Page 73 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

The real difficulty in our present subject is not, as it appears to me, why domestic varieties have not become mutually infertile when crossed, but why this has so generally occurred with natural varieties, as soon as they have been permanently modified in a sufficient degree to take rank as species. We are far from precisely knowing the cause; nor is this surprising, seeing how profoundly ignorant we are in regard to the normal and abnormal action of the reproductive system. But we can see that species, owing to their struggle for existence with numerous competitors, will have been exposed during long periods of time to more uniform conditions, than have domestic varieties; and this may well make a wide difference in the result. For we know how commonly wild animals and plants, when taken from their natural conditions and subjected to captivity, are rendered sterile; and the reproductive functions of organic beings which have always lived under natural conditions would probably in like manner be eminently sensitive to the influence of an unnatural cross. Domesticated productions, on the other hand, which, as shown by the mere fact of their domestication, were not originally highly sensitive to changes in their conditions of life, and which can now generally resist with undiminished fertility repeated changes of conditions, might be expected to produce varieties, which would be little liable to have their reproductive powers injuriously affected by the act of crossing with other varieties which had originated in a like manner.

I have as yet spoken as if the varieties of the same species were invariably fertile when intercrossed. But it is impossible to resist the evidence of the existence of a certain amount of sterility in the few following cases, which I will briefly abstract. The evidence is at least as good as that from which we believe in the sterility of a multitude of species. The evidence is also derived from hostile witnesses, who in all other cases consider fertility and sterility as safe criterions of specific distinction. Gartner kept, during several years, a dwarf kind of maize with yellow seeds, and a tall variety with red seeds growing near each other in his garden; and although these plants have separated sexes, they never naturally crossed. He then fertilised thirteen flowers of the one kind with pollen of the other; but only a single head produced any seed, and this one head produced only five grains. Manipulation in this case could not have been injurious, as the plants have separated sexes. No one, I believe, has suspected that these varieties of maize are distinct species; and it is important to notice that the hybrid plants thus raised were themselves PERFECTLY fertile; so that even Gartner did not venture to consider the two varieties as specifically distinct.

Girou de Buzareingues crossed three varieties of gourd, which like the maize has separated sexes, and he asserts that their mutual fertilisation is by so much the less easy as their differences are greater. How far these experiments may be trusted, I know not; but the forms experimented on are ranked by Sagaret, who mainly founds his classification by the test of infertility, as varieties, and Naudin has come to the same conclusion.

The following case is far more remarkable, and seems at first incredible; but it is the result of an astonishing number of experiments made during many years on nine species of Verbascum, by so good an observer and so hostile a witness as Gartner: namely, that the yellow and white varieties when crossed produce less seed than the similarly coloured varieties of the same species. Moreover, he asserts that, when yellow and white varieties of one species are crossed with yellow and white varieties of a DISTINCT species, more seed is produced by the crosses between the similarly coloured flowers, than between those which are differently coloured. Mr. Scott also has experimented on the species and varieties of Verbascum; and although unable to confirm Gartner's results on the crossing of the distinct species, he finds that the dissimilarly coloured varieties of the same species yield fewer seeds, in the proportion of eighty-six to 100, than the similarly coloured varieties. Yet these varieties differ in no respect, except in the colour of their flowers; and one variety can sometimes be raised from the seed of another.

Kolreuter, whose accuracy has been confirmed by every subsequent observer, has proved the remarkable fact that one particular variety of the common tobacco was more fertile than the other varieties, when crossed with a widely distinct species. He experimented on five forms which are commonly reputed to be varieties, and which he tested by the severest trial, namely, by reciprocal crosses, and he found their mongrel offspring perfectly fertile. But one of these five varieties, when used either as the father or mother, and crossed with the Nicotiana glutinosa, always yielded hybrids not so sterile as those which were produced from the four other varieties when crossed with N. glutinosa. Hence the reproductive system of this one variety must have been in some manner and in some degree modified.

>From these facts it can no longer be maintained that varieties when crossed are invariably quite fertile. From the great difficulty of ascertaining the infertility of varieties in a state of nature, for a supposed variety, if proved to be infertile in any degree, would almost universally be ranked as a species; from man attending only to external characters in his domestic varieties, and from such varieties not having been exposed for very long periods to uniform conditions of life; from these several considerations we may conclude that fertility does not constitute a fundamental distinction between varieties and species when crossed. The general sterility of crossed species may safely be looked at, not as a special acquirement or endowment, but as incidental on changes of an unknown nature in their sexual elements.


Independently of the question of fertility, the offspring of species and of varieties when crossed may be compared in several other respects. Gartner, whose strong wish it was to draw a distinct line between species and varieties, could find very few, and, as it seems to me, quite unimportant differences between the so-called hybrid offspring of species, and the so-called mongrel offspring of varieties. And, on the other hand, they agree most closely in many important respects.

I shall here discuss this subject with extreme brevity. The most important distinction is, that in the first generation mongrels are more variable than hybrids; but Gartner admits that hybrids from species which have long been cultivated are often variable in the first generation; and I have myself seen striking instances of this fact. Gartner further admits that hybrids between very closely allied species are more variable than those from very distinct species; and this shows that the difference in the degree of variability graduates away. When mongrels and the more fertile hybrids are propagated for several generations, an extreme amount of variability in the offspring in both cases is notorious; but some few instances of both hybrids and mongrels long retaining a uniform character could be given. The variability, however, in the successive generations of mongrels is, perhaps, greater than in hybrids.

This greater variability in mongrels than in hybrids does not seem at all surprising. For the parents of mongrels are varieties, and mostly domestic varieties (very few experiments having been tried on natural varieties), and this implies that there has been recent variability; which would often continue and would augment that arising from the act of crossing. The slight variability of hybrids in the first generation, in contrast with that in the succeeding generations, is a curious fact and deserves attention. For it bears on the view which I have taken of one of the causes of ordinary variability; namely, that the reproductive system, from being eminently sensitive to changed conditions of life, fails under these circumstances to perform its proper function of producing offspring closely similar in all respects to the parent-form. Now, hybrids in the first generation are descended from species (excluding those long cultivated) which have not had their reproductive systems in any way affected, and they are not variable; but hybrids themselves have their reproductive systems seriously affected, and their descendants are highly variable.

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