In definite variability is a much more common result of changed conditions than definite variability, and has probably played a more important part in the formation of our domestic races. We see in definite variability in the endless slight peculiarities which distinguish the individuals of the same species, and which cannot be accounted for by inheritance from either parent or from some more remote ancestor. Even strongly-marked differences occasionally appear in the young of the same litter, and in seedlings from the same seed-capsule. At long intervals of time, out of millions of individuals reared in the same country and fed on nearly the same food, deviations of structure so strongly pronounced as to deserve to be called monstrosities arise; but monstrosities cannot be separated by any distinct line from slighter variations. All such changes of structure, whether extremely slight or strongly marked, which appear among many individuals living together, may be considered as the in definite effects of the conditions of life on each individual organism, in nearly the same manner as the chill effects different men in an in definite manner, according to their state of body or constitution, causing coughs or colds, rheumatism, or inflammation of various organs.

With respect to what I have called the in direct action of changed conditions, namely, through the reproductive system of being affected, we may infer that variability is thus induced, partly from the fact of this system being extremely sensitive to any change in the conditions, and partly from the similarity, as Kolreuter and others have remarked, between the variability which follows from the crossing of distinct species, and that which may be observed with plants and animals when reared under new or unnatural conditions. Many facts clearly show how eminently susceptible the reproductive system is to very slight changes in the surrounding conditions. Nothing is more easy than to tame an animal, and few things more difficult than to get it to breed freely under confinement, even when the male and female unite. How many animals there are which will not breed, though kept in an almost free state in their native country! This is generally, but erroneously attributed to vitiated instincts. Many cultivated plants display the utmost vigour, and yet rarely or never seed! In some few cases it has been discovered that a very trifling change, such as a little more or less water at some particular period of growth, will determine whether or not a plant will produce seeds. I cannot here give the details which I have collected and elsewhere published on this curious subject; but to show how singular the laws are which determine the reproduction of animals under confinement, I may 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, which seldom produce young; whereas, carnivorous birds, with the rarest exception, hardly ever lay fertile eggs. Many exotic plants have pollen utterly worthless, in the same condition as in the most sterile hybrids. When, on the one hand, we see domesticated animals and plants, though often weak and sickly, breeding 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 to act, we need not be surprised at this system, when it does act under confinement, acting irregularly, and producing offspring somewhat unlike their parents. I may add that as some organisms breed freely under the most unnatural conditions--for instance, rabbits and ferrets kept in hutches--showing that their reproductive organs are not easily affected; so will some animals and plants withstand domestication or cultivation, and vary very slightly--perhaps hardly more than in a state of nature.

The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection Page 15

Charles Darwin

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book