Artificial Selection

Breeding for Desirable Traits

The "Labradoodle" is a product of artificial selection
The Labradoodle dog breed. Getty/Ragnar Schmuck

Artificial selection is defined as the process of breeding animals for their desirable traits by an outside source other than the organism itself or natural selection, wherein it is usually human interference that creates the chance for this process to occur.

Renowned scientist Charles Darwin is credited with coining the term in his book "On the Origin of Species," which he wrote upon returning from the Galapagos Islands and experimenting with cross-breeding birds for desirable traits in their offspring, but artificial selection had been utilized for centuries to create livestock and animals bred for war, agriculture, and beauty.

Humans, on the other hand, don't often experience artificial selection as a general population, though arranged marriages could also be argued as an example of such. However, parents who arrange marriages choose a mate for their offspring based on certain characteristics, usually involving financial security rather than genetic traits.

Charles Darwin and "On the Origin of Species"

Charles Darwin made use of artificial selection to help gather evidence for his proposed mechanism for how evolution occurs after returning to England from his journey to the Galapagos on the HMS Beagle. After studying the finches in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin turned to breeding birds at home, more specifically pigeons, to try and prove his ideas.

Darwin was able to show that he could choose which traits were desirable in pigeons and increase the chances for those to be passed down to the offspring by breeding two pigeons with the trait; since Darwin's work was before Gregor Mendel published his findings and founded Genetics, this was a key piece to the evolutionary theory puzzle.

Darwin hypothesized that artificial selection and natural selection functioned the same way, wherein traits that were desirable gave the individuals an advantage in surviving—those who could survive would live long enough to pass down the desirable traits to the offspring.

Having this genetic evidence to solidify his theory before presenting it proved invaluable to Darwin as it is very difficult to see the effects of natural selection and would have required Darwin to track animals for several generations instead of being able to make the same observations in a very controlled environment with his artificial selection experiments on pigeons.

Other Common Examples in Modern Science

Perhaps the best-known use of artificial selection is dog breeding—from wild wolves to dog show winners of the American Kennel Club (AKC), which recognizes over 700 different breeds of dogs.

Most of the breeds the AKC recognizes are a result of an artificial selection method known as cross-breeding wherein a male dog from one breed mates with a female dog of another breed to create a hybrid. One such example of a newer breed is the Labradoodle, a combination of a Labrador Retriever and a Poodle.

Dogs, as an overall species, are also an example of artificial selection in action. Ancient humans were mostly nomads who roamed from place to place, but they found that if they shared their food scraps with wild wolves, the wolves would protect them from other hungry animals. The wolves with the most domestication were bred and eventually, over several generations, humans domesticated the wolves and kept breeding the ones who showed the most promise for hunting, protection, and affection. The domesticated wolves had undergone artificial selection and became a brand new species that humans called dogs.

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Scoville, Heather. "Artificial Selection." ThoughtCo, Aug. 7, 2017, Scoville, Heather. (2017, August 7). Artificial Selection. Retrieved from Scoville, Heather. "Artificial Selection." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2018).