What Does an Evolutionary Biologist Do?

E. Starr

An evolutionary biologist is someone who studies the patterns of ancestry and descent among species within Earth’s tree of life. He or she is concerned with the origin, extinction, diversity and change of species through time. An evolutionary biologist uses a multitude of techniques in science to understand how organisms have descended from a common ancestor.

Evolutionary biologists often use fruit flies to study genetics.
Evolutionary biologists often use fruit flies to study genetics.

Evolution was traditionally studied by evolutionary biologists at the organismal scale. This large-scale approach focuses on significant changes in species across time or space. The study of ancestry and descent within the fossil record is an example of changes through time. Perhaps the most famous example of changes across space is the variation among finches in the Galapagos Islands, which was noticed and popularized by Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin, one of the first evolutionary theorists.
Charles Darwin, one of the first evolutionary theorists.

During a revolution in molecular biology and genetics, evolutionary biologists began studying small-scale evolution. An evolutionary biologist can now track changes in genetics from one generation to the next in the laboratory. Using test subjects with short lifespans, such as fruit flies or bacteria, a biologist can watch the processes of small-scale evolution play out in the laboratory.

Both small-scale and large-scale evolutionary biology is interdisciplinary in nature. An evolutionary biologist usually specializes in one field but also will cross-train in areas such as organismal biology, molecular biology, genetics or developmental biology. Fields such as geology, anthropology and computer science are also relevant. The science of evolutionary biology can be based in the laboratory or out in the field, or it might be a combination of both.

Evolutionary biology was a maturing field of study as of 2011, but many fundamental and exciting questions were still being studied. For example, evolutionary biologists have tried to understand how large-scale and small-scale evolutionary processes fit together. They have tried to learn how and when genetic changes occur and result in successful adaptation. Paleobiologists have tried to unravel the time line of species origins and extinctions from the fossil record. Evolutionary theorists have tried to discover what forces and drives evolution, from natural selection to sexual selection, from random genetic drift to environmental catastrophe.

Most evolutionary biologists work within academia and are affiliated with a college or university. Their day-to-day work therefore is a combination of research and teaching. Some evolutionary biologists work in industry or with private or government research institutes. There also are many individuals who have basic academic training in evolutionary biology and who go on to work in related careers. such as science writing, education or conservation.

An evolutionary biologist might look into the forces that led some dinosaur lineages to evolve into modern birds.
An evolutionary biologist might look into the forces that led some dinosaur lineages to evolve into modern birds.

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Discussion Comments


This kind of training can be useful in other fields, too. I am a lawyer who works for the Federal Government, and I am part of the group that reviews proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act when somebody wants to add or remove an animal from the protected list.

A lot of times, we consult with biologists to see what the long-term prognosis of a given species looks like. Many of them have expertise in evolutionary biology. A few of our lawyers have a biology background, but they are hard to come by, so usually we have to bring in consultants. The various interest groups who are for or against particular species have experts on staff as well.

For people who don't want to teach or do research, but have a strong background in science, a career in law, public policy, or even lobbying can be an option.


@lovealot - I agree that there may be some big breakthroughs coming, especially as we learn more about DNA and how it works.

That may be a good reason to get a graduate degree in both biology and chemistry. You could do research on the history and progression of the species, and also work with the DNA to see how that had changed.

It's unfortunate that there are so few of these jobs available. It sounds like a fascinating field but I think I would go crazy before I finished all of the schooling it requires.


This is a great job for someone who loves science, but you have to love the work, because unless you're a celebrated evolutionary biologist, the salary is not much to write home about.

Don't get me wrong, an established college professor with a great reputation can make a fine living writing textbooks or giving speeches on the lecture circuit, but there are very few people at that level. It's one of those jobs where a lot of people want very few jobs, so the competition is fierce and the politics are harsh.

You would spend a lot of your career as a graduate assistant doing the grunt work for one of the top people, who would then take credit for whatever you came up with most of the time. If you have patience, you have a chance to move up and make your own reputation, but it isn't easy.


I know that the study of evolutionary biology has gotten much more technical and complicated. I think scientists are getting closer to understanding how evolution and mutations results in changes.

I saw a documentary that shows how we are all related. Evidence shows that our human species started in Africa and people slowly began to move out to many parts of the world. Because of climate changes, and other environmental differences in places like Europe, Asia and America, humans adapted by a change in skin color, stature, facial features, and internal organs.

But in the end, DNA links everyone to everyone else. This is interesting stuff. I'm sure that the work of evolutionary biologists can be tedious, at times, but to be a part of a big breakthrough must be exciting.

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