Page 51 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

Mr. Mivart then asks (and this is his second objection), if natural selection be so potent, and if high browsing be so great an advantage, why has not any other hoofed quadruped acquired a long neck and lofty stature, besides the giraffe, and, in a lesser degree, the camel, guanaco and macrauchenia? Or, again, why has not any member of the group acquired a long proboscis? With respect to South Africa, which was formerly inhabited by numerous herds of the giraffe, the answer is not difficult, and can best be given by an illustration. In every meadow in England, in which trees grow, we see the lower branches trimmed or planed to an exact level by the browsing of the horses or cattle; and what advantage would it be, for instance, to sheep, if kept there, to acquire slightly longer necks? In every district some one kind of animal will almost certainly be able to browse higher than the others; and it is almost equally certain that this one kind alone could have its neck elongated for this purpose, through natural selection and the effects of increased use. In South Africa the competition for browsing on the higher branches of the acacias and other trees must be between giraffe and giraffe, and not with the other ungulate animals.

Why, in other quarters of the world, various animals belonging to this same order have not acquired either an elongated neck or a proboscis, cannot be distinctly answered; but it is as unreasonable to expect a distinct answer to such a question as why some event in the history of mankind did not occur in one country while it did in another. We are ignorant with respect to the conditions which determine the numbers and range of each species, and we cannot even conjecture what changes of structure would be favourable to its increase in some new country. We can, however, see in a general manner that various causes might have interfered with the development of a long neck or proboscis. To reach the foliage at a considerable height (without climbing, for which hoofed animals are singularly ill-constructed) implies greatly increased bulk of body; and we know that some areas support singularly few large quadrupeds, for instance South America, though it is so luxuriant, while South Africa abounds with them to an unparalleled degree. Why this should be so we do not know; nor why the later tertiary periods should have been much more favourable for their existence than the present time. Whatever the causes may have been, we can see that certain districts and times would have been much more favourable than others for the development of so large a quadruped as the giraffe.

In order that an animal should acquire some structure specially and largely developed, it is almost indispensable that several other parts should be modified and coadapted. Although every part of the body varies slightly, it does not follow that the necessary parts should always vary in the right direction and to the right degree. With the different species of our domesticated animals we know that the parts vary in a different manner and degree, and that some species are much more variable than others. Even if the fitting variations did arise, it does not follow that natural selection would be able to act on them and produce a structure which apparently would be beneficial to the species. For instance, if the number of individuals existing in a country is determined chiefly through destruction by beasts of prey--by external or internal parasites, etc.--as seems often to be the case, then natural selection will be able to do little, or will be greatly retarded, in modifying any particular structure for obtaining food. Lastly, natural selection is a slow process, and the same favourable conditions must long endure in order that any marked effect should thus be produced. Except by assigning such general and vague reasons, we cannot explain why, in many quarters of the world, hoofed quadrupeds have not acquired much elongated necks or other means for browsing on the higher branches of trees.

Objections of the same nature as the foregoing have been advanced by many writers. In each case various causes, besides the general ones just indicated, have probably interfered with the acquisition through natural selection of structures, which it is thought would be beneficial to certain species. One writer asks, why has not the ostrich acquired the power of flight? But a moment's reflection will show what an enormous supply of food would be necessary to give to this bird of the desert force to move its huge body through the air. Oceanic islands are inhabited by bats and seals, but by no terrestrial mammals; yet as some of these bats are peculiar species, they must have long inhabited their present homes. Therefore Sir C. Lyell asks, and assigns certain reasons in answer, why have not seals and bats given birth on such islands to forms fitted to live on the land? But seals would necessarily be first converted into terrestrial carnivorous animals of considerable size, and bats into terrestrial insectivorous animals; for the former there would be no prey; for the bats ground-insects would serve as food, but these would already be largely preyed on by the reptiles or birds, which first colonise and abound on most oceanic islands. Gradations of structure, with each stage beneficial to a changing species, will be favoured only under certain peculiar conditions. A strictly terrestrial animal, by occasionally hunting for food in shallow water, then in streams or lakes, might at last be converted into an animal so thoroughly aquatic as to brave the open ocean. But seals would not find on oceanic islands the conditions favourable to their gradual reconversion into a terrestrial form. Bats, as formerly shown, probably acquired their wings by at first gliding through the air from tree to tree, like the so-called flying squirrels, for the sake of escaping from their enemies, or for avoiding falls; but when the power of true flight had once been acquired, it would never be reconverted back, at least for the above purposes, into the less efficient power of gliding through the air. Bats, might, indeed, like many birds, have had their wings greatly reduced in size, or completely lost, through disuse; but in this case it would be necessary that they should first have acquired the power of running quickly on the ground, by the aid of their hind legs alone, so as to compete with birds or other ground animals; and for such a change a bat seems singularly ill-fitted. These conjectural remarks have been made merely to show that a transition of structure, with each step beneficial, is a highly complex affair; and that there is nothing strange in a transition not having occurred in any particular case.

Lastly, more than one writer has asked why have some animals had their mental powers more highly developed than others, as such development would be advantageous to all? Why have not apes acquired the intellectual powers of man? Various causes could be assigned; but as they are conjectural, and their relative probability cannot be weighed, it would be useless to give them. A definite answer to the latter question ought not to be expected, seeing that no one can solve the simpler problem, why, of two races of savages, one has risen higher in the scale of civilisation than the other; and this apparently implies increased brain power.

We will return to Mr. Mivart's other objections. Insects often resemble for the sake of protection various objects, such as green or decayed leaves, dead twigs, bits of lichen, flowers, spines, excrement of birds, and living insects; but to this latter point I shall hereafter recur. The resemblance is often wonderfully close, and is not confined to colour, but extends to form, and even to the manner in which the insects hold themselves. The caterpillars which project motionless like dead twigs from the bushes on which they feed, offer an excellent instance of a resemblance of this kind. The cases of the imitation of such objects as the excrement of birds, are rare and exceptional. On this head, Mr. Mivart remarks, "As, according to Mr. Darwin's theory, there is a constant tendency to indefinite variation, and as the minute incipient variations will be in ALL DIRECTIONS, they must tend to neutralize each other, and at first to form such unstable modifications that it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how such indefinite oscillations of infinitesimal beginnings can ever build up a sufficiently appreciable resemblance to a leaf, bamboo, or other object, for natural selection to seize upon and perpetuate."

But in all the foregoing cases the insects in their original state no doubt presented some rude and accidental resemblance to an object commonly found in the stations frequented by them. Nor is this at all improbable, considering the almost infinite number of surrounding objects and the diversity in form and colour of the hosts of insects which exist. As some rude resemblance is necessary for the first start, we can understand how it is that the larger and higher animals do not (with the exception, as far as I know, of one fish) resemble for the sake of protection special objects, but only the surface which commonly surrounds them, and this chiefly in colour. Assuming that an insect originally happened to resemble in some degree a dead twig or a decayed leaf, and that it varied slightly in many ways, then all the variations which rendered the insect at all more like any such object, and thus favoured its escape, would be preserved, while other variations would be neglected and ultimately lost; or, if they rendered the insect at all less like the imitated object, they would be eliminated. There would indeed be force in Mr. Mivart's objection, if we were to attempt to account for the above resemblances, independently of natural selection, through mere fluctuating variability; but as the case stands there is none.

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