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Cheat Sheet

Evolution For Dummies

Whether you're talking about evolution — or any other element of science — you should understand the process of scientific investigation, which proves or disproves a scientific theory. Take a look at a chart of our hominid ancestors as discovered through fossil records, and learn some key terms to grasp the course of evolution.

The Scientific Process in Brief

Before scientists can identify something as theory, they have to gain overwhelming evidence through scientific investigation. And any good theory is only one good experiment away from being rejected. That is, scientists must be able to imagine some set of results that would cause them to reject, or falsify, the theory; then they must see that over and over again. The factor that makes a science a science is the adherence to the scientific process:

  1. Make observations about the natural world.

  2. Formulate a hypothesis.

    The hypothesis serves as the scientist's starting point; maybe it's right, and maybe it's wrong. They key is to do enough testing to find out.

  3. Gather additional data to test this hypothesis.

    As your data accumulates, it either supports your hypothesis, or it forces you to revise or abandon the hypothesis. Remember: The hypothesis scientists come up with must be falsifiable. That is, scientists must be able to imagine some set of results that would cause them to reject the theory, and then they must test those ideas out.

  4. Continue testing (if the data from Step 3 supports your hypothesis) or revise your hypothesis and test again.

    After an overwhelming amount of information accumulates in support of the hypothesis, you elevate the hypothesis to a theory.

  5. If, at anytime in the future, new data arises that causes you to revise or reject your theory, then you revise or reject it and start again at Step 1.

    Real scientists never ignore facts or observations in order to protect a hypothesis or theory, even one that they're particularly fond of.

Spanning Evolution: The Hominid Family Tree

Fossils for a large number of hominid species, including pre-human primates and human primates, have been found by paleontologists. As shown in this chart, various hominid species have been identified from fossil remains. Take a look these distant and not-so-distant relations:

Species* Where Found Lived (mya= million years ago) Interesting Characteristics
A. anamensis Kenya 4.2 to 3.9 mya Probably walked upright
A. afarensis Ethiopia, Kenya 3.6 to 2.9 mya Walked upright. Most famous member (to us anyway) is Lucy, the nearly complete fossil found in 1974
A. africanus South Africa 3 to 2 mya Teeth more human-like than ape-like, probably bipedal
A. aethiopicus Ethiopia 2.7 to 2.3 mya Considered a transitional species between A. afarensis and A. boisei
A. garhi Ethiopia 2.5 mya Possibly the earliest tool user
A. boisei Tanzania, Ethiopia 2.3 to 1.4 mya Formerly considered to be a direct human ancestor until H. habilis was discovered
A. robustus South Africa 1.8 to 1.5 mya May have used tools to dig up edible roots
H. rudolfensis Kenya, Tanzania 2.4 to 1.8 mya Bipedal with a large brain
H. habilis Kenya 2.3 to 1.6 mya "Handy man"; used tools, brain larger and more humanshaped, possibly capable of rudimentary speech
H. ergaster Eastern and South Africa 1.9 to 1.4 mya Made some nice tools, had smaller teeth
H. erectus Republic of Georgia, Kenya, China, Indonesia and Europe 1.9 to 0.3 mya (and possibly 50,000 years ago) Definitely used tools, probably discovered fire, andmay have lived at same time as modern humans
H. heielbergensis Africa, Europe 600,000 to 100,000 years ago Brain size equal to modern humans, found with tools sharp enough to slice through animal hides, almost certainly used fire
H. neanderthalensis Europe,Middle East 250,000 to 30,000 years ago Lived mostly in cold climates, shared the earth with H. sapiens, may have had a complex social system that care for the elderly and burial rituals
H. sapiens Worldwide 100,000 years ago to today Large brains (not always used) and ability to manipulate tools, situations, and the emotions of other H. sapiens

*Note: The A or H in the species' names is scientific shorthand. Instead of writing Australopithecus, for example, scientists simply write A. The term Australopithecus speaks to the origin of the fossil: southern Africa. H, of course, stands for Homo, which means man. Sapiens means wise, so the name Homo sapiens means wise man.

