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Miscellaneous Objections - Chapter VII - Origin of Species

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We thus see that with plants many morphological changes may be attributed to the laws of growth and the inter-action of parts, independently of natural selection. But with respect to Nageli's doctrine of an innate tendency towards perfection or progressive development, can it be said in the case of these strongly pronounced variations, that the plants have been caught in the act of progressing towards a higher state of development? On the contrary, I should infer from the mere fact of the parts in question differing or varying greatly on the same plant, that such modifications were of extremely small importance to the plants themselves, of whatever importance they may generally be to us for our classifications. The acquisition of a useless part can hardly be said to raise an organism in the natural scale; and in the case of the imperfect, closed flowers, above described, if any new principle has to be invoked, it must be one of retrogression rather than of progression; and so it must be with many parasitic and degraded animals. We are ignorant of the exciting cause of the above specified modifications; but if the unknown cause were to act almost uniformly for a length of time, we may infer that the result would be almost uniform; and in this case all the individuals of the species would be modified in the same manner.

>From the fact of the above characters being unimportant for the welfare of the species, any slight variations which occurred in them would not have been accumulated and augmented through natural selection. A structure which has been developed through long-continued selection, when it ceases to be of service to a species, generally becomes variable, as we see with rudimentary organs; for it will no longer be regulated by this same power of selection. But when, from the nature of the organism and of the conditions, modifications have been induced which are unimportant for the welfare of the species, they may be, and apparently often have been, transmitted in nearly the same state to numerous, otherwise modified, descendants. It cannot have been of much importance to the greater number of mammals, birds, or reptiles, whether they were clothed with hair, feathers or scales; yet hair has been transmitted to almost all mammals, feathers to all birds, and scales to all true reptiles. A structure, whatever it may be, which is common to many allied forms, is ranked by us as of high systematic importance, and consequently is often assumed to be of high vital importance to the species. Thus, as I am inclined to believe, morphological differences, which we consider as important--such as the arrangement of the leaves, the divisions of the flower or of the ovarium, the position of the ovules, etc., first appeared in many cases as fluctuating variations, which sooner or later became constant through the nature of the organism and of the surrounding conditions, as well as through the intercrossing of distinct individuals, but not through natural selection; for as these morphological characters do not affect the welfare of the species, any slight deviations in them could not have been governed or accumulated through this latter agency. It is a strange result which we thus arrive at, namely, that characters of slight vital importance to the species, are the most important to the systematist; but, as we shall hereafter see when we treat of the genetic principle of classification, this is by no means so paradoxical as it may at first appear.

Although we have no good evidence of the existence in organic beings of an innate tendency towards progressive development, yet this necessarily follows, as I have attempted to show in the fourth chapter, through the continued action of natural selection. For the best definition which has ever been given of a high standard of organisation, is the degree to which the parts have been specialised or differentiated; and natural selection tends towards this end, inasmuch as the parts are thus enabled to perform their functions more efficiently.

A distinguished zoologist, Mr. St. George Mivart, has recently collected all the objections which have ever been advanced by myself and others against the theory of natural selection, as propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself, and has illustrated them with admirable art and force. When thus marshalled, they make a formidable array; and as it forms no part of Mr. Mivart's plan to give the various facts and considerations opposed to his conclusions, no slight effort of reason and memory is left to the reader, who may wish to weigh the evidence on both sides. When discussing special cases, Mr. Mivart passes over the effects of the increased use and disuse of parts, which I have always maintained to be highly important, and have treated in my "Variation under Domestication" at greater length than, as I believe, any other writer. He likewise often assumes that I attribute nothing to variation, independently of natural selection, whereas in the work just referred to I have collected a greater number of well-established cases than can be found in any other work known to me. My judgment may not be trustworthy, but after reading with care Mr. Mivart's book, and comparing each section with what I have said on the same head, I never before felt so strongly convinced of the general truth of the conclusions here arrived at, subject, of course, in so intricate a subject, to much partial error.

All Mr. Mivart's objections will be, or have been, considered in the present volume. The one new point which appears to have struck many readers is, "That natural selection is incompetent to account for the incipient stages of useful structures." This subject is intimately connected with that of the gradation of the characters, often accompanied by a change of function, for instance, the conversion of a swim-bladder into lungs, points which were discussed in the last chapter under two headings. Nevertheless, I will here consider in some detail several of the cases advanced by Mr. Mivart, selecting those which are the most illustrative, as want of space prevents me from considering all.

The giraffe, by its lofty stature, much elongated neck, fore legs, head and tongue, has its whole frame beautifully adapted for browsing on the higher branches of trees. It can thus obtain food beyond the reach of the other Ungulata or hoofed animals inhabiting the same country; and this must be a great advantage to it during dearths. The Niata cattle in South America show us how small a difference in structure may make, during such periods, a great difference in preserving an animal's life. These cattle can browse as well as others on grass, but from the projection of the lower jaw they cannot, during the often recurrent droughts, browse on the twigs of trees, reeds, etc., to which food the common cattle and horses are then driven; so that at these times the Niatas perish, if not fed by their owners. Before coming to Mr. Mivart's objections, it may be well to explain once again how natural selection will act in all ordinary cases. Man has modified some of his animals, without necessarily having attended to special points of structure, by simply preserving and breeding from the fleetest individuals, as with the race-horse and greyhound, or as with the game-cock, by breeding from the victorious birds. So under nature with the nascent giraffe, the individuals which were the highest browsers and were able during dearths to reach even an inch or two above the others, will often have been preserved; for they will have roamed over the whole country in search of food. That the individuals of the same species often differ slightly in the relative lengths of all their parts may be seen in many works of natural history, in which careful measurements are given. These slight proportional differences, due to the laws of growth and variation, are not of the slightest use or importance to most species. But it will have been otherwise with the nascent giraffe, considering its probable habits of life; for those individuals which had some one part or several parts of their bodies rather more elongated than usual, would generally have survived. These will have intercrossed and left offspring, either inheriting the same bodily peculiarities, or with a tendency to vary again in the same manner; while the individuals less favoured in the same respects will have been the most liable to perish.

We here see that there is no need to separate single pairs, as man does, when he methodically improves a breed: natural selection will preserve and thus separate all the superior individuals, allowing them freely to intercross, and will destroy all the inferior individuals. By this process long-continued, which exactly corresponds with what I have called unconscious selection by man, combined, no doubt, in a most important manner with the inherited effects of the increased use of parts, it seems to me almost certain that an ordinary hoofed quadruped might be converted into a giraffe.

To this conclusion Mr. Mivart brings forward two objections. One is that the increased size of the body would obviously require an increased supply of food, and he considers it as "very problematical whether the disadvantages thence arising would not, in times of scarcity, more than counterbalance the advantages." But as the giraffe does actually exist in large numbers in Africa, and as some of the largest antelopes in the world, taller than an ox, abound there, why should we doubt that, as far as size is concerned, intermediate gradations could formerly have existed there, subjected as now to severe dearths. Assuredly the being able to reach, at each stage of increased size, to a supply of food, left untouched by the other hoofed quadrupeds of the country, would have been of some advantage to the nascent giraffe. Nor must we overlook the fact, that increased bulk would act as a protection against almost all beasts of prey excepting the lion; and against this animal, its tall neck--and the taller the better-- would, as Mr. Chauncey Wright has remarked, serve as a watch-tower. It is from this cause, as Sir S. Baker remarks, that no animal is more difficult to stalk than the giraffe. This animal also uses its long neck as a means of offence or defence, by violently swinging its head armed with stump-like horns. The preservation of each species can rarely be determined by any one advantage, but by the union of all, great and small.

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