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Nature of the Checks to Increase - Chapter III - Origin of Species

Page 108 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

The points of structure, in which the embryos of widely different animals within the same class resemble each other, often have no direct relation to their conditions of existence. We cannot, for instance, suppose that in the embryos of the vertebrata the peculiar loop-like courses of the arteries near the branchial slits are related to similar conditions--in the young mammal which is nourished in the womb of its mother, in the egg of the bird which is hatched in a nest, and in the spawn of a frog under water. We have no more reason to believe in such a relation than we have to believe that the similar bones in the hand of a man, wing of a bat, and fin of a porpoise, are related to similar conditions of life. No one supposes that the stripes on the whelp of a lion, or the spots on the young blackbird, are of any use to these animals.

The case, however, is different when an animal, during any part of its embryonic career, is active, and has to provide for itself. The period of activity may come on earlier or later in life; but whenever it comes on, the adaptation of the larva to its conditions of life is just as perfect and as beautiful as in the adult animal. In how important a manner this has acted, has recently been well shown by Sir J. Lubbock in his remarks on the close similarity of the larvae of some insects belonging to very different orders, and on the dissimilarity of the larvae of other insects within the same order, according to their habits of life. Owing to such adaptations the similarity of the larvae of allied animals is sometimes greatly obscured; especially when there is a division of labour during the different stages of development, as when the same larva has during one stage to search for food, and during another stage has to search for a place of attachment. Cases can even be given of the larvae of allied species, or groups of species, differing more from each other than do the adults. In most cases, however, the larvae, though active, still obey, more or less closely, the law of common embryonic resemblance. Cirripedes afford a good instance of this: even the illustrious Cuvier did not perceive that a barnacle was a crustacean: but a glance at the larva shows this in an unmistakable manner. So again the two main divisions of cirripedes, the pedunculated and sessile, though differing widely in external appearance, have larvae in all their stages barely distinguishable.

The embryo in the course of development generally rises in organisation. I use this expression, though I am aware that it is hardly possible to define clearly what is meant by organisation being higher or lower. But no one probably will dispute that the butterfly is higher than the caterpillar. In some cases, however, the mature animal must be considered as lower in the scale than the larva, as with certain parasitic crustaceans. To refer once again to cirripedes: the larvae in the first stage have three pairs of locomotive organs, a simple single eye, and a probosciformed mouth, with which they feed largely, for they increase much in size. In the second stage, answering to the chrysalis stage of butterflies, they have six pairs of beautifully constructed natatory legs, a pair of magnificent compound eyes, and extremely complex antennae; but they have a closed and imperfect mouth, and cannot feed: their function at this stage is, to search out by their well-developed organs of sense, and to reach by their active powers of swimming, a proper place on which to become attached and to undergo their final metamorphosis. When this is completed they are fixed for life: their legs are now converted into prehensile organs; they again obtain a well-constructed mouth; but they have no antennae, and their two eyes are now reconverted into a minute, single, simple eye-spot. In this last and complete state, cirripedes may be considered as either more highly or more lowly organised than they were in the larval condition. But in some genera the larvae become developed into hermaphrodites having the ordinary structure, or into what I have called complemental males; and in the latter the development has assuredly been retrograde; for the male is a mere sack, which lives for a short time and is destitute of mouth, stomach, and every other organ of importance, excepting those for reproduction.

We are so much accustomed to see a difference in structure between the embryo and the adult, that we are tempted to look at this difference as in some necessary manner contingent on growth. But there is no reason why, for instance, the wing of a bat, or the fin of a porpoise, should not have been sketched out with all their parts in proper proportion, as soon as any part became visible. In some whole groups of animals and in certain members of other groups this is the case, and the embryo does not at any period differ widely from the adult: thus Owen has remarked in regard to cuttle-fish, "there is no metamorphosis; the cephalopodic character is manifested long before the parts of the embryo are completed." Land-shells and fresh-water crustaceans are born having their proper forms, while the marine members of the same two great classes pass through considerable and often great changes during their development. Spiders, again, barely undergo any metamorphosis. The larvae of most insects pass through a worm-like stage, whether they are active and adapted to diversified habits, or are inactive from being placed in the midst of proper nutriment, or from being fed by their parents; but in some few cases, as in that of Aphis, if we look to the admirable drawings of the development of this insect, by Professor Huxley, we see hardly any trace of the vermiform stage.

Sometimes it is only the earlier developmental stages which fail. Thus, Fritz Muller has made the remarkable discovery that certain shrimp-like crustaceans (allied to Penoeus) first appear under the simple nauplius- form, and after passing through two or more zoea-stages, and then through the mysis-stage, finally acquire their mature structure: now in the whole great malacostracan order, to which these crustaceans belong, no other member is as yet known to be first developed under the nauplius-form, though many appear as zoeas; nevertheless Muller assigns reasons for his belief, that if there had been no suppression of development, all these crustaceans would have appeared as nauplii.

How, then, can we explain these several facts in embryology--namely, the very general, though not universal, difference in structure between the embryo and the adult; the various parts in the same individual embryo, which ultimately become very unlike, and serve for diverse purposes, being at an early period of growth alike; the common, but not invariable, resemblance between the embryos or larvae of the most distinct species in the same class; the embryo often retaining, while within the egg or womb, structures which are of no service to it, either at that or at a later period of life; on the other hand, larvae which have to provide for their own wants, being perfectly adapted to the surrounding conditions; and lastly, the fact of certain larvae standing higher in the scale of organisation than the mature animal into which they are developed? I believe that all these facts can be explained as follows.

It is commonly assumed, perhaps from monstrosities affecting the embryo at a very early period, that slight variations or individual differences necessarily appear at an equally early period. We have little evidence on this head, but what we have certainly points the other way; for it is notorious that breeders of cattle, horses and various fancy animals, cannot positively tell, until some time after birth, what will be the merits and demerits of their young animals. We see this plainly in our own children; we cannot tell whether a child will be tall or short, or what its precise features will be. The question is not, at what period of life any variation may have been caused, but at what period the effects are displayed. The cause may have acted, and I believe often has acted, on one or both parents before the act of generation. It deserves notice that it is of no importance to a very young animal, as long as it is nourished and protected by its parent, whether most of its characters are acquired a little earlier or later in life. It would not signify, for instance, to a bird which obtained its food by having a much-curved beak whether or not while young it possessed a beak of this shape, as long as it was fed by its parents.

I have stated in the first chapter, that at whatever age any variation first appears in the parent, it tends to reappear at a corresponding age in the offspring. Certain variations can only appear at corresponding ages; for instance, peculiarities in the caterpillar, cocoon, or imago states of the silk-moth; or, again, in the full-grown horns of cattle. But variations which, for all that we can see might have appeared either earlier or later in life, likewise tend to reappear at a corresponding age in the offspring and parent. I am far from meaning that this is invariably the case, and I could give several exceptional cases of variations (taking the word in the largest sense) which have supervened at an earlier age in the child than in the parent.

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