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Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection

Page 53 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

The Pleuronectidae, or Flat-fish, are remarkable for their asymmetrical bodies. They rest on one side--in the greater number of species on the left, but in some on the right side; and occasionally reversed adult specimens occur. The lower, or resting-surface, resembles at first sight the ventral surface of an ordinary fish; it is of a white colour, less developed in many ways than the upper side, with the lateral fins often of smaller size. But the eyes offer the most remarkable peculiarity; for they are both placed on the upper side of the head. During early youth, however, they stand opposite to each other, and the whole body is then symmetrical, with both sides equally coloured. Soon the eye proper to the lower side begins to glide slowly round the head to the upper side; but does not pass right through the skull, as was formerly thought to be the case. It is obvious that unless the lower eye did thus travel round, it could not be used by the fish while lying in its habitual position on one side. The lower eye would, also, have been liable to be abraded by the sandy bottom. That the Pleuronectidae are admirably adapted by their flattened and asymmetrical structure for their habits of life, is manifest from several species, such as soles, flounders, etc., being extremely common. The chief advantages thus gained seem to be protection from their enemies, and facility for feeding on the ground. The different members, however, of the family present, as Schiodte remarks, "a long series of forms exhibiting a gradual transition from Hippoglossus pinguis, which does not in any considerable degree alter the shape in which it leaves the ovum, to the soles, which are entirely thrown to one side."

Mr. Mivart has taken up this case, and remarks that a sudden spontaneous transformation in the position of the eyes is hardly conceivable, in which I quite agree with him. He then adds: "If the transit was gradual, then how such transit of one eye a minute fraction of the journey towards the other side of the head could benefit the individual is, indeed, far from clear. It seems, even, that such an incipient transformation must rather have been injurious." But he might have found an answer to this objection in the excellent observations published in 1867 by Malm. The Pleuronectidae, while very young and still symmetrical, with their eyes standing on opposite sides of the head, cannot long retain a vertical position, owing to the excessive depth of their bodies, the small size of their lateral fins, and to their being destitute of a swim-bladder. Hence, soon growing tired, they fall to the bottom on one side. While thus at rest they often twist, as Malm observed, the lower eye upward, to see above them; and they do this so vigorously that the eye is pressed hard against the upper part of the orbit. The forehead between the eyes consequently becomes, as could be plainly seen, temporarily contracted in breadth. On one occasion Malm saw a young fish raise and depress the lower eye through an angular distance of about seventy degrees.

We should remember that the skull at this early age is cartilaginous and flexible, so that it readily yields to muscular action. It is also known with the higher animals, even after early youth, that the skull yields and is altered in shape, if the skin or muscles be permanently contracted through disease or some accident. With long-eared rabbits, if one ear flops forward and downward, its weight drags forward all the bones of the skull on the same side, of which I have given a figure. Malm states that the newly-hatched young of perches, salmon, and several other symmetrical fishes, have the habit of occasionally resting on one side at the bottom; and he has observed that they often then strain their lower eyes so as to look upward; and their skulls are thus rendered rather crooked. These fishes, however, are soon able to hold themselves in a vertical position, and no permanent effect is thus produced. With the Pleuronectidae, on the other hand, the older they grow the more habitually they rest on one side, owing to the increasing flatness of their bodies, and a permanent effect is thus produced on the form of the head, and on the position of the eyes. Judging from analogy, the tendency to distortion would no doubt be increased through the principle of inheritance. Schiodte believes, in opposition to some other naturalists, that the Pleuronectidae are not quite symmetrical even in the embryo; and if this be so, we could understand how it is that certain species, while young, habitually fall over and rest on the left side, and other species on the right side. Malm adds, in confirmation of the above view, that the adult Trachypterus arcticus, which is not a member of the Pleuronectidae, rests on its left side at the bottom, and swims diagonally through the water; and in this fish, the two sides of the head are said to be somewhat dissimilar. Our great authority on Fishes, Dr. Gunther, concludes his abstract of Malm's paper, by remarking that "the author gives a very simple explanation of the abnormal condition of the Pleuronectoids."

We thus see that the first stages of the transit of the eye from one side of the head to the other, which Mr. Mivart considers would be injurious, may be attributed to the habit, no doubt beneficial to the individual and to the species, of endeavouring to look upward with both eyes, while resting on one side at the bottom. We may also attribute to the inherited effects of use the fact of the mouth in several kinds of flat-fish being bent towards the lower surface, with the jaw bones stronger and more effective on this, the eyeless side of the head, than on the other, for the sake, as Dr. Traquair supposes, of feeding with ease on the ground. Disuse, on the other hand, will account for the less developed condition of the whole inferior half of the body, including the lateral fins; though Yarrel thinks that the reduced size of these fins is advantageous to the fish, as "there is so much less room for their action than with the larger fins above." Perhaps the lesser number of teeth in the proportion of four to seven in the upper halves of the two jaws of the plaice, to twenty-five to thirty in the lower halves, may likewise be accounted for by disuse. >From the colourless state of the ventral surface of most fishes and of many other animals, we may reasonably suppose that the absence of colour in flat-fish on the side, whether it be the right or left, which is under- most, is due to the exclusion of light. But it cannot be supposed that the peculiar speckled appearance of the upper side of the sole, so like the sandy bed of the sea, or the power in some species, as recently shown by Pouchet, of changing their colour in accordance with the surrounding surface, or the presence of bony tubercles on the upper side of the turbot, are due to the action of the light. Here natural selection has probably come into play, as well as in adapting the general shape of the body of these fishes, and many other peculiarities, to their habits of life. We should keep in mind, as I have before insisted, that the inherited effects of the increased use of parts, and perhaps of their disuse, will be strengthened by natural selection. For all spontaneous variations in the right direction will thus be preserved; as will those individuals which inherit in the highest degree the effects of the increased and beneficial use of any part. How much to attribute in each particular case to the effects of use, and how much to natural selection, it seems impossible to decide.

I may give another instance of a structure which apparently owes its origin exclusively to use or habit. The extremity of the tail in some American monkeys has been converted into a wonderfully perfect prehensile organ, and serves as a fifth hand. A reviewer, who agrees with Mr. Mivart in every detail, remarks on this structure: "It is impossible to believe that in any number of ages the first slight incipient tendency to grasp could preserve the lives of the individuals possessing it, or favour their chance of having and of rearing offspring." But there is no necessity for any such belief. Habit, and this almost implies that some benefit great or small is thus derived, would in all probability suffice for the work. Brehm saw the young of an African monkey (Cercopithecus) clinging to the under surface of their mother by their hands, and at the same time they hooked their little tails round that of their mother. Professor Henslow kept in confinement some harvest mice (Mus messorius) which do not possess a structurally prehensive tail; but he frequently observed that they curled their tails round the branches of a bush placed in the cage, and thus aided themselves in climbing. I have received an analogous account from Dr. Gunther, who has seen a mouse thus suspend itself. If the harvest mouse had been more strictly arboreal, it would perhaps have had its tail rendered structurally prehensile, as is the case with some members of the same order. Why Cercopithecus, considering its habits while young, has not become thus provided, it would be difficult to say. It is, however, possible that the long tail of this monkey may be of more service to it as a balancing organ in making its prodigious leaps, than as a prehensile organ.

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