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As far as I understand, all life started as non-flying and flying came about by natural selection. What is the evolutionary advantageous "path" to flying? Or is there something else to explain this?

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  • $\begingroup$ You mean why animals "started" to fly? Because there was a large uninhabitated niche to live in: The air and the third dimension. $\endgroup$ – Chris Oct 30 '14 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ I've heard that insect wings may have developed from some sort of breathing structure. Both would be very thin with large surface areas. $\endgroup$ – user137 Oct 30 '14 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Chris no, my question is the ability (and organs necessary) evolved. $\endgroup$ – Math chiller Oct 31 '14 at 0:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Chris I would rather say that it was an escape from land based predators. $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Oct 31 '14 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ @WYSIWYG I would include this in the niche: Escape from predators, other ways to access food and so on. $\endgroup$ – Chris Oct 31 '14 at 6:26
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The honest answer to this and many other similar evolutionary questions is that we don't know the answer. We can sample information from many different points along an organism's developmental timeline using the fossil record, genetics, etc. and reconstruct various states of said organism's development. The overwhelming evidence is that evolution is the process that connects these various states, but reconstructing the detailed trajectory that leads from one developmental state (e.g. flightless) to another (e.g. flying) is often formally impossible due to the low time resolution of the information that we have.

That being said, plenty of people have speculated as to the origins of flight, and there's an excellent wikipedia article on the subject. From the article:

Powered flight has evolved only 4 times (birds, bats, pterosaurs, and insects)... Insects were the first to evolve flight, approximately 350 million years ago. The developmental origin of the insect wing remains in dispute, as does the purpose prior to true flight. One suggestion is that wings initially were used to catch the wind for small insects that live on the surface of the water, while another is that they functioned in parachuting, then gliding, then flight for originally arboreal insects.

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  • $\begingroup$ i like the parachuting, i think thats a satisfactory answer (although still a theory without evidence) $\endgroup$ – Math chiller Oct 31 '14 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ do you know if theres a good source for these types of explanations? cause i have a whole bunch more paths i would like explained. $\endgroup$ – Math chiller Oct 31 '14 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ @tryingToGetProgrammingStraight Yes I do! BAHFest is truly an authoritative source for such information. $\endgroup$ – tel Oct 31 '14 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ @tryingToGetProgrammingStraight More seriously, it really depends on the organism/system in question. For example, the debate over why humans started walking upright has been a particularly acrimonious and silly one. $\endgroup$ – tel Oct 31 '14 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ @tryingToGetProgrammingStraight If you have a whole laundry list, try posting them here. Just maybe keep it to one a day. $\endgroup$ – tel Oct 31 '14 at 0:41

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