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Laws of Variation - Chapter V - Origin of Species

Page 36 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

Now let us turn to nature. When a part has been developed in an extraordinary manner in any one species, compared with the other species of the same genus, we may conclude that this part has undergone an extraordinary amount of modification since the period when the several species branched off from the common progenitor of the genus. This period will seldom be remote in any extreme degree, as species rarely endure for more than one geological period. An extraordinary amount of modification implies an unusually large and long-continued amount of variability, which has continually been accumulated by natural selection for the benefit of the species. But as the variability of the extraordinarily developed part or organ has been so great and long-continued within a period not excessively remote, we might, as a general rule, still expect to find more variability in such parts than in other parts of the organisation which have remained for a much longer period nearly constant. And this, I am convinced, is the case. That the struggle between natural selection on the one hand, and the tendency to reversion and variability on the other hand, will in the course of time cease; and that the most abnormally developed organs may be made constant, I see no reason to doubt. Hence, when an organ, however abnormal it may be, has been transmitted in approximately the same condition to many modified descendants, as in the case of the wing of the bat, it must have existed, according to our theory, for an immense period in nearly the same state; and thus it has come not to be more variable than any other structure. It is only in those cases in which the modification has been comparatively recent and extraordinarily great that we ought to find the GENERATIVE VARIABILITY, as it may be called, still present in a high degree. For in this case the variability will seldom as yet have been fixed by the continued selection of the individuals varying in the required manner and degree, and by the continued rejection of those tending to revert to a former and less modified condition.


The principle discussed under the last heading may be applied to our present subject. It is notorious that specific characters are more variable than generic. To explain by a simple example what is meant: if in a large genus of plants some species had blue flowers and some had red, the colour would be only a specific character, and no one would be surprised at one of the blue species varying into red, or conversely; but if all the species had blue flowers, the colour would become a generic character, and its variation would be a more unusual circumstance. I have chosen this example because the explanation which most naturalists would advance is not here applicable, namely, that specific characters are more variable than generic, because they are taken from parts of less physiological importance than those commonly used for classing genera. I believe this explanation is partly, yet only indirectly, true; I shall, however, have to return to this point in the chapter on Classification. It would be almost superfluous to adduce evidence in support of the statement, that ordinary specific characters are more variable than generic; but with respect to important characters, I have repeatedly noticed in works on natural history, that when an author remarks with surprise that some important organ or part, which is generally very constant throughout a large group of species, DIFFERS considerably in closely-allied species, it is often VARIABLE in the individuals of the same species. And this fact shows that a character, which is generally of generic value, when it sinks in value and becomes only of specific value, often becomes variable, though its physiological importance may remain the same. Something of the same kind applies to monstrosities: at least Is. Geoffroy St. Hilaire apparently entertains no doubt, that the more an organ normally differs in the different species of the same group, the more subject it is to anomalies in the individuals.

On the ordinary view of each species having been independently created, why should that part of the structure, which differs from the same part in other independently created species of the same genus, be more variable than those parts which are closely alike in the several species? I do not see that any explanation can be given. But on the view that species are only strongly marked and fixed varieties, we might expect often to find them still continuing to vary in those parts of their structure which have varied within a moderately recent period, and which have thus come to differ. Or to state the case in another manner: the points in which all the species of a genus resemble each other, and in which they differ from allied genera, are called generic characters; and these characters may be attributed to inheritance from a common progenitor, for it can rarely have happened that natural selection will have modified several distinct species, fitted to more or less widely different habits, in exactly the same manner: and as these so-called generic characters have been inherited from before the period when the several species first branched off from their common progenitor, and subsequently have not varied or come to differ in any degree, or only in a slight degree, it is not probable that they should vary at the present day. On the other hand, the points in which species differ from other species of the same genus are called specific characters; and as these specific characters have varied and come to differ since the period when the species branched off from a common progenitor, it is probable that they should still often be in some degree variable--at least more variable than those parts of the organisation which have for a very long period remained constant.


I think it will be admitted by naturalists, without my entering on details, that secondary sexual characters are highly variable. It will also be admitted that species of the same group differ from each other more widely in their secondary sexual characters, than in other parts of their organisation; compare, for instance, the amount of difference between the males of gallinaceous birds, in which secondary sexual characters are strongly displayed, with the amount of difference between the females. The cause of the original variability of these characters is not manifest; but we can see why they should not have been rendered as constant and uniform as others, for they are accumulated by sexual selection, which is less rigid in its action than ordinary selection, as it does not entail death, but only gives fewer offspring to the less favoured males. Whatever the cause may be of the variability of secondary sexual characters, as they are highly variable, sexual selection will have had a wide scope for action, and may thus have succeeded in giving to the species of the same group a greater amount of difference in these than in other respects.

It is a remarkable fact, that the secondary differences between the two sexes of the same species are generally displayed in the very same parts of the organisation in which the species of the same genus differ from each other. Of this fact I will give in illustration the first two instances which happen to stand on my list; and as the differences in these cases are of a very unusual nature, the relation can hardly be accidental. The same number of joints in the tarsi is a character common to very large groups of beetles, but in the Engidae, as Westwood has remarked, the number varies greatly and the number likewise differs in the two sexes of the same species. Again in the fossorial hymenoptera, the neuration of the wings is a character of the highest importance, because common to large groups; but in certain genera the neuration differs in the different species, and likewise in the two sexes of the same species. Sir J. Lubbock has recently remarked, that several minute crustaceans offer excellent illustrations of this law. "In Pontella, for instance, the sexual characters are afforded mainly by the anterior antennae and by the fifth pair of legs: the specific differences also are principally given by these organs." This relation has a clear meaning on my view: I look at all the species of the same genus as having as certainly descended from the same progenitor, as have the two sexes of any one species. Consequently, whatever part of the structure of the common progenitor, or of its early descendants, became variable; variations of this part would, it is highly probable, be taken advantage of by natural and sexual selection, in order to fit the several places in the economy of nature, and likewise to fit the two sexes of the same species to each other, or to fit the males to struggle with other males for the possession of the females.

Finally, then, I conclude that the greater variability of specific characters, or those which distinguish species from species, than of generic characters, or those which are possessed by all the species; that the frequent extreme variability of any part which is developed in a species in an extraordinary manner in comparison with the same part in its congeners; and the slight degree of variability in a part, however extraordinarily it may be developed, if it be common to a whole group of species; that the great variability of secondary sexual characters and their great difference in closely allied species; that secondary sexual and ordinary specific differences are generally displayed in the same parts of the organisation, are all principles closely connected together. All being mainly due to the species of the same group being the descendants of a common progenitor, from whom they have inherited much in common, to parts which have recently and largely varied being more likely still to go on varying than parts which have long been inherited and have not varied, to natural selection having more or less completely, according to the lapse of time, overmastered the tendency to reversion and to further variability, to sexual selection being less rigid than ordinary selection, and to variations in the same parts having been accumulated by natural and sexual selection, and thus having been adapted for secondary sexual, and for ordinary purposes.

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