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In the Light of Evolution, Volume I: Adaptation and Complex Design
one in a million, the probability of one bacterium carrying three mutations, each conferring resistance to one of three antibiotics, is one in a quintillion (one in a million million million). Even at the peak of infection, when billions or trillions of bacteria exist in a sick person, it is not likely, if not altogether impossible, that any bacteria resistant to all three antibiotics will occur in any infected individual.
Natural selection is much more than a “purifying” process, for it is able to generate novelty by increasing the probability of otherwise extremely improbable genetic combinations. Natural selection in combination with mutation becomes, in this respect, a creative process. Moreover, it is a process that has been occurring for many millions of years in many different evolutionary lineages and a multitude of species, each consisting of a large number of individuals. Evolution by mutation and natural selection has produced the enormous diversity of the living world with its wondrous adaptations.
Several hundred million generations separate modern animals from the early animals of the Cambrian geological period (542 million years ago). The number of mutations that can be tested, and those eventually selected, in millions of individual animals over millions of generations is difficult for a human mind to fathom, but we can readily understand that the accumulation of millions of small, functionally advantageous changes could yield remarkably complex and adaptive organs, such as the eye.
Natural selection is an incremental process, operating over time and yielding organisms better able to survive and reproduce than others. Individuals of a given species differ from one another at any one time only in small ways; for example, the difference between bacteria that have or lack an enzyme able to synthesize the sugar lactose or between moths that have light or dark wings. These differences typically involve one or only a few genes, but they can make the difference between survival or death, as in the resistance to DDT or to antibiotics. Consider a different sort of example. Some pocket mice (Chaetodipus intermedius) live in rocky outcrops in Arizona. Light, sandy-colored mice are found in light-colored habitats, whereas dark (melanic) mice prevail in dark rocks formed from ancient flows of basaltic lava. The match between background and fur color protects the mice from avian and mammal predators that hunt guided largely by vision. Mutations in one single gene (coding for the melanocortin-1-receptor, represented as MC1R) account for the difference between light and dark pelage (Nachman et al., 2003).
Adaptations that involve complex structures, functions, or behaviors involve numerous genes. Many familiar mammals, but not marsupials, have a placenta. Marsupials include the familiar kangaroo and other mammals native primarily to Australia and South America. Dogs, cats, mice, donkeys, and primates are placental. The placenta makes it pos-