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An attempt to explain the foregoing laws of geographical distribution, on the theory of allied species having a common descent.


First let us recall the circumstances most favourable for variation under domestication, as given in the first chapter—viz. 1st, a change, or repeated changes, in the conditions to which the organism has been exposed, continued through several seminal (i.e. not by buds or divisions) generations: 2nd, steady selection of the slight varieties thus generated with a fixed end in view: 3rd, isolation as perfect as possible of such selected varieties; that is, the preventing their crossing with other forms; this latter condition applies to all terrestrial animals, to most if not all plants and perhaps even to most (or all) aquatic organisms. It will be convenient here to show the advantage of isolation in the formation of a new breed, by comparing the progress of two persons (to neither of whom let time be of any consequence) endeavouring to select and form some very peculiar new breed. Let one of these persons work on the vast herds of cattle in the plains of La Plata{399}, and the other on a small stock of 20 or 30 animals in an island. The latter might have to wait centuries (by the hypothesis of no importance){400} before he obtained a “sport” approaching to what he wanted; but when he did and saved the greater number of its offspring and their offspring again, he might hope that his whole little stock would be in some degree affected, so that by continued selection he might {184} gain his end. But on the Pampas, though the man might get his first approach to his desired form sooner, how hopeless would it be to attempt, by saving its offspring amongst so many of the common kind, to affect the whole herd: the effect of this one peculiar “sport{401}” would be quite lost before he could obtain a second original sport of the same kind. If, however, he could separate a small number of cattle, including the offspring of the desirable “sport,” he might hope, like the man on the island, to effect his end. If there be organic beings of which two individuals never unite, then simple selection whether on a continent or island would be equally serviceable to make a new and desirable breed; and this new breed might be made in surprisingly few years from the great and geometrical powers of propagation to beat out the old breed; as has happened (notwithstanding crossing) where good breeds of dogs and pigs have been introduced into a limited country,—for instance, into the islands of the Pacific.

Let us now take the simplest natural case of an islet upheaved by the volcanic or subterranean forces in a deep sea, at such a distance from other land that only a few organic beings at rare intervals were transported to it, whether borne by the sea{402} (like the seeds of plants to coral-reefs), or by hurricanes, or by floods, or on rafts, or in roots of large trees, or the germs of one plant or animal attached to or in the stomach of some other animal, or by the intervention (in most cases the most probable means) of other islands since sunk or destroyed. It may be remarked that when one part of the earth’s crust is raised it is probably the {185}general rule that another part sinks. Let this island go on slowly, century after century, rising foot by foot; and in the course of time we shall have instead «of» a small mass of rock{403}, lowland and highland, moist woods and dry sandy spots, various soils, marshes, streams and pools: under water on the sea shore, instead of a rocky steeply shelving coast, we shall have in some parts bays with mud, sandy beaches and rocky shoals. The formation of the island by itself must often slightly affect the surrounding climate. It is impossible that the first few transported organisms could be perfectly adapted to all these stations; and it will be a chance if those successively transported will be so adapted. The greater number would probably come from the lowlands of the nearest country; and not even all these would be perfectly adapted to the new islet whilst it continued low and exposed to coast influences. Moreover, as it is certain that all organisms are nearly as much adapted in their structure to the other inhabitants of their country as they are to its physical conditions, so the mere fact that a few beings (and these taken in great degree by chance) were in the first case transported to the islet, would in itself greatly modify their conditions{404}. As the island continued rising we might also expect an occasional new visitant; and I repeat that even one new being must often affect beyond our calculation by occupying the room and taking part of the subsistence of another (and this again from another and so on), several or many other organisms. Now as the first transported and any occasional successive visitants spread or tended to spread over the growing island, they would undoubtedly be exposed through several generations to new and varying conditions: it might also easily happen that some of {186} the species on an average might obtain an increase of food, or food of a more nourishing quality{405}. According then to every analogy with what we have seen takes place in every country, with nearly every organic being under domestication, we might expect that some of the inhabitants of the island would “sport,” or have their organization rendered in some degree plastic. As the number of the inhabitants are supposed to be few and as all these cannot be so well adapted to their new and varying conditions as they were in their native country and habitat, we cannot believe that every place or office in the economy of the island would be as well filled as on a continent where the number of aboriginal species is far greater and where they consequently hold a more strictly limited place. We might therefore expect on our island that although very many slight variations were of no use to the plastic individuals, yet that occasionally in the course of a century an individual might be born{406} of which the structure or constitution in some slight degree would allow it better to fill up some office in the insular economy and to struggle against other species. If such were the case the individual and its offspring would have a better chance of surviving and of beating out its parent form; and if (as is probable) it and its offspring crossed with the unvaried parent form, yet the number of the individuals being not very great, there would be a chance of the new and more serviceable form being nevertheless in some slight degree preserved. The struggle for existence would go on annually selecting such individuals until a new race or species was formed. Either few or all the first visitants to the island might become modified, according {187} as the physical conditions of the island and those resulting from the kind and number of other transported species were different from those of the parent country—according to the difficulties offered to fresh immigration—and according to the length of time since the first inhabitants were introduced. It is obvious that whatever was the country, generally the nearest from which the first tenants were transported, they would show an affinity, even if all had become modified, to the natives of that country and even if the inhabitants of the same source «?» had been modified. On this view we can at once understand the cause and meaning of the affinity of the fauna and flora of the Galapagos Islands with that of the coast of S. America; and consequently why the inhabitants of these islands show not the smallest affinity with those inhabiting other volcanic islands, with a very similar climate and soil, near the coast of Africa{407}.

