As with single characters, so it is with the several concurrent slight differences which distinguish sub-varieties or races; for of these, some can be propagated almost as truly as species, whilst others cannot be relied on. The same rule holds good with plants, when propagated by bulbs, offsets, etc., which in one sense still form parts of the same individual, for some varieties retain or inherit through successive bud-generations their character far more truly than others.

Some characters not proper to the parent-species have certainly been inherited from an extremely remote epoch, and may therefore be considered as firmly fixed. But it is doubtful whether length of inheritance in itself gives fixedness of character; though the chances are obviously in favour of any character which has long been transmitted true or unaltered still being transmitted true as long as the conditions of life remain the same. We know that many species, after having retained the same character for countless ages, whilst living under their natural conditions, when domesticated have varied in the most diversified manner, that is, have failed to transmit their original form; so that no character appears to be absolutely fixed. We can sometimes account for the failure of inheritance by the conditions of life being opposed to the development of certain characters; and still oftener, as with plants cultivated by grafts and buds, by the conditions causing new and slight modifications incessantly to appear. In this latter case it is not that inheritance wholly fails, but that new characters are continually superadded. In some few cases, in which both parents are similarly characterised, inheritance seems to gain so much force by the combined action of the two parents, that it counteracts its own power, and a new modification is the result.

In many cases the failure of the parents to transmit their likeness is due to the breed having been at some former period crossed; and the child takes after his grandparent or more remote ancestor of foreign blood. In other cases, in which the breed has not been crossed, but some ancient character has been lost through variation, it occasionally reappears through reversion, so that the parents apparently fail to transmit their own likeness. In all cases, however, we may safely conclude that the child inherits all its characters from its parents, in whom certain characters are latent, like the secondary sexual characters of one sex in the other. When, after a long succession of bud- generations, a flower or fruit becomes separated into distinct segments, having the colours or other attributes of both parent-forms, we cannot doubt that these characters were latent in the earlier buds, though they could not then be detected, or could be detected only in an intimately commingled state. So it is with animals of crossed parentage, which with advancing years occasionally exhibit characters derived from one of their two parents, of which not a trace could at first be perceived. Certain monstrosities, which resemble what naturalists call the typical form of the group in question, apparently come under the same law of reversion. It is assuredly an astonishing fact that the male and female sexual elements, that buds, and even full-grown animals, should retain characters, during several generations in the case of crossed breeds, and during thousands of generations in the case of pure breeds, written as it were in invisible ink, yet ready at any time to be evolved under certain conditions.

What these conditions precisely are, we do not know. But any cause which disturbs the organisation or constitution seems to be sufficient. A cross certainly gives a strong tendency to the reappearance of long-lost characters, both corporeal and mental. In the case of plants, this tendency is much stronger with those species which have been crossed after long cultivation and which therefore have had their constitutions disturbed by this cause as well as by crossing, than with species which have always lived under their natural conditions and have then been crossed.

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book