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Hybridism - Chapter IX - Origin of Species

Page 70 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

We thus see that, although there is a clear and great difference between the mere adhesion of grafted stocks and the union of the male and female elements in the act of reproduction, yet that there is a rude degree of parallelism in the results of grafting and of crossing distinct species. And as we must look at the curious and complex laws governing the facility with which trees can be grafted on each other as incidental on unknown differences in their vegetative systems, so I believe that the still more complex laws governing the facility of first crosses are incidental on unknown differences in their reproductive systems. These differences in both cases follow, to a certain extent, as might have been expected, systematic affinity, by which term every kind of resemblance and dissimilarity between organic beings is attempted to be expressed. The facts by no means seem to indicate that the greater or lesser difficulty of either grafting or crossing various species has been a special endowment; although in the case of crossing, the difficulty is as important for the endurance and stability of specific forms as in the case of grafting it is unimportant for their welfare.


At one time it appeared to me probable, as it has to others, that the sterility of first crosses and of hybrids might have been slowly acquired through the natural selection of slightly lessened degrees of fertility, which, like any other variation, spontaneously appeared in certain individuals of one variety when crossed with those of another variety. For it would clearly be advantageous to two varieties or incipient species if they could be kept from blending, on the same principle that, when man is selecting at the same time two varieties, it is necessary that he should keep them separate. In the first place, it may be remarked that species inhabiting distinct regions are often sterile when crossed; now it could clearly have been of no advantage to such separated species to have been rendered mutually sterile, and consequently this could not have been effected through natural selection; but it may perhaps be argued, that, if a species was rendered sterile with some one compatriot, sterility with other species would follow as a necessary contingency. In the second place, it is almost as much opposed to the theory of natural selection as to that of special creation, that in reciprocal crosses the male element of one form should have been rendered utterly impotent on a second form, while at the same time the male element of this second form is enabled freely to fertilise the first form; for this peculiar state of the reproductive system could hardly have been advantageous to either species.

In considering the probability of natural selection having come into action, in rendering species mutually sterile, the greatest difficulty will be found to lie in the existence of many graduated steps, from slightly lessened fertility to absolute sterility. It may be admitted that it would profit an incipient species, if it were rendered in some slight degree sterile when crossed with its parent form or with some other variety; for thus fewer bastardised and deteriorated offspring would be produced to commingle their blood with the new species in process of formation. But he who will take the trouble to reflect on the steps by which this first degree of sterility could be increased through natural selection to that high degree which is common with so many species, and which is universal with species which have been differentiated to a generic or family rank, will find the subject extraordinarily complex. After mature reflection, it seems to me that this could not have been effected through natural selection. Take the case of any two species which, when crossed, produced few and sterile offspring; now, what is there which could favour the survival of those individuals which happened to be endowed in a slightly higher degree with mutual infertility, and which thus approached by one small step towards absolute sterility? Yet an advance of this kind, if the theory of natural selection be brought to bear, must have incessantly occurred with many species, for a multitude are mutually quite barren. With sterile neuter insects we have reason to believe that modifications in their structure and fertility have been slowly accumulated by natural selection, from an advantage having been thus indirectly given to the community to which they belonged over other communities of the same species; but an individual animal not belonging to a social community, if rendered slightly sterile when crossed with some other variety, would not thus itself gain any advantage or indirectly give any advantage to the other individuals of the same variety, thus leading to their preservation.

But it would be superfluous to discuss this question in detail: for with plants we have conclusive evidence that the sterility of crossed species must be due to some principle, quite independent of natural selection. Both Gartner and Kolreuter have proved that in genera including numerous species, a series can be formed from species which when crossed yield fewer and fewer seeds, to species which never produce a single seed, but yet are affected by the pollen of certain other species, for the germen swells. It is here manifestly impossible to select the more sterile individuals, which have already ceased to yield seeds; so that this acme of sterility, when the germen alone is effected, cannot have been gained through selection; and from the laws governing the various grades of sterility being so uniform throughout the animal and vegetable kingdoms, we may infer that the cause, whatever it may be, is the same or nearly the same in all cases.

We will now look a little closer at the probable nature of the differences between species which induce sterility in first crosses and in hybrids. In the case of first crosses, the greater or less difficulty in effecting a union and in obtaining offspring apparently depends on several distinct causes. There must sometimes be a physical impossibility in the male element reaching the ovule, as would be the case with a plant having a pistil too long for the pollen-tubes to reach the ovarium. It has also been observed that when the pollen of one species is placed on the stigma of a distantly allied species, though the pollen-tubes protrude, they do not penetrate the stigmatic surface. Again, the male element may reach the female element, but be incapable of causing an embryo to be developed, as seems to have been the case with some of Thuret's experiments on Fuci. No explanation can be given of these facts, any more than why certain trees cannot be grafted on others. Lastly, an embryo may be developed, and then perish at an early period. This latter alternative has not been sufficiently attended to; but I believe, from observations communicated to me by Mr. Hewitt, who has had great experience in hybridising pheasants and fowls, that the early death of the embryo is a very frequent cause of sterility in first crosses. Mr. Salter has recently given the results of an examination of about 500 eggs produced from various crosses between three species of Gallus and their hybrids; the majority of these eggs had been fertilised; and in the majority of the fertilised eggs, the embryos had either been partially developed and had then perished, or had become nearly mature, but the young chickens had been unable to break through the shell. Of the chickens which were born, more than four-fifths died within the first few days, or at latest weeks, "without any obvious cause, apparently from mere inability to live;" so that from the 500 eggs only twelve chickens were reared. With plants, hybridized embryos probably often perish in a like manner; at least it is known that hybrids raised from very distinct species are sometimes weak and dwarfed, and perish at an early age; of which fact Max Wichura has recently given some striking cases with hybrid willows. It may be here worth noticing that in some cases of parthenogenesis, the embryos within the eggs of silk moths which had not been fertilised, pass through their early stages of development and then perish like the embryos produced by a cross between distinct species. Until becoming acquainted with these facts, I was unwilling to believe in the frequent early death of hybrid embryos; for hybrids, when once born, are generally healthy and long-lived, as we see in the case of the common mule. Hybrids, however, are differently circumstanced before and after birth: when born and living in a country where their two parents live, they are generally placed under suitable conditions of life. But a hybrid partakes of only half of the nature and constitution of its mother; it may therefore, before birth, as long as it is nourished within its mother's womb, or within the egg or seed produced by the mother, be exposed to conditions in some degree unsuitable, and consequently be liable to perish at an early period; more especially as all very young beings are eminently sensitive to injurious or unnatural conditions of life. But after all, the cause more probably lies in some imperfection in the original act of impregnation, causing the embryo to be imperfectly developed, rather than in the conditions to which it is subsequently exposed.

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