But I am strongly inclined to suspect that the most frequent cause of variability may be attributed to the male and female reproductive elements having been affected prior to the act of conception. Several reasons make me believe in this; but the chief one is the remarkable effect which confinement or cultivation has on the functions of the reproductive system; this system appearing to be far more susceptible than any other part of the organisation, to the action of any change in the conditions of life. Nothing is more easy than to tame an animal, and few things more difficult than to get it to breed freely under confinement, even in the many cases when the male and female unite. How many animals there are which will not breed, though living long under not very close confinement in their native country! This is generally attributed to vitiated instincts; but how many cultivated plants display the utmost vigour, and yet rarely or never seed! In some few such cases it has been found out that very trifling changes, such as a little more or less water at some particular period of growth, will determine whether or not the plant sets a seed. I cannot here enter on the copious details which I have collected on this curious subject; but to show how singular the laws are which determine the reproduction of animals under confinement, I may just mention that carnivorous animals, even from the tropics, breed in this country pretty freely under confinement, with the exception of the plantigrades or bear family; whereas, carnivorous birds, with the rarest exceptions, hardly ever lay fertile eggs. Many exotic plants have pollen utterly worthless, in the same exact condition as in the most sterile hybrids. When, on the one hand, we see domesticated animals and plants, though often weak and sickly, yet breeding quite freely under confinement; and when, on the other hand, we see individuals, though taken young from a state of nature, perfectly tamed, long-lived, and healthy (of which I could give numerous instances), yet having their reproductive system so seriously affected by unperceived causes as to fail in acting, we need not be surprised at this system, when it does act under confinement, acting not quite regularly, and producing offspring not perfectly like their parents or variable.
Sterility has been said to be the bane of horticulture; but on this view we owe variability to the same cause which produces sterility; and variability is the source of all the choicest productions of the garden. I may add, that as some organisms will breed most freely under the most unnatural conditions (for instance, the rabbit and ferret kept in hutches), showing that their reproductive system has not been thus affected; so will some animals and plants withstand domestication or cultivation, and vary very slightly--perhaps hardly more than in a state of nature.
A long list could easily be given of "sporting plants;" by this term gardeners mean a single bud or offset, which suddenly assumes a new and sometimes very different character from that of the rest of the plant. Such buds can be propagated by grafting, etc., and sometimes by seed. These "sports" are extremely rare under nature, but far from rare under cultivation; and in this case we see that the treatment of the parent has affected a bud or offset, and not the ovules or pollen. But it is the opinion of most physiologists that there is no essential difference between a bud and an ovule in their earliest stages of formation; so that, in fact, "sports" support my view, that variability may be largely attributed to the ovules or pollen, or to both, having been affected by the treatment of the parent prior to the act of conception. These cases anyhow show that variation is not necessarily connected, as some authors have supposed, with the act of generation.
Seedlings from the same fruit, and the young of the same litter, sometimes differ considerably from each other, though both the young and the parents, as Muller has remarked, have apparently been exposed to exactly the same conditions of life; and this shows how unimportant the direct effects of the conditions of life are in comparison with the laws of reproduction, and of growth, and of inheritance; for had the action of the conditions been direct, if any of the young had varied, all would probably have varied in the same manner.