Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

19: The Evolution of Populations

Natural selection is one of the most dominant evolutionary forces. Natural selection acts to promote traits and behaviors that increase an organism’s chances of survival and reproduction, while eliminating those traits and behaviors that are to the organism’s detriment. But natural selection can only, as its name implies, select—it cannot create. The introduction of novel traits and behaviors falls on the shoulders of another evolutionary force—mutation. Mutation and other sources of variation among individuals, as well as the evolutionary forces that act upon them, alter populations and species. This combination of processes has led to the world of life we see today.

  • 19.0: Introduction
    All life on Earth is related. Evolutionary theory states that humans, beetles, plants, and bacteria all share a common ancestor, but that millions of years of evolution have shaped each of these organisms into the forms seen today. Scientists consider evolution a key concept to understanding life. Natural selection is one of the most dominant evolutionary forces.
  • 19.1: Population Evolution
    Initially, the newly discovered particulate nature of genes made it difficult for biologists to understand how gradual evolution could occur. But over the next few decades genetics and evolution were integrated in what became known as the modern synthesis—the coherent understanding of the relationship between natural selection and genetics that took shape by the 1940s and is generally accepted today.
  • 19.2: Population Genetics
    Individuals of a population often display different phenotypes, or express different alleles of a particular gene, referred to as polymorphisms. Populations with two or more variations of particular characteristics are called polymorphic. The distribution of phenotypes among individuals, known as the population variation, is influenced by a number of factors, including the population’s genetic structure and the environment.
  • 19.3: Adaptive Evolution
    Fitness is often quantifiable and is measured by scientists in the field. However, it is not the absolute fitness of an individual that counts, but rather how it compares to the other organisms in the population. This concept, called relative fitness, allows researchers to determine which individuals are contributing additional offspring to the next generation, and thus, how the population might evolve.
  • 19.E: The Evolution of Populations (Exercises)


  • Connie Rye (East Mississippi Community College), Robert Wise (University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh), Vladimir Jurukovski (Suffolk County Community College), Jean DeSaix (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Jung Choi (Georgia Institute of Technology), Yael Avissar (Rhode Island College) among other contributing authors. The OpenStax College name, OpenStax College logo, OpenStax College book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the creative commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University. For questions regarding this license, please contact Download for free at