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- The Conditions of Existence - 1/4 -


THE CONDITIONS OF EXISTENCE AS AFFECTING THE PERPETUATION OF LIVING BEINGS

#15 in our series by Thomas H. Huxley

IN the last Lecture I endeavoured to prove to you that, while, as a general rule, organic beings tend to reproduce their kind, there is in them, also, a constantly recurring tendency to vary--to vary to a greater or to a less extent. Such a variety, I pointed out to you, might arise from causes which we do not understand; we therefore called it spontaneous; and it might come into existence as a definite and marked thing, without any gradations between itself and the form which preceded it. I further pointed out, that such a variety having once arisen, might be perpetuated to some extent, and indeed to a very marked extent, without any direct interference, or without any exercise of that process which we called selection. And then I stated further, that by such selection, when exercised artificially--if you took care to breed only from those forms which presented the same peculiarities of any variety which had arisen in this manner--the variation might be perpetuated, as far as we can see, indefinitely.

The next question, and it is an important one for us, is this: Is there any limit to the amount of variation from the primitive stock which can be produced by this process of selective breeding? In considering this question, it will be useful to class the characteristics, in respect of which organic beings vary, under two heads: we may consider structural characteristics, and we may consider physiological characteristics.

In the first place, as regards structural characteristics, I endeavoured to show you, by the skeletons which I had upon the table, and by reference to a great many well-ascertained facts, that the different breeds of Pigeons, the Carriers, Pouters, and Tumblers, might vary in any of their internal and important structural characters to a very great degree; not only might there be changes in the proportions of the skull, and the characters of the feet and beaks, and so on; but that there might be an absolute difference in the number of the vertebrae of the back, as in the sacral vertebrae of the Pouter; and so great is the extent of the variation in these and similar characters that I pointed out to you, by reference to the skeletons and the diagrams, that these extreme varieties may absolutely differ more from one another in their structural characters than do what naturalists call distinct SPECIES of pigeons; that is to say, that they differ so much in structure that there is a greater difference between the Pouter and the Tumbler than there is between such wild and distinct forms as the Rock Pigeon or the Ring Pigeon, or the Ring Pigeon and the Stock Dove; and indeed the differences are of greater value than this, for the structural differences between these domesticated pigeons are such as would be admitted by a naturalist, supposing he knew nothing at all about their origin, to entitle them to constitute even distinct genera.

As I have used this term SPECIES, and shall probably use it a good deal, I had better perhaps devote a word or two to explaining what I mean by it.

Animals and plants are divided into groups, which become gradually smaller, beginning with a KINGDOM, which is divided into SUB-KINGDOMS; then come the smaller divisions called PROVINCES; and so on from a PROVINCE to a CLASS from a CLASS to an ORDER, from ORDERS to FAMILIES, and from these to GENERA, until we come at length to the smallest groups of animals which can be defined one from the other by constant characters, which are not sexual; and these are what naturalists call SPECIES in practice, whatever they may do in theory.

If, in a state of nature, you find any two groups of living beings, which are separated one from the other by some constantly-recurring characteristic, I don't care how slight and trivial, so long as it is defined and constant, and does not depend on sexual peculiarities, then all naturalists agree in calling them two species; that is what is meant by the use of the word species--that is to say, it is, for the practical naturalist, a mere question of structural differences.*

[footnote]* I lay stress here on the 'practical' signification of "Species." Whether a physiological test between species exist or not, it is hardly ever applicable by the practical naturalist.

We have seen now--to repeat this point once more, and it is very essential that we should rightly understand it--we have seen that breeds, known to have been derived from a common stock by selection, may be as different in their structure from the original stock as species may be distinct from each other.

But is the like true of the physiological characteristics of animals? Do the physiological differences of varieties amount in degree to those observed between forms which naturalists call distinct species? This is a most important point for us to consider.

As regards the great majority of physiological characteristics, there is no doubt that they are capable of being developed, increased, and modified by selection.

There is no doubt that breeds may be made as different as species in many physiological characters. I have already pointed out to you very briefly the different habits of the breeds of Pigeons, all of which depend upon their physiological peculiarities,--as the peculiar habit of tumbling, in the Tumbler--the peculiarities of flight, in the "homing" birds,--the strange habit of spreading out the tail, and walking in a peculiar fashion, in the Fantail,--and, lastly, the habit of blowing out the gullet, so characteristic of the Pouter. These are all due to physiological modifications, and in all these respects these birds differ as much from each other as any two ordinary species do.

