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

Page 111 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

Rudimentary organs in the individuals of the same species are very liable to vary in the degree of their development and in other respects. In closely allied species, also, the extent to which the same organ has been reduced occasionally differs much. This latter fact is well exemplified in the state of the wings of female moths belonging to the same family. Rudimentary organs may be utterly aborted; and this implies, that in certain animals or plants, parts are entirely absent which analogy would lead us to expect to find in them, and which are occasionally found in monstrous individuals. Thus in most of the Scrophulariaceae the fifth stamen is utterly aborted; yet we may conclude that a fifth stamen once existed, for a rudiment of it is found in many species of the family, and this rudiment occasionally becomes perfectly developed, as may sometimes be seen in the common snap-dragon. In tracing the homologies of any part in different members of the same class, nothing is more common, or, in order fully to understand the relations of the parts, more useful than the discovery of rudiments. This is well shown in the drawings given by Owen of the leg bones of the horse, ox, and rhinoceros.

It is an important fact that rudimentary organs, such as teeth in the upper jaws of whales and ruminants, can often be detected in the embryo, but afterwards wholly disappear. It is also, I believe, a universal rule, that a rudimentary part is of greater size in the embryo relatively to the adjoining parts, than in the adult; so that the organ at this early age is less rudimentary, or even cannot be said to be in any degree rudimentary. Hence rudimentary organs in the adult are often said to have retained their embryonic condition.

I have now given the leading facts with respect to rudimentary organs. In reflecting on them, every one must be struck with astonishment; for the same reasoning power which tells us that most parts and organs are exquisitely adapted for certain purposes, tells us with equal plainness that these rudimentary or atrophied organs are imperfect and useless. In works on natural history, rudimentary organs are generally said to have been created "for the sake of symmetry," or in order "to complete the scheme of nature." But this is not an explanation, merely a restatement of the fact. Nor is it consistent with itself: thus the boa-constrictor has rudiments of hind limbs and of a pelvis, and if it be said that these bones have been retained "to complete the scheme of nature," why, as Professor Weismann asks, have they not been retained by other snakes, which do not possess even a vestige of these same bones? What would be thought of an astronomer who maintained that the satellites revolve in elliptic courses round their planets "for the sake of symmetry," because the planets thus revolve round the sun? An eminent physiologist accounts for the presence of rudimentary organs, by supposing that they serve to excrete matter in excess, or matter injurious to the system; but can we suppose that the minute papilla, which often represents the pistil in male flowers, and which is formed of mere cellular tissue, can thus act? Can we suppose that rudimentary teeth, which are subsequently absorbed, are beneficial to the rapidly growing embryonic calf by removing matter so precious as phosphate of lime? When a man's fingers have been amputated, imperfect nails have been known to appear on the stumps, and I could as soon believe that these vestiges of nails are developed in order to excrete horny matter, as that the rudimentary nails on the fin of the manatee have been developed for this same purpose.

On the view of descent with modification, the origin of rudimentary organs is comparatively simple; and we can understand to a large extent the laws governing their imperfect development. We have plenty of cases of rudimentary organs in our domestic productions, as the stump of a tail in tailless breeds, the vestige of an ear in earless breeds of sheep--the reappearance of minute dangling horns in hornless breeds of cattle, more especially, according to Youatt, in young animals--and the state of the whole flower in the cauliflower. We often see rudiments of various parts in monsters; but I doubt whether any of these cases throw light on the origin of rudimentary organs in a state of nature, further than by showing that rudiments can be produced; for the balance of evidence clearly indicates that species under nature do not undergo great and abrupt changes. But we learn from the study of our domestic productions that the disuse of parts leads to their reduced size; and that the result is inherited.

It appears probable that disuse has been the main agent in rendering organs rudimentary. It would at first lead by slow steps to the more and more complete reduction of a part, until at last it became rudimentary--as in the case of the eyes of animals inhabiting dark caverns, and of the wings of birds inhabiting oceanic islands, which have seldom been forced by beasts of prey to take flight, and have ultimately lost the power of flying. Again, an organ, useful under certain conditions, might become injurious under others, as with the wings of beetles living on small and exposed islands; and in this case natural selection will have aided in reducing the organ, until it was rendered harmless and rudimentary.

