting point to be considered. We shall be studying this under evolution.
Inheritance from the previous generation provides both a common basic body design, and subtle changes in it, for the next generation. Now think about what would happen when this new generation, in its turn, reproduces. The second generation will have differences that they inherit from the first generation, as well as newly created differences (Fig. 9.1).
The most obvious outcome of the reproductive process still remains the generation of individuals of similar design. The rules of heredity determine the process by which traits and characteristics are reliably inherited. Let us take a closer look at these rules.
We have noted that there is an inbuilt tendency to variation during reproduction, both because of errors in DNA copying, and as a result of sexual reproduction. Let us now look at some consequences of this tendency.
What we have seen so far is micro-evolution. That means that the changes are small, even though they are significant. Also, they simply change the common characteristics of a particular species. But this does not properly explain how new species come into existence. That can be said to have happened only if this group of beetles we are thinking about, splits into two populations that cannot reproduce with each other. When this happens, they can be called two independent species. So, can we extend the reasoning we have used above to explain such speciation?
Based on these principles, we can work out the evolutionary relationships of the species we see around us. It is a sort of going backwards in time. We can do this by identifying hierarchies of characteristics between species. In order to understand this process, let us think back to our discussion on the classification of organisms in Class IX.
In an exercise of tracing the family trees of species, we need to remember certain things. Firstly, there are multiple branches possible at each and every stage of this process. So it is not as if one species is eliminated to give rise to a new one. A new species has emerged. But that does not necessarily mean, like the beetle example we have been thinking about, that the old species will disappear. It will all depend on the environment. Also, it is not as if the newly generated species are in any way ‘better’ than the older one. It is just that natural selection and genetic drift have together led to the formation of a population that cannot reproduce with the original one. So, for example, it is not true that human beings have evolved from chimpanzees. Rather, both human beings and chimpanzees have a common ancestor a long time ago. That common ancestor is likely to have been neither human or chimpanzee. Also, the first step of separation from that ancestor is unlikely to have resulted in modern chimpanzees and human beings. Instead, the two resultant species have probably evolved in their own separate ways to give rise to the current forms.