The modern synthesis of evolutionary theory grew out of the cohesion of Darwin’s, Wallace’s, and Mendel’s thoughts on evolution and heredity, along with the more modern study of population genetics. It describes the evolution of populations and species, from small-scale changes among individuals to large-scale changes over paleontological time periods. To understand how organisms evolve, scientists can track populations’ allele frequencies over time. If they differ from generation to generation, scientists can conclude that the population is not in Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium, and is thus evolving.
Both genetic and environmental factors can cause phenotypic variation in a population. Different alleles can confer different phenotypes, and different environments can also cause individuals to look or act differently. Only those differences encoded in an individual’s genes, however, can be passed to its offspring and, thus, be a target of natural selection. Natural selection works by selecting for alleles that confer beneficial traits or behaviors, while selecting against those for deleterious qualities. Genetic drift stems from the chance occurrence that some individuals in the germ line have more offspring than others. When individuals leave or join the population, allele frequencies can change as a result of gene flow. Mutations to an individual’s DNA may introduce new variation into a population. Allele frequencies can also be altered when individuals do not randomly mate with others in the group.
Because natural selection acts to increase the frequency of beneficial alleles and traits while decreasing the frequency of deleterious qualities, it is adaptive evolution. Natural selection acts at the level of the individual, selecting for those that have a higher overall fitness compared to the rest of the population. If the fit phenotypes are those that are similar, natural selection will result in stabilizing selection, and an overall decrease in the population’s variation. Directional selection works to shift a population’s variance toward a new, fit phenotype, as environmental conditions change. In contrast, diversifying selection results in increased genetic variance by selecting for two or more distinct phenotypes.
Other types of selection include frequency-dependent selection, in which individuals with either common (positive frequency-dependent selection) or rare (negative frequency-dependent selection) are selected for. Finally, sexual selection results from the fact that one sex has more variance in the reproductive success than the other. As a result, males and females experience different selective pressures, which can often lead to the evolution of phenotypic differences, or sexual dimorphisms, between the two.