Natural selection is the gradual process by which biological traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of the effect of inherited traits on the differential reproductive success of organisms interacting with their environment. It is a key mechanism of evolution. The term "natural selection" was popularized by Charles Darwin who intended it to be compared with artificial selection, now more commonly referred to as selective breeding.
Variation exists within all populations of organisms. This occurs partly because random mutations occur in the genome of an individual organism, and these mutations can be passed to offspring. Throughout the individuals’ lives, their genomes interact with their environments to cause variations in traits.Individuals with certain variants of the trait may survive and reproduce more than individuals with other, less successful, variants. Therefore the population evolves. Factors that affect reproductive success are also important, an issue that Charles Darwin developed in his ideas on sexual selection, for example. Natural selection acts on the phenotype, or the observable characteristics of an organism, but the genetic (heritable) basis of any phenotype that gives a reproductive advantage may become more common in a population. Over time, this process can result in populations that specialize for particular ecological niches and may eventually result in the emergence of new species. In other words, natural selection is an important process by which evolution takes place within a population of organisms. Natural selection can be contrasted with artificial selection, in which humans intentionally choose specific traits (although they may not always get what they want). In natural selection there is no intentional choice. In other words, artificial selection is teleological and natural selection is not teleological.
Natural selection can act on any heritable phenotypic trait, and selective pressure can be produced by any aspect of the environment, including sexual selection and competition with members of the same or other species. However, this does not imply that natural selection is always directional and results in adaptive evolution; natural selection often results in the maintenance of the status quo by eliminating less fit variants.
The unit of selection can be the individual or it can be another level within the hierarchy of biological organization, such as genes, cells, and kin groups. There is still debate about whether natural selection acts at the level of groups or species to produce adaptations that benefit a larger, non-kin group. Likewise, there is debate as to whether selection at the molecular level prior to gene mutations and fertilization of the zygote should be ascribed to conventional natural selection because traditionally natural selection is an environmental and exterior force that acts upon a phenotype typically after birth. Some science journalists distinguish gene selection from natural selection by informally referencing selection of mutations as "pre-selection."
Selection at a different level such as the gene can result in an increase in fitness for that gene, while at the same time reducing the fitness of the individuals carrying that gene, in a process called intragalactic conflict. Overall, the combined effect of all selection pressures at various levels determines the overall fitness of an individual, and hence the outcome of natural selection.
The life cycle of a sexually reproducing organism. Various components of natural selection are indicated for each life stage.Natural selection occurs at every life stage of an individual. An individual organism must survive until adulthood before it can reproduce, and selection of those that reach this stage is called viability selection. In many species, adults must compete with each other for mates via sexual selection, and success in this competition determines who will parent the next generation. When individuals can reproduce more than once, a longer survival in the reproductive phase increases the number of offspring, called survival selection.
A prerequisite for natural selection to result in adaptive evolution, novel traits and speciation, is the presence of heritable genetic variation that results in fitness differences. Genetic variation is the result of mutations, recombinations and alterations in the karyotype (the number, shape, size and internal arrangement of the chromosomes). Any of these changes might have an effect that is highly advantageous or highly disadvantageous, but large effects are very rare. In the past, most changes in the genetic material were considered neutral or close to neutral because they occurred in noncoding DNA or resulted in a synonymous substitution. However, recent research suggests that many mutations in non-coding DNA do have slight deleterious effects. Although both mutation rates and average fitness effects of mutations are dependent on the organism, estimates from data in humans have found that a majority of mutations are slightly deleterious.
By the definition of fitness, individuals with greater fitness are more likely to contribute offspring to the next generation, while individuals with lesser fitness are more likely to die early or fail to reproduce. As a result, alleles that on average result in greater fitness become more abundant in the next generation, while alleles that in general reduce fitness become rarer. If the selection forces remain the same for many generations, beneficial alleles become more and more abundant, until they dominate the population, while alleles with a lesser fitness disappear. In every generation, new mutations and re-combinations arise spontaneously, producing a new spectrum of phenotypes. Therefore, each new generation will be enriched by the increasing abundance of alleles that contribute to those traits that were favored by selection, enhancing these traits over successive generations.
Some mutations occur in so-called regulatory genes. Changes in these can have large effects on the phenotype of the individual because they regulate the function of many other genes. Most, but not all, mutations in regulatory genes result in non-viable zygotes. When such mutations result in a higher fitness, natural selection will favor these phenotypes and the novel trait will spread in the population.
Established traits are not immutable; traits that have high fitness in one environmental context may be much less fit if environmental conditions change. In the absence of natural selection to preserve such a trait, it will become more variable and deteriorate over time, possibly resulting in a vestigial manifestation of the trait, also called evolutionary baggage. In many circumstances, the apparently vestigial structure may retain a limited functionality, or may be co-opted for other advantageous traits in a phenomenon known as preadaptation. A famous example of a vestigial structure, the eye of the blind mole rat, is believed to retain function in photoperiod perception.