1. Fossil evidence indicates that evolution has occurred.
At its core, the case for evolution is built upon two pillars: first, evidence that natural selection can produce evolutionary change and, second, evidence from the fossil record that evolution has occurred. In addition, information from many different areas of biologyincluding fields as different as embryology, anatomy, molecular biology, and biogeography (the study of the geographic distribution of species)can only be interpreted sensibly as the outcome of evolution.
The Fossil Record
The most direct evidence that evolution has occurred is found in the fossil record. Today we have a far more complete understanding of this record than was available in Darwin’s time. Fossils are the preserved remains of once-living organisms. Fossils are created when three events occur. First, the organism must become buried in sediment; then, the calcium in bone or other hard tissue must mineralize; and, finally, the surrounding sediment must eventually harden to form rock. The process of fossilization probably occurs rarely. Usually, animal or plant remains will decay or be scavenged before the process can begin. In addition, many fossils occur in rocks that are inaccessible to scientists. When they do become available, they are often destroyed by erosion and other natural processes before they can be collected. As a result, only a fraction of the species that have ever existed (estimated by some to be as many as 500 million) are known from fossils. Nonetheless, the fossils that have been discovered are sufficient to provide detailed information on the course of evolution through time.
By dating the rocks in which fossils occur, we can get an accurate idea of how old the fossils are. In Darwin’s day, rocks were dated by their position with respect to one another (relative dating); rocks in deeper strata are generally older. Knowing the relative positions of sedimentary rocks and the rates of erosion of different kinds of sedimentary rocks in different environments, geologists of the nineteenth century derived a fairly accurate idea of the relative ages of rocks.
Today, rocks are dated by measuring the degree of decay of certain radioisotopes contained in the rock (absolute dating); the older the rock, the more its isotopes have decayed. Because radioactive isotopes decay at a constant rate unaltered by temperature or pressure, the isotopes in a rock act as an internal clock, measuring the time since the rock was formed. This is a more accurate way of dating rocks and provides dates stated in millions of years, rather than relative dates.
A History of Evolutionary Change
When fossils are arrayed according to their age, from oldest to youngest, they often provide evidence of successive evolutionary change. At the largest scale, the fossil record documents the progression of life through time, from the origin of eukaryotic organisms, through the evolution of fishes, the rise of land-living organisms, the reign of the dinosaurs, and on to the origin of humans.