Darwin, however, considered such hypotheses as hardly belonging to the domain of science; they belong, he said, to the realm of miracles. That species have a capacity for change is admitted by all evolutionists; but there is no need to invoke modifications other than those represented by ordinary variability. It is well known that in artificial selection this tendency to vary has given rise to numerous distinct races, and there is no reason for denying that it can do the same in nature, by the aid of natural selection. On both lines an advance may be expected with equal probability.
His main argument, however, is that the most striking and most highly adapted modifications may be acquired by successive variations. Each of these may be slight, and they may affect different organs, gradually adapting them to the same purpose. The direction of the adaptations will be determined by the needs in the struggle for life, and natural selection will simply exclude all such changes as occur on opposite or deviating lines. In this way, it is not variability itself which is called upon to explain beautiful adaptations, but it is quite sufficient to suppose that natural selection has operated during long periods in the same way. Eventually, all the acquired characters, being transmitted together, would appear to us, as if they had all been simultaneously developed.
Correlations must play a large part in such special evolutions: when one part is modified, so will be other parts. The distribution of nourishment will come in as one of the causes, the reactions of different organs to the same external influences as another. But no doubt the more effective cause is that of the internal correlations, which, however, are still but dimly understood. Darwin repeatedly laid great stress on this view, although a definite proof of its correctness could not be given in his time. Such proof requires the direct observation of a mutation, and it should be stated here that even the first observations made in this direction have clearly confirmed Darwin's ideas. The new evening primroses which have sprung in my garden from the old form of Oenothera Lamarckiana, and which have evidently been derived from it, in each case, by a single mutation, do not differ from their parent species in one character only, but in almost all their organs and qualities. Oenothera gigas, for example, has stouter stems and denser foliage; the leaves are larger and broader; its thick flower-buds produce gigantic flowers, but only small fruits with large seeds. Correlative changes of this kind are seen in all my new forms, and they lend support to the view that in the gradual development of highly adapted structures, analogous correlations may have played a large part. They easily explain large deviations from an original type, without requiring the assumption of too many steps.
Monstrosities, as their name implies, are widely different in character from natural species; they cannot, therefore, be adