Genetic algorithm behavior is described in terms of the construction and evolution of the sampling distributions over the space of candidate solutions. This novel perspective is motivated by analysis indicating that the schema theory is inadequate for completely and properly explaining genetic algorithm behavior. Based on the proposed theory, it is argued that the similarities of candidate solutions should be exploited directly, rather than encoding candidate solutions and then exploiting their similarities. Proportional selection is characterized as a global search operator, and recombination is characterized as the search process that exploits similarities. Sequential algorithms and many deletion methods are also analyzed. It is shown that by properly constraining the search breadth of recombination operators, convergence of genetic algorithms to a global optimum can be ensured.