Evolution is the story of all living things, including us. It is a set of processes that connects all life-forms and ecosystems on Earth — past, present and future. Evolution may be studied as processes (how it works) and as patterns (what actually happened).
Embracing evolution’s framework is vitally important in the Academy’s mission to understand the natural world and inspire everyone to care for it. As the Academy celebrates evolution this year, we are also delving deeper into our history of scientific discoveries, research on systematic biology and growing evolutionary knowledge through engaging exhibits, such as our recently opened Life Onto Land: The Devonian.
But what exactly does evolution mean to the Academy?
“Evolution explains how a single cell at the origin of life was able to yield all of Earth’s biodiversity and, in so doing, it reveals the shared history of all species in the history of planet Earth,” explains Jason Downs, PhD, a longtime research associate at the Academy, who played a critical role in developing this new exhibit and in building our Vertebrate Paleontology Collection. Downs has also been a part of the Academy’s scientific expeditions in the Nunavut Territory of Canada where Tiktaalik roseae was discovered.
There are many interpretations and meanings of the term evolution, as well as applications of its study.
“An appreciation for evolution can help anyone feel deeply connected to this planet, its history, and all of its life. Evolutionary relationships allow people like me, a researcher, to understand important details about a new species even upon first laying eyes on it. The anatomy of a new species is never a complete surprise because it is related to species that have already been studied and described.”
Studying evolution and maintaining important fossils are not just about preserving the past, though, Downs explains. It’s about fueling the future. Through our world-class collections and innovative science, Academy scientists have been hard at work reconstructing evolutionary patterns that will then help shape ongoing critical conversations about climate change, biodiversity loss and conservation.
“The patterns of evolution are revealed by biodiversity through time, and only natural history museums like the Academy are building, caring for and preserving an accessible physical record of this diversity,” Downs says.
New evolutionary techniques and new evolutionary research questions are forever being applied to even old specimens to better understand not only diverse life-forms today, but also the history of life on Earth.
We hope you’ll join us as the Academy digs into the scientific, fascinating and constantly changing story of all living things — past, present and future.