To return once again to our island, if by the continued action of the subterranean forces other neighbouring islands were formed, these would generally be stocked by the inhabitants of the first island, or by a few immigrants from the neighbouring mainland; but if considerable obstacles were interposed to any communication between the terrestrial productions of these islands, and their conditions were different (perhaps only by the number of different species on each island), a form transported from one island to another might become altered in the same manner as one from the continent; and we should have several of the islands tenanted by representative races or species, as is so wonderfully the case with the different islands of the Galapagos Archipelago. As the islands become mountainous, if mountain-species were not introduced, as could rarely happen, a greater amount of variation and {188}selection would be requisite to adapt the species, which originally came from the lowlands of the nearest continent, to the mountain-summits than to the lower districts of our islands. For the lowland species from the continent would have first to struggle against other species and other conditions on the coast-land of the island, and so probably become modified by the selection of its best fitted varieties, then to undergo the same process when the land had attained a moderate elevation; and then lastly when it had become Alpine. Hence we can understand why the faunas of insular mountain-summits are, as in the case of Teneriffe, eminently peculiar. Putting on one side the case of a widely extended flora being driven up the mountain-summits, during a change of climate from cold to temperate, we can see why in other cases the floras of mountain-summits (or as I have called them islands in a sea of land) should be tenanted by peculiar species, but related to those of the surrounding lowlands, as are the inhabitants of a real island in the sea to those of the nearest continent{408}.

Let us now consider the effect of a change of climate or of other conditions on the inhabitants of a continent and of an isolated island without any great change of level. On a continent the chief effects would be changes in the numerical proportion of the individuals of the different species; for whether the climate became warmer or colder, drier or damper, more uniform or extreme, some species are at present adapted to its diversified districts; if for instance it became cooler, species would migrate from its more temperate parts and from its higher land; if damper, from its damper {189} regions, &c. On a small and isolated island, however, with few species, and these not adapted to much diversified conditions, such changes instead of merely increasing the number of certain species already adapted to such conditions, and decreasing the number of other species, would be apt to affect the constitutions of some of the insular species: thus if the island became damper it might well happen that there were no species living in any part of it adapted to the consequences resulting from more moisture. In this case therefore, and still more (as we have seen) during the production of new stations from the elevation of the land, an island would be a far more fertile source, as far as we can judge, of new specific forms than a continent. The new forms thus generated on an island, we might expect, would occasionally be transported by accident, or through long-continued geographical changes be enabled to emigrate and thus become slowly diffused.

But if we look to the origin of a continent; almost every geologist will admit that in most cases it will have first existed as separate islands which gradually increased in size{409}; and therefore all that which has been said concerning the probable changes of the forms tenanting a small archipelago is applicable to a continent in its early state. Furthermore, a geologist who reflects on the geological history of Europe (the only region well known) will admit that it has been many times depressed, raised and left stationary. During the sinking of a continent and the probable generally accompanying changes of climate the effect would be little, except on the numerical proportions and in the extinction (from the lessening of rivers, the drying of marshes {190} and the conversion of high-lands into low &c.) of some or of many of the species. As soon however as the continent became divided into many isolated portions or islands, preventing free immigration from one part to another, the effect of climatic and other changes on the species would be greater. But let the now broken continent, forming isolated islands, begin to rise and new stations thus to be formed, exactly as in the first case of the upheaved volcanic islet, and we shall have equally favourable conditions for the modification of old forms, that is the formation of new races or species. Let the islands become reunited into a continent; and then the new and old forms would all spread, as far as barriers, the means of transportal, and the preoccupation of the land by other species, would permit. Some of the new species or races would probably become extinct, and some perhaps would cross and blend together. We should thus have a multitude of forms, adapted to all kinds of slightly different stations, and to diverse groups of either antagonist or food-serving species. The oftener these oscillations of level had taken place (and therefore generally the older the land) the greater the number of species «which» would tend to be formed. The inhabitants of a continent being thus derived in the first stage from the same original parents, and subsequently from the inhabitants of one wide area, since often broken up and reunited, all would be obviously related together and the inhabitants of the most dissimilar stations on the same continent would be more closely allied than the inhabitants of two very similar stations on two of the main divisions of the world{410}.

I need hardly point out that we now can obviously {191} see why the number of species in two districts, independently of the number of stations in such districts, should be in some cases as widely different as in New Zealand and the Cape of Good Hope{411}. We can see, knowing the difficulty in the transport of terrestrial mammals, why islands far from mainlands do not possess them{412}; we see the general reason, namely accidental transport (though not the precise reason), why certain islands should, and others should not, possess members of the class of reptiles. We can see why an ancient channel of communication between two distant points, as the Cordillera probably was between southern Chile and the United States during the former cold periods; and icebergs between the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego; and gales, at a former or present time, between the Asiatic shores of the Pacific and eastern islands in this ocean; is connected with (or we may now say causes) an affinity between the species, though distinct, in two such districts. We can see how the better chance of diffusion, from several of the species of any genus having wide ranges in their own countries, explains the presence of other species of the same genus in other countries{413}; and on the other hand, of species of restricted powers of ranging, forming genera with restricted ranges.

As every one would be surprised if two exactly similar but peculiar varieties{414} of any species were raised by man by long continued selection, in two different countries, or at two very different periods, so we ought not to expect that an exactly similar form would be produced from the modification of an old one in two distinct countries or at two distinct {192} periods. For in such places and times they would probably be exposed to somewhat different climates and almost certainly to different associates. Hence we can see why each species appears to have been produced singly, in space and in time. I need hardly remark that, according to this theory of descent, there is no necessity of modification in a species, when it reaches a new and isolated country. If it be able to survive and if slight variations better adapted to the new conditions are not selected, it might retain (as far as we can see) its old form for an indefinite time. As we see that some sub-varieties produced under domestication are more variable than others, so in nature, perhaps, some species and genera are more variable than others. The same precise form, however, would probably be seldom preserved through successive geological periods, or in widely and differently conditioned countries{415}.

Finally, during the long periods of time and probably of oscillations of level, necessary for the formation of a continent, we may conclude (as above explained) that many forms would become extinct. These extinct forms, and those surviving (whether or not modified and changed in structure), will all be related in each continent in the same manner and degree, as are the inhabitants of any two different sub-regions in that same continent. I do not mean to say that, for instance, the present Marsupials of Australia or Edentata and rodents of S. America have descended from any one of the few fossils of the same orders which have been discovered in these countries. It is possible that, in a very few instances, this may be the case; but generally they must be considered as merely codescendants of common stocks{416}. I believe in this, from the improbability, considering the vast number of species, which (as {193} explained in the last chapter) must by our theory have existed, that the comparatively few fossils which have been found should chance to be the immediate and linear progenitors of those now existing. Recent as the yet discovered fossil mammifers of S. America are, who will pretend to say that very many intermediate forms may not have existed? Moreover, we shall see in the ensuing chapter that the very existence of genera and species can be explained only by a few species of each epoch leaving modified successors or new species to a future period; and the more distant that future period, the fewer will be the linear heirs of the former epoch. As by our theory, all mammifers must have descended from the same parent stock, so is it necessary that each land now possessing terrestrial mammifers shall at some time have been so far united to other land as to permit the passage of mammifers{417}; and it accords with this necessity, that in looking far back into the earth’s history we find, first changes in the geographical distribution, and secondly a period when the mammiferous forms most distinctive of two of the present main divisions of the world were living together{418}.

I think then I am justified in asserting that most of the above enumerated and often trivial points in the geographical distribution of past and present organisms (which points must be viewed by the creationists as so many ultimate facts) follow as a simple consequence of specific forms being mutable and of their being adapted by natural selection to diverse ends, conjoined with their powers of dispersal, and the geologico-geographical changes now in slow progress and which undoubtedly have taken place. This large class of facts being thus explained, {194} far more than counterbalances many separate difficulties and apparent objections in convincing my mind of the truth of this theory of common descent.
Improbability of finding fossil forms intermediate between existing species.

