The process of evolution involves a series of natural changes that cause species (populations of different organisms) to arise, adapt to the environment, and become extinct. All species or organisms have originated through the process of biological evolution. In animals that reproduce sexually, including humans, the term species refers to a group whose adult members regularly interbreed, resulting in fertile offspring – that is, offspring themselves capable of reproducing. Scientists classify each species with a unique, two-part scientific name. In this system, modern humans are classified as Homo sapiens.
Evolution occurs when there is change in the genetic material – the chemical molecule, DNA – which is inherited from the parents, and especially in the proportions of different genes in a population. Genes represent the segments of DNA that provide the chemical code for producing proteins. Information contained in the DNA can change by a process known as mutation. The way particular genes are expressed – that is, how they influence the body or behaviour of an organism – can also change. Genes affect how the body and behaviour of an organism develop during its life, and this is why genetically inherited characteristics can influence the likelihood of an organism’s survival and reproduction.
Evolution does not change any single individual. Instead, it changes the inherited means of growth and development that typify a population (a group of individuals of the same species living in a particular habitat). Parents pass adaptive genetic changes to their offspring, and ultimately these changes become common throughout a population. As a result, the offspring inherit those genetic characteristics that enhance their chances of survival and ability to give birth, which may work well until the environment changes. Over time, genetic change can alter a species’ overall way of life, such as what it eats, how it grows, and where it can live. Human evolution took place as new genetic variations in early ancestor populations favoured new abilities to adapt to environmental change and so altered the human way of life.