How Does Natural Selection Work?

Part of the Darwin exhibition.

Natural selection is a mechanism by which populations adapt and evolve.

In its essence, it is a simple statement about rates of reproduction and mortality: Those individual organisms who happen to be best suited to an environment survive and reproduce most successfully, producing many similarly well-adapted descendants. After numerous such breeding cycles, the better-adapted dominate. Nature has filtered out poorly suited individuals and the population has evolved.


Natural selection is a simple mechanism that causes populations of living things to change over time. In fact, it is so simple that it can be broken down into five basic steps, abbreviated here as VISTA: Variation, Inheritance, Selection, Time and Adaptation.

Variation and Inheritance

DNA replicating

Members of any given species are seldom exactly the same, either inside or outside. Organisms can vary in size, coloration, ability to fight off diseases, and countless other traits. Such variation is often the result of random mutations, or "copying errors," that arise when cells divide as new organisms develop.

When organisms reproduce, they pass on their DNA--the set of instructions encoded in living cells for building bodies--to their offspring. And since many traits are encoded in DNA, offspring often inherit the variations of their parents. Tall people, for example, tend to have tall children.

Selection: Survival and Reproduction

Sexual selection in beetles
©Clyde Peeling's Reptiland

Environments cannot support unlimited populations. Because resources are limited, more organisms are born than can survive: some individuals will be more successful at finding food, mating or avoiding predators and will have a better chance to thrive, reproduce, and pass on, their DNA. Small variations can influence whether or not an individual lives and reproduces. Differences in color, for instance, aid some individuals in camouflaging themselves from predators. Sharper eyes and claws help an eagle catch its dinner. And brighter coloration improves a male peacock's chances of attracting a mate.

Time and Adaptation

In generation after generation, advantageous traits help some individuals survive and reproduce. And these traits are passed on to greater and greater numbers of offspring. After just a few generations or after thousands, depending on the circumstances, such traits become common in the population. The result is a population that is better suited--better adapted--to some aspect of the environment than it was before. Legs once used for walking are modified for use as wings or flippers. Scales used for protection change colors to serve as camouflage.