Understanding Evolution Terminology

Evolution is the process by which populations and species change over time and the principles of evolution explain why life on Earth is so diverse and why organisms are the way they are. You need to understand evolution because it is the key scientific principle in biology (the study of living things), so study these evolution fundamentals:

  • Adaptations: Changes resulting from natural selection.

  • Allele (plural alleles): The specific DNA sequence found at a given locus in an individual. A haploid individual has one allele at every locus while a diploid individual has two alleles at each locus (one on each set of chromosomes), which can be the same or different.

  • Artificial selection: The process of selection when people control which characters are favored—for example selectively breeding cows that make the most milk to produce the next generation of dairy cows.

  • Chromosome: The cellular structures that contain DNA. Humans, a diploid organism, have 23 pairs of chromosomes.

  • Diploid genome: The genome of an organism that has of two sets of chromosomes. In sexually reproducing organisms, diploid parents each contribute one set of chromosomes to offspring, producing a new diploid individual whose genome is a combination of some of the DNA from each parent. Examples of diploid organisms include mammals, birds, many plants, and so on.

  • DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): A long molecule made up of four different subunits (or nucleotides, which you can think of as a four-letter alphabet). The sequence of the four different nucleotides governs the specific details of traits. While almost all organisms have DNA as the genetic material, a few (some viruses) use a slightly different molecule (RNA, ribonucleic acid) but the process is otherwise the same.

  • DNA sequence: The exact arrangement of the four nucleotides in a specific individual. The sequence information can be for the entire genome or just some location of interest.

  • Evolution: A change in the percentage of inherited (heritable) traits in a group of organisms over time. For evolution, time is measured in generations, which is one of the reasons that bacteria evolve faster than elephants.

  • Evolutionary theory: The field of scientific investigation that works to understand what processes are responsible for the evolutionary changes we observe and what the consequences of those changes are.

  • Fitness: A measure of an organism's ability to contribute offspring to the next generation.

  • Gene: The classic unit of heredity that governs the traits that are passed from parent to offspring. The term predates an understanding of how the process of heredity actually works, which involves DNA. Therefore, in science articles, gene primarily serves as an easy-to-understand, if not exactly precise stand in for locus and allele, which more precisely identify the exact units of heredity.

  • Genetic drift: Random factors—volcanoes erupting, trees falling, or airplanes crashing, for example—that impact the gene frequency in subsequent populations.

  • Genome: The sum total of all of an organism's DNA.

  • Genotype: The specific combination of alleles that an individual organism has. Genotype does not map directly to phenotype (or physical traits) because of the effect of environmental factors.

  • Haploid genome: The genome of an organism with a single set of chromosomes. Examples of haploid organisms include bacteria and fungi which produce asexually (new individuals simply divide from existing ones). Note: Diploid individuals produce haploid gametes (sperm and egg).

  • Locus (plural loci ): A particular location in an organism's genome where the information for a particular trait resides. The eye color locus, for example, is the place in an individual organism's genome that has the DNA sequence controlling eye color.

  • Mutations: Changes in the DNA sequence caused by errors in DNA replication or such factors (like radiation) that can cause DNA damage.

  • Natural selection: The process of selection when the natural environment is the selective force.

  • Neutral evolution: Evolution as the result of genetic drift. When two different alleles are selectively neutral—that is, they don't differ in fitness—changes in their relative frequencies can only be caused by random events.

  • Phenotype: The physical traits that the organism has, including things like body structure, wing span, running speed, and so on. Phenotype is a product of both the genotype and the effects of the environment.

  • Selection: When a particular character is favored such that organisms that possess that character are more likely to contribute offspring to the next generation. If the character under selection is heritable, then the frequency of that character in future generations increases. Selection acts on phenotypes rather than genotypes.

  • Speciation: When a group of individuals in a species evolves differently from the rest of the species, leading to the accumulation of enough genetic differences to prevent the two groups from interbreeding.

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