Page 106 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

Finally, we have seen that natural selection, which follows from the struggle for existence, and which almost inevitably leads to extinction and divergence of character in the descendants from any one parent-species, explains that great and universal feature in the affinities of all organic beings, namely, their subordination in group under group. We use the element of descent in classing the individuals of both sexes and of all ages under one species, although they may have but few characters in common; we use descent in classing acknowledged varieties, however different they may be from their parents; and I believe that this element of descent is the hidden bond of connexion which naturalists have sought under the term of the Natural System. On this idea of the natural system being, in so far as it has been perfected, genealogical in its arrangement, with the grades of difference expressed by the terms genera, families, orders, etc., we can understand the rules which we are compelled to follow in our classification. We can understand why we value certain resemblances far more than others; why we use rudimentary and useless organs, or others of trifling physiological importance; why, in finding the relations between one group and another, we summarily reject analogical or adaptive characters, and yet use these same characters within the limits of the same group. We can clearly see how it is that all living and extinct forms can be grouped together within a few great classes; and how the several members of each class are connected together by the most complex and radiating lines of affinities. We shall never, probably, disentangle the inextricable web of the affinities between the members of any one class; but when we have a distinct object in view, and do not look to some unknown plan of creation, we may hope to make sure but slow progress.

Professor Haeckel in his "Generelle Morphologie" and in another works, has recently brought his great knowledge and abilities to bear on what he calls phylogeny, or the lines of descent of all organic beings. In drawing up the several series he trusts chiefly to embryological characters, but receives aid from homologous and rudimentary organs, as well as from the successive periods at which the various forms of life are believed to have first appeared in our geological formations. He has thus boldly made a great beginning, and shows us how classification will in the future be treated.


We have seen that the members of the same class, independently of their habits of life, resemble each other in the general plan of their organisation. This resemblance is often expressed by the term "unity of type;" or by saying that the several parts and organs in the different species of the class are homologous. The whole subject is included under the general term of Morphology. This is one of the most interesting departments of natural history, and may almost be said to be its very soul. What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include similar bones, in the same relative positions? How curious it is, to give a subordinate though striking instance, that the hind feet of the kangaroo, which are so well fitted for bounding over the open plains--those of the climbing, leaf-eating koala, equally well fitted for grasping the branches of trees--those of the ground-dwelling, insect or root-eating, bandicoots--and those of some other Australian marsupials-- should all be constructed on the same extraordinary type, namely with the bones of the second and third digits extremely slender and enveloped within the same skin, so that they appear like a single toe furnished with two claws. Notwithstanding this similarity of pattern, it is obvious that the hind feet of these several animals are used for as widely different purposes as it is possible to conceive. The case is rendered all the more striking by the American opossums, which follow nearly the same habits of life as some of their Australian relatives, having feet constructed on the ordinary plan. Professor Flower, from whom these statements are taken, remarks in conclusion: "We may call this conformity to type, without getting much nearer to an explanation of the phenomenon;" and he then adds "but is it not powerfully suggestive of true relationship, of inheritance from a common ancestor?"

Geoffroy St. Hilaire has strongly insisted on the high importance of relative position or connexion in homologous parts; they may differ to almost any extent in form and size, and yet remain connected together in the same invariable order. We never find, for instance, the bones of the arm and forearm, or of the thigh and leg, transposed. Hence the same names can be given to the homologous bones in widely different animals. We see the same great law in the construction of the mouths of insects: what can be more different than the immensely long spiral proboscis of a sphinx-moth, the curious folded one of a bee or bug, and the great jaws of a beetle? Yet all these organs, serving for such widely different purposes, are formed by infinitely numerous modifications of an upper lip, mandibles, and two pairs of maxillae. The same law governs the construction of the mouths and limbs of crustaceans. So it is with the flowers of plants.

Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes. The hopelessness of the attempt has been expressly admitted by Owen in his most interesting work on the "Nature of Limbs." On the ordinary view of the independent creation of each being, we can only say that so it is; that it has pleased the Creator to construct all the animals and plants in each great class on a uniform plan; but this is not a scientific explanation.

The explanation is to a large extent simple, on the theory of the selection of successive slight modifications, each being profitable in some way to the modified form, but often affecting by correlation other parts of the organisation. In changes of this nature, there will be little or no tendency to alter the original pattern, or to transpose the parts. The bones of a limb might be shortened and flattened to any extent, becoming at the same time enveloped in thick membrane, so as to serve as a fin; or a webbed hand might have all its bones, or certain bones, lengthened to any extent, with the membrane connecting them increased, so as to serve as a wing; yet all these modifications would not tend to alter the framework of the bones or the relative connexion of the parts. If we suppose that an early progenitor--the archetype, as it may be called--of all mammals, birds and reptiles, had its limbs constructed on the existing general pattern, for whatever purpose they served, we can at once perceive the plain signification of the homologous construction of the limbs throughout the class. So with the mouths of insects, we have only to suppose that their common progenitor had an upper lip, mandibles, and two pairs of maxillae, these parts being perhaps very simple in form; and then natural selection will account for the infinite diversity in structure and function of the mouths of insects. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the general pattern of an organ might become so much obscured as to be finally lost, by the reduction and ultimately by the complete abortion of certain parts, by the fusion of other parts, and by the doubling or multiplication of others, variations which we know to be within the limits of possibility. In the paddles of the gigantic extinct sea-lizards, and in the mouths of certain suctorial crustaceans, the general pattern seems thus to have become partially obscured.

There is another and equally curious branch of our subject; namely, serial homologies, or the comparison of the different parts or organs in the same individual, and not of the same parts or organs in different members of the same class. Most physiologists believe that the bones of the skull are homologous--that is, correspond in number and in relative connexion--with the elemental parts of a certain number of vertebrae. The anterior and posterior limbs in all the higher vertebrate classes are plainly homologous. So it is with the wonderfully complex jaws and legs of crustaceans. It is familiar to almost every one, that in a flower the relative position of the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils, as well as their intimate structure, are intelligible on the view that they consist of metamorphosed leaves, arranged in a spire. In monstrous plants, we often get direct evidence of the possibility of one organ being transformed into another; and we can actually see, during the early or embryonic stages of development in flowers, as well as in crustaceans and many other animals, that organs, which when mature become extremely different are at first exactly alike.

How inexplicable are the cases of serial homologies on the ordinary view of creation! Why should the brain be enclosed in a box composed of such numerous and such extraordinarily shaped pieces of bone apparently representing vertebrae? As Owen has remarked, the benefit derived from the yielding of the separate pieces in the act of parturition by mammals, will by no means explain the same construction in the skulls of birds and reptiles. Why should similar bones have been created to form the wing and the leg of a bat, used as they are for such totally different purposes, namely flying and walking? Why should one crustacean, which has an extremely complex mouth formed of many parts, consequently always have fewer legs; or conversely, those with many legs have simpler mouths? Why should the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils, in each flower, though fitted for such distinct purposes, be all constructed on the same pattern?

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