In the last two chapters the nature and force of Inheritance, the circumstances which interfere with its power, and the tendency to Reversion, with its many remarkable contingencies, were discussed. In the present chapter some other related phenomena will be treated of, as fully as my materials permit.
FIXEDNESS OF CHARACTER.
It is a general belief amongst breeders that the longer any character has been transmitted by a breed, the more fully it will continue to be transmitted. I do not wish to dispute the truth of the proposition that inheritance gains strength simply through long continuance, but I doubt whether it can be proved. In one sense the proposition is little better than a truism; if any character has remained constant during many generations, it will be likely to continue so, if the conditions of life remain the same. So, again, in improving a breed, if care be taken for a length of time to exclude all inferior individuals, the breed will obviously tend to become truer, as it will not have been crossed during many generations by an inferior animal. We have previously seen, but without being able to assign any cause, that, when a new character appears, it is occasionally from the first constant, or fluctuates much, or wholly fails to be transmitted. So it is with the aggregate of slight differences which characterise a new variety, for some propagate their kind from the first much truer than others. Even with plants multiplied by bulbs, layers, etc., which may in one sense be said to form parts of the same individual, it is well known that certain varieties retain and transmit through successive bud-generations their newly-acquired characters more truly than others. In none of these, nor in the following cases, does there appear to be any relation between the force with which a character is transmitted and the length of time during which it has been transmitted. Some varieties, such as white and yellow hyacinths and white sweet-peas, transmit their colours more faithfully than do the varieties which have retained their natural colour. In the Irish family, mentioned in the twelfth chapter, the peculiar tortoiseshell-like colouring of the eyes was transmitted far more faithfully than any ordinary colour. Ancon and Mauchamp sheep and niata cattle, which are all comparatively modern breeds, exhibit remarkably strong powers of inheritance. Many similar cases could be adduced.
As all domesticated animals and cultivated plants have varied, and yet are descended from aboriginally wild forms, which no doubt had retained the same character from an immensely remote epoch, we see that scarcely any degree of antiquity ensures a character being transmitted perfectly true. In this case, however, it may be said that changed conditions of life induce certain modifications, and not that the power of inheritance fails; but in every case of failure, some cause, either internal or external, must interfere. It will generally be found that the organs or parts which in our domesticated productions have varied, or which still continue to vary,--that is, which fail to retain their former state,--are the same with the parts which differ in the natural species of the same genus. As, on the theory of descent with modification, the species of the same genus have been modified since they branched off from a common progenitor, it follows that the characters by which they differ from one another have varied, whilst other parts of the organisation have remained unchanged; and it might be argued that these same characters now vary under domestication, or fail to be inherited, from their lesser antiquity. But variation in a state of nature seems to stand in some close relation with changed conditions of life, and characters which have already varied under such conditions would be apt to vary under the still greater changes consequent on domestication, independently of their greater or less antiquity.
Fixedness of character, or the strength of inheritance, has often been judged of by the preponderance of certain characters in the crossed offspring between distinct races; but prepotency of transmission here comes into play, and this, as we shall immediately see, is a very different consideration from the strength or weakness of inheritance.