Evidence that evolution of life forms has indeed taken place on earth has come from many quarters. Fossils are remained of hard parts of life-forms found in rocks. Rocks form sediments and a cross-section of earth's crust indicates the arrangement of sediments one over the other during the long history of earth.
Different-aged rock sediments contain fossils of different life-forms who probably died during the formation of the particular sediment.
Some of them appear similar to modern organisms. They represent extinct organisms (e.g., Dinosaurs). A study of fossils in different sedimentary layers indicates the geological period in which they existed. The study showed that life-forms varied over time and certain life forms are restricted to certain geological time-spans. Hence, new forms of life have arisen at different times in the history of earth.
All this is called paleontological evidence. Do you remember how the ages of the fossils are calculated? Do you recollect the method of radioactivedating and the principles behind the procedure? Comparative anatomy and morphology shows similarities and differences among organisms of today and those that existed years ago. Such similarities can be interpreted to understand whether common ancestors were shared or not. For example whales, bats, Cheetah and human (all mammals) share similarities in the pattern of bones of forelimbs.
Though these forelimbs perform different functions in these animals, they have similar anatomical structure – all of them have humerus, radius, ulna, carpals, metacarpals and phalanges in their forelimbs. Hence, in these animals, the same structure developed along different directions due to adaptions to different needs. This is divergent evolution and these structures are homologous. Homology indicates common ancestry. Other examples are vertebrate hearts or brains.
In plants also, the thorn and tendrils of Bougainvillea and Cucurbita represent homology. Homology is based on divergent evolution whereas analogy refers to a situation exactly opposite. Wings of butterfly and of birds look alike.
They are not anatomically similar structures though they perform similar functions. Hence, analogous structures are a result of convergent evolution - different structures evolving for the same function and hence having similarity. Other examples of analogy are the eye of the octopus and of mammals or the flippers of Penguins and Dolphins.
One can say that it is the similar habitat that has resulted in selection of similar adaptive features in different groups of organisms but toward the same function: Sweet potato (root modification) and potato (stem modification) is another example for analogy.
In the same line of argument, similarities in proteins and genes performing a given function among diverse organisms give clues to common ancestry. These biochemical similarities point to the same shared ancestry as structural similarities among diverse organisms. Man has bred selected plants and animals for agriculture, horticulture, sport or security. Man has domesticated many wild animals and crops.
This intensive breeding programme has created breeds that differ from other breeds (e.g., dogs) but still are of the same group. It is argued that if within hundred of years, man could create new breeds, could not nature have done the same over millions of years? Another interesting observation supporting evolution by natural selection comes from England. In a collection of moths made in 1850s, i.e., before industrialisation set in, it was observed that there were more white-winged moths on trees than dark-winged or melanised moths.
However, in the collection carried out from the same area, but after industrialisation, i.e., in 1920, there were more dark-winged moths in the same area, i.e., the proportion was reversed. The explanation put forth for this observation was that ‘predators will spot a moth against a contrasting background’. During postindustrialisation period, the tree trunks became dark due to industrial smoke and soots.
Under this condition the white-winged moth did not survive due to predators, dark-winged or melanised moth survived. Before industrialisation set in, thick growth of almost white-coloured lichen covered the trees - in that background the white winged moth survived but the dark-coloured moth were picked out by predators.
Do you know that lichens can be used as industrial pollution indicators? They will not grow in areas that are polluted. Hence, moths that were able to camouflage themselves, i.e., hide in the background, survived. This understanding is supported by the fact that in areas where industrialisation did not occur e.g., in rural areas, the count of melanic moths was low.
This showed that in a mixed population, those that can better-adapt, survive and increase in population size. Remember that no variant is completely wiped out. Similarly, excess use of herbicides, pesticides, etc., has only resulted in selection of resistant varieties in a much lesser time scale.
This is also true for microbes against which we employ antibiotics or drugs against eukaryotic organisms/cell. Hence, resistant organisms/cells are appearing in a time scale of months or years and not centuries.
These are examples of evolution by anthropogenic action. This also tells us that evolution is not a direct process in the sense of determinism. It is a stochastic process based on chance events in nature and chance mutation in the organisms.