Investigations of forest ecosystems have helped reveal the incredible diversity of earth's living things.

mice, and primates. All living things use the same biochemical system to pass genetic information from one generation to another.

From a scientific standpoint, there is one compelling answer to questions about life's commonalities. Different kinds of organisms share so many characteristics of structure and function because they are related to one another. But how?

Solving the Puzzle

The concept of biological evolution addresses both of these fundamental questions. It accounts for the relatedness among organisms by explaining that the millions of different species of plants, animals, and microorganisms that live on earth today are related by descent from common ancestors—like distant cousins. Organisms in nature typically produce more offspring than can survive and reproduce given the constraints of food, space, and other resources in the environment. These offspring often differ from one another in ways that are heritable—that is, they can pass on the differences genetically to their own offspring. If competing offspring have traits that are advantageous in a given environment, they will survive and pass on those traits. As differences continue to accumulate over generations, populations of organisms diverge from their ancestors.

This straightforward process, which is a natural consequence of biologically reproducing organisms competing for limited resources, is responsible for one of the most magnificent chronicles known to science. Over billions of years, it has led the earliest organisms on earth to diversify into all of the plants, animals, and microorganisms that exist today. Though humans, fish, and bacteria would seem to be so different as to defy comparison, they all share some of the characteristics of their common ancestors.

Evolution also explains the great diversity of modern species. Populations of organisms

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement