Understanding Evolution

Misconceptions about natural selection

Because natural selection can produce amazing adaptations, it's tempting to think of it as an all-powerful force, urging organisms on, constantly pushing them in the direction of progress — but this is not what natural selection is like at all.

First, natural selection is not all-powerful; it does not produce perfection. If your genes are "good enough," you'll get some offspring into the next generation — you don't have to be perfect. This should be pretty clear just by looking at the populations around us: people may have genes for genetic diseases, plants may not have the genes to survive a drought, a predator may not be quite fast enough to catch her prey every time she is hungry. No population or organism is perfectly adapted.

Second, it's more accurate to think of natural selection as a process rather than as a guiding hand. Natural selection is the simple result of variation, differential reproduction, and heredity — it is mindless and mechanistic. It has no goals; it's not striving to produce "progress" or a balanced ecosystem.

Formula for natural selection

Evolution does not work this way
Evolution does not work this way.

This is why "need," "try," and "want" are not very accurate words when it comes to explaining evolution. The population or individual does not "want" or "try" to evolve, and natural selection cannot try to supply what an organism "needs." Natural selection just selects among whatever variations exist in the population. The result is evolution.

At the opposite end of the scale, natural selection is sometimes interpreted as a random process. This is also a misconception. The genetic variation that occurs in a population because of mutation is random — but selection acts on that variation in a very non-random way: genetic variants that aid survival and reproduction are much more likely to become common than variants that don't. Natural selection is NOT random!


View this article online at:

Understanding Evolution © 2018 by The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California