Any change in structure and function, which can be effected by small stages, is within the power of natural selection; so that an organ rendered, through changed habits of life, useless or injurious for one purpose, might be modified and used for another purpose. An organ might, also, be retained for one alone of its former functions. Organs, originally formed by the aid of natural selection, when rendered useless may well be variable, for their variations can no longer be checked by natural selection. All this agrees well with what we see under nature. Moreover, at whatever period of life either disuse or selection reduces an organ, and this will generally be when the being has come to maturity and to exert its full powers of action, the principle of inheritance at corresponding ages will tend to reproduce the organ in its reduced state at the same mature age, but will seldom affect it in the embryo. Thus we can understand the greater size of rudimentary organs in the embryo relatively to the adjoining parts, and their lesser relative size in the adult. If, for instance, the digit of an adult animal was used less and less during many generations, owing to some change of habits, or if an organ or gland was less and less functionally exercised, we may infer that it would become reduced in size in the adult descendants of this animal, but would retain nearly its original standard of development in the embryo.

There remains, however, this difficulty. After an organ has ceased being used, and has become in consequence much reduced, how can it be still further reduced in size until the merest vestige is left; and how can it be finally quite obliterated? It is scarcely possible that disuse can go on producing any further effect after the organ has once been rendered functionless. Some additional explanation is here requisite which I cannot give. If, for instance, it could be proved that every part of the organisation tends to vary in a greater degree towards diminution than toward augmentation of size, then we should be able to understand how an organ which has become useless would be rendered, independently of the effects of disuse, rudimentary and would at last be wholly suppressed; for the variations towards diminished size would no longer be checked by natural selection. The principle of the economy of growth, explained in a former chapter, by which the materials forming any part, if not useful to the possessor, are saved as far as is possible, will perhaps come into play in rendering a useless part rudimentary. But this principle will almost necessarily be confined to the earlier stages of the process of reduction; for we cannot suppose that a minute papilla, for instance, representing in a male flower the pistil of the female flower, and formed merely of cellular tissue, could be further reduced or absorbed for the sake of economising nutriment.

Finally, as rudimentary organs, by whatever steps they may have been degraded into their present useless condition, are the record of a former state of things, and have been retained solely through the power of inheritance--we can understand, on the genealogical view of classification, how it is that systematists, in placing organisms in their proper places in the natural system, have often found rudimentary parts as useful as, or even sometimes more useful than, parts of high physiological importance. Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word, still retained in the spelling, but become useless in the pronunciation, but which serve as a clue for its derivation. On the view of descent with modification, we may conclude that the existence of organs in a rudimentary, imperfect, and useless condition, or quite aborted, far from presenting a strange difficulty, as they assuredly do on the old doctrine of creation, might even have been anticipated in accordance with the views here explained.


In this chapter I have attempted to show that the arrangement of all organic beings throughout all time in groups under groups--that the nature of the relationships by which all living and extinct organisms are united by complex, radiating, and circuitous lines of affinities into a few grand classes--the rules followed and the difficulties encountered by naturalists in their classifications--the value set upon characters, if constant and prevalent, whether of high or of the most trifling importance, or, as with rudimentary organs of no importance--the wide opposition in value between analogical or adaptive characters, and characters of true affinity; and other such rules--all naturally follow if we admit the common parentage of allied forms, together with their modification through variation and natural selection, with the contingencies of extinction and divergence of character. In considering this view of classification, it should be borne in mind that the element of descent has been universally used in ranking together the sexes, ages, dimorphic forms, and acknowledged varieties of the same species, however much they may differ from each other in structure. If we extend the use of this element of descent--the one certainly known cause of similarity in organic beings--we shall understand what is meant by the Natural System: it is genealogical in its attempted arrangement, with the grades of acquired difference marked by the terms, varieties, species, genera, families, orders, and classes.

On this same view of descent with modification, most of the great facts in Morphology become intelligible--whether we look to the same pattern displayed by the different species of the same class in their homologous organs, to whatever purpose applied, or to the serial and lateral homologies in each individual animal and plant.

On the principle of successive slight variations, not necessarily or generally supervening at a very early period of life, and being inherited at a corresponding period, we can understand the leading facts in embryology; namely, the close resemblance in the individual embryo of the parts which are homologous, and which when matured become widely different in structure and function; and the resemblance of the homologous parts or organs in allied though distinct species, though fitted in the adult state for habits as different as is possible. Larvae are active embryos, which have become specially modified in a greater or less degree in relation to their habits of life, with their modifications inherited at a corresponding early age. On these same principles, and bearing in mind that when organs are reduced in size, either from disuse or through natural selection, it will generally be at that period of life when the being has to provide for its own wants, and bearing in mind how strong is the force of inheritance--the occurrence of rudimentary organs might even have been anticipated. The importance of embryological characters and of rudimentary organs in classification is intelligible, on the view that a natural arrangement must be genealogical.

Finally, the several classes of facts which have been considered in this chapter, seem to me to proclaim so plainly, that the innumerable species, genera and families, with which this world is peopled, are all descended, each within its own class or group, from common parents, and have all been modified in the course of descent, that I should without hesitation adopt this view, even if it were unsupported by other facts or arguments.

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