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Evolutionary biology

Related subjects: Biology

Background Information

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Evolutionary biology is a sub-field of biology concerned with the origin of species from a common descent, and descent of species; as well as their change, multiplication, and diversity over time. Someone who studies evolutionary biology is known as an evolutionary biologist.


Evolutionary biology is an interdisciplinary field because it includes scientists from a wide range of both field and lab oriented disciplines. For example, it generally includes scientists who may have a specialist training in particular organisms such as mammalogy, ornithology, or herpetology, but use those organisms as case studies to answer general questions in evolution. It also generally includes paleontologists and geologists who use fossils to answer questions about the tempo and mode of evolution, as well as theoreticians in areas such as population genetics and evolutionary psychology. Experimentalists have used selection in Drosophila to develop an understanding of the evolution of ageing.

In the 1990s developmental biology made a re-entry into evolutionary biology from its initial exclusion from the modern synthesis through the study of evolutionary developmental biology.

Its findings feed strongly into new disciplines that study mankind's sociocultural evolution and evolutionary behaviour. Evolutionary biology's frameworks of ideas and conceptual tools are now finding application in the study of a range of subjects from computing to nanotechnology.

Artificial life is a sub-field of bioinformatics that attempts to model, or even recreate, the evolution of organisms as described by evolutionary biology. Usually this is done through mathematics and computer models.


Evolutionary biology as an academic discipline in its own right emerged as a result of the modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s, however, that a significant number of universities had departments that specifically included the term evolutionary biology in their titles. In the United States, as a result of the rapid growth of molecular and cell biology, many universities have split (or aggregated) their biology departments into molecular and cell biology-style departments and ecology and evolutionary biology-style departments (which often have subsumed older departments in paleontology, zoology and the like).

Microbiology has recently developed into an evolutionary discipline. It was originally ignored due to the paucity of morphological traits and the lack of a species concept in microbiology. Now, evolutionary researchers are taking advantage of our extensive understanding of microbial physiology, the ease of microbial genomics, and the quick generation time of some microbes to answer evolutionary questions. Similar features have led to progress in viral evolution, particularly for bacteriophage.

Notable evolutionary biologists

Notable contributors to evolutionary biology include:

  • Charles Darwin
  • Richard D. Alexander
  • William H. Cade
  • Bryan Clarke
  • James Crow
  • Jared Diamond
  • Theodosius Dobzhansky
  • Niles Eldredge
  • R.A. Fisher
  • Edmund Brisco Ford
  • J.B.S. Haldane
  • Ernst Haeckel
  • W.D. "Bill" Hamilton
  • Julian Huxley
  • Daniel Janzen
  • Motoo Kimura
  • Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
  • Richard Levins
  • Richard Lewontin
  • Gustave Malécot
  • Pierre Louis Maupertuis
  • Ernst Mayr
  • John Maynard Smith
  • George and Elizabeth Peckham
  • Robert Trivers
  • Alfred Russel Wallace
  • August Weismann
  • George C. Williams
  • Allan Wilson
  • Edward Osborne Wilson
  • Sewall Wright
  • Carl Woese

Evolutionary biologists known primarily for their science popularization:

Notable popularizers of evolution whose research isn't primarily concerned with evolutionary biology include:

  • Daniel Dennett
  • Greg Graffin
  • Steven Pinker
  • Matt Ridley
  • Carl Sagan
  • Peter Atkins
  • Robert Ardrey

Topics in evolutionary biology

  • Foster's rule
  • Muller's ratchet
  • Mutational meltdown
  • Fitness landscape
  • List of other evolutionary biology topics
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