So with Dogs in their habits and instincts. It is a physiological peculiarity which leads the Greyhound to chase its prey by sight,--that enables the Beagle to track it by the scent,--that impels the Terrier to its rat-hunting propensity,--and that leads the Retriever to its habit of retrieving. These habits and instincts are all the results of physiological differences and peculiarities, which have been developed from a common stock, at least there is every reason to believe so. But it is a most singular circumstance, that while you may run through almost the whole series of physiological processes, without finding a check to your argument, you come at last to a point where you do find a check, and that is in the reproductive processes. For there is a most singular circumstance in respect to natural species--at least about some of them--and it would be sufficient for the purposes of this argument if it were true of only one of them, but there is, in fact, a great number of such cases--and that is, that, similar as they may appear to be to mere races or breeds, they present a marked peculiarity in the reproductive process. If you breed from the male and female of the same race, you of course have offspring of the like kind, and if you make the offspring breed together, you obtain the same result, and if you breed from these again, you will still have the same kind of offspring; there is no check. But if you take members of two distinct species, however similar they may be to each other and make them breed together, you will find a check, with some modifications and exceptions, however, which I shall speak of presently. If you cross two such species with each other, then,--although you may get offspring in the case of the first cross, yet, if you attempt to breed from the products of that crossing, which are what are called HYBRIDS--that is, if you couple a male and a female hybrid--then the result is that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred you will get no offspring at all; there will be no result whatsoever.

The reason of this is quite obvious in some cases; the male hybrids, although possessing all the external appearances and characteristics of perfect animals, are physiologically imperfect and deficient in the structural parts of the reproductive elements necessary to generation. It is said to be invariably the case with the male mule, the cross between the Ass and the Mare; and hence it is, that, although crossing the Horse with the Ass is easy enough, and is constantly done, as far as I am aware, if you take two mules, a male and a female, and endeavour to breed from them, you get no offspring whatever; no generation will take place. This is what is called the sterility of the hybrids between two distinct species.

You see that this is a very extraordinary circumstance; one does not see why it should be. The common teleological explanation is, that it is to prevent the impurity of the blood resulting from the crossing of one species with another, but you see it does not in reality do anything of the kind. There is nothing in this fact that hybrids cannot breed with each other, to establish such a theory; there is nothing to prevent the Horse breeding with the Ass, or the Ass with the Horse. So that this explanation breaks down, as a great many explanations of this kind do, that are only founded on mere assumptions.

Thus you see that there is a great difference between "mongrels," which are crosses between distinct races, and "hybrids," which are crosses between distinct species. The mongrels are, so far as we know, fertile with one another. But between species, in many cases, you cannot succeed in obtaining even the first cross: at any rate it is quite certain that the hybrids are often absolutely infertile one with another.

Here is a feature, then, great or small as it may be, which distinguishes natural species of animals. Can we find any approximation to this in the different races known to be produced by selective breeding from a common stock? Up to the present time the answer to that question is absolutely a negative one. As far as we know at present, there is nothing approximating to this check. In crossing the breeds between the Fantail and the Pouter, the Carrier and the Tumbler, or any other variety or race you may name--so far as we know at present--there is no difficulty in breeding together the mongrels. Take the Carrier and the Fantail, for instance, and let them represent the Horse and the Ass in the case of distinct species; then you have, as the result of their breeding, the Carrier-Fantail mongrel,--we will say the male and female mongrel,--and, as far as we know, these two when crossed would not be less fertile than the original cross, or than Carrier with Carrier. Here, you see, is a physiological contrast between the races produced by selective modification and natural species. I shall inquire into the value of this fact, and of some modifying circumstances by and by; for the present I merely put it broadly before you.

But while considering this question of the limitations of species, a word must be said about what is called RECURRENCE--the tendency of races which have been developed by selective breeding from varieties to return to their primitive type. This is supposed by many to put an absolute limit to the extent of selective and all other variations. People say, "It is all very well to talk about producing these different races, but you know very well that if you turned all these birds wild, these Pouters, and Carriers, and so on, they would all return to their primitive stock." This is very commonly assumed to be a fact, and it is an argument that is commonly brought forward as conclusive; but if you will take the trouble to inquire into it rather closely, I think you will find that it is not worth very much. The first question of course is, Do they thus return to the primitive stock? And commonly as the thing is assumed and accepted, it is


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