There is one observation of considerable importance that may be here introduced, with regard to the improbability of the chief transitional forms between any two species being found fossil. With respect to the finer shades of transition, I have before remarked that no one has any cause to expect to trace them in a fossil state, without he be bold enough to imagine that geologists at a future epoch will be able to trace from fossil bones the gradations between the Short-Horns, Herefordshire, and Alderney breeds of cattle{419}. I have attempted to show that rising islands, in process of formation, must be the best nurseries of new specific forms, and these points are the least favourable for the embedment of fossils{420}: I appeal, as evidence, to the state of the numerous scattered islands in the several great oceans: how rarely do any sedimentary deposits occur on them; and when present they are mere narrow fringes of no great antiquity, which the sea is generally wearing away and destroying. The cause of this lies in isolated islands being generally volcanic and rising points; and the effects of subterranean elevation is to bring up the surrounding newly-deposited strata within the destroying action of the coast-waves: the strata, deposited at greater distances, and therefore in the depths of the ocean, will be almost barren of organic remains. These {195} remarks may be generalised:—periods of subsidence will always be most favourable to an accumulation of great thicknesses of strata, and consequently to their long preservation; for without one formation be protected by successive strata, it will seldom be preserved to a distant age, owing to the enormous amount of denudation, which seems to be a general contingent of time{421}. I may refer, as evidence of this remark, to the vast amount of subsidence evident in the great pile of the European formations, from the Silurian epoch to the end of the Secondary, and perhaps to even a later period. Periods of elevation on the other hand cannot be favourable to the accumulation of strata and their preservation to distant ages, from the circumstance just alluded to, viz. of elevation tending to bring to the surface the circum-littoral strata (always abounding most in fossils) and destroying them. The bottom of tracts of deep water (little favourable, however, to life) must be excepted from this unfavourable influence of elevation. In the quite open ocean, probably no sediment{422} is accumulating, or at a rate so slow as not to preserve fossil remains, which will always be subject to disintegration. Caverns, no doubt, will be equally likely to preserve terrestrial fossils in periods of elevation and of subsidence; but whether it be owing to the enormous amount of denudation, which all land seems to have undergone, no cavern with fossil bones has been found belonging to the Secondary period{423}.

Hence many more remains will be preserved to a distant age, in any region of the world, during periods of its subsidence{424}, than of its elevation.

{196} But during the subsidence of a tract of land, its inhabitants (as before shown) will from the decrease of space and of the diversity of its stations, and from the land being fully preoccupied by species fitted to diversified means of subsistence, be little liable to modification from selection, although many may, or rather must, become extinct. With respect to its circum-marine inhabitants, although during a change from a continent to a great archipelago, the number of stations fitted for marine beings will be increased, their means of diffusion (an important check to change of form) will be greatly improved; for a continent stretching north and south, or a quite open space of ocean, seems to be to them the only barrier. On the other hand, during the elevation of a small archipelago and its conversion into a continent, we have, whilst the number of stations are increasing, both for aquatic and terrestrial productions, and whilst these stations are not fully preoccupied by perfectly adapted species, the most favourable conditions for the selection of new specific forms; but few of them in their early transitional states will be preserved to a distant epoch. We must wait during an enormous lapse of time, until long-continued subsidence shall have taken the place in this quarter of the world of the elevatory process, for the best conditions of the embedment and the preservation of its inhabitants. Generally the great mass of the strata in every country, from having been chiefly accumulated during subsidence, will be the tomb, not of transitional forms, but of those either becoming extinct or remaining unmodified.

The state of our knowledge, and the slowness of the changes of level, do not permit us to test the truth of these remarks, by observing whether there are more transitional or “fine” (as naturalists would term them) species, on a rising and enlarging {197} tract of land, than on an area of subsidence. Nor do I know whether there are more “fine” species on isolated volcanic islands in process of formation, than on a continent; but I may remark, that at the Galapagos Archipelago the number of forms, which according to some naturalists are true species, and according to others are mere races, is considerable: this particularly applies to the different species or races of the same genera inhabiting the different islands of this archipelago. Furthermore it may be added (as bearing on the great facts discussed in this chapter) that when naturalists confine their attention to any one country, they have comparatively little difficulty in determining what forms to call species and what to call varieties; that is, those which can or cannot be traced or shown to be probably descendants of some other form: but the difficulty increases, as species are brought from many stations, countries and islands. It was this increasing (but I believe in few cases insuperable) difficulty which seems chiefly to have urged Lamarck to the conclusion that species are mutable.
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