Reversions, or atavistic changes, would seem to give a better support to the theory of descent through modifications. These have been of paramount importance on many lines of evolution of the animal as well as of the vegetable kingdom. It is often assumed that monocotyledons are descended from some lower group of dicotyledons, probably allied to that which includes the buttercup family. On this view the monocotyledons must be assumed to have lost the cambium and all its influence on secondary growth, the differentiation of the flower into calyx and corolla, the second cotyledon or seed-leaf and several other characters. Losses of characters such as these may have been the result of abrupt changes, but this does not prove that the characters themselves have been produced with equal suddenness. On the contrary, Darwin shows very convincingly that a modification may well be developed by a series of steps, and afterwards suddenly disappear. Many monstrosities, such as those represented by twisted stems, furnish direct proofs in support of this view, since they are produced by the loss of one character and this loss implies secondary changes in a large number of other organs and qualities.
Darwin criticises in detail the hypothesis of great and abrupt changes and comes to the conclusion that it does not give even a shadow of an explanation of the origin of species. It is as improbable as it is unnecessary.
Sports and spontaneous variations must now be considered. It is well known that they have produced a large number of fine horticultural varieties. The cut-leaved maple and many other trees and shrubs with split leaves are known to have been produced at a single step; this is true in the case of the single-leaf strawberry plant and of the laciniate variety of the greater celandine: many white flowers, white or yellow berries and numerous other forms had a similar origin. But changes such as these do not come under the head of adaptations, as they consist for the most part in the loss of some quality or organ belonging to the species from which they were derived. Darwin thinks it impossible to attribute to this cause the innumerable structures, which are so well adapted to the habits of life of each species. At the present time we should say that such adaptations require progressive modifications, which are additions to the stock of qualities already possessed by the ancestors, and cannot, therefore, be explained on the ground of a supposed analogy with sports, which are for the most part of a retrogressive nature.
Excluding all these more or less sudden changes, there remains a long series of gradations of variability, but all of these are not assumed by Darwin to be equally fit for the production of new species. In the first place, he disregards all mere temporary variations, such as size, albinism, etc.; further, he points out that very many species have almost certainly been produced by steps, not greater, and probably not very much smaller, than those separating closely related varieties. For varieties are only small species. Next comes the question of polymorphic species: their occurrence seems to have been a source of much doubt and difficulty in Darwin's mind, although at present it forms one of the main supports of the prevailing explanation of the origin of new species. Darwin simply states that this kind of variability seems to be of a peculiar nature; since polymorphic species are now in a stable condition their occurrence gives no clue as to the mode of origin of new species. Polymorphic species are the expression of the result of previous variability acting on a large scale; but they now simply consist of more or less numerous elementary species, which, as far as we know, do not at present exhibit a larger degree of variability than any other more uniform species. The vernal whitlow-grass (Draba verna) and the wild pansy are the best known examples; both have spread over almost the whole of Europe and are split up into hundreds of elementary forms. These sub-species show no signs of any extraordinary degree of variability, when cultivated under conditions necessary for the exclusion of inter-crossing. Hooker has shown, in the case of some ferns distributed over still wider areas, that the extinction of some of the intermediate forms in such groups would suffice to justify the elevation of the remaining types to the rank of distinct species. Polymorphic species may now be regarded as the link which unites ordinary variability with the historical production of species. But it does not appear that they had this significance for Darwin; and, in fact, they exhibit no phenomena which could explain the processes by which one species has been derived from another. By thus narrowing the limits of the species-producing variability Darwin was led to regard small deviations as the source from which natural selection derives material upon which to act. But even these are not all of the same type, and Darwin was well aware of the fact.
It should here be pointed out that in order to be selected, a change must first have been produced. This proposition, which now seems self-evident, has, however, been a source of much difference of opinion among Darwin's followers. The opinion that natural selection produces changes in useful directions has prevailed for a long time. In other words, it was assumed that natural selection, by the simple means of singling out, could induce small and useful changes to increase and to reach any desired degree of deviation from the original type. In my opinion this view was never actually held by Darwin. It is in contradiction with the acknowledged aim of all his work,--the explanation of the origin of species by means of natural forces and phenomena only. Natural selection acts as a sieve; it does not single out the best variations, but it simply destroys the larger number of those which are, from some cause or another, unfit for their present environment. In this way it keeps the strains up to the required standard, and, in special circumstances, may even improve them.
Returning to the variations which afford the material for the sieving- action of natural selection, we may distinguish two main kinds. It is true that the distinction between these was not clear at the time of Darwin, and that he was unable to draw a sharp line between them. Nevertheless, in many cases, he was able to separate them, and he often discussed the question which of the two would be the real source of the differentiation of species. Certain variations constantly occur, especially such as are connected with size, weight, colour, etc. They are usually too small for natural selection to act upon, having hardly any influence in the struggle for life: others are more rare, occurring only from time to time, perhaps once or twice in a century, perhaps even only once in a thousand years. Moreover, these are of another type, not simply affecting size, number or weight, but bringing about something new, which may be useful or not. Whenever the variation is useful natural selection will take hold of it and preserve it; in other cases the variation may either persist or disappear.
In his criticism of miscellaneous objections brought forward against the theory of natural selection after the publication of the first edition of "The Origin of Species", Darwin stated his view on this point very clearly:--"The doctrine of natural selection or the survival of the fittest, which implies that when variations or individual differences of a beneficial nature happen to arise, these will be preserved." ("Origin of Species" (6th edition), page 169, 1882.) In this sentence the words "HAPPEN TO ARISE" appear to me of prominent significance. They are evidently due to the same general conception which prevailed in Darwin's Pangenesis hypothesis. (Cf. de Vries, "Intracellulare Pangenesis", page 73, Jena, 1889, and "Die Mutationstheorie", I. page 63. Leipzig, 1901.)
A distinction is indicated between ordinary fluctuations which are always present, and such variations as "happen to arise" from time to time. ((I think it right to point out that the interpretation of this passage from the "Origin" by Professor de Vries is not accepted as correct either by Mr Francis Darwin or by myself. We do not believe that Darwin intended to draw any distinction between TWO TYPES of variation; the words "when variations or individual differences of a beneficial nature happen to arise" are not in our opinion meant to imply a distinction between ordinary fluctuations and variations which "happen to arise," but we believe that "or" is here used in the sense of ALIAS. With the permission of Professor de Vries, the following extract is quoted from a letter in which he replied to the objection raised to his reading of the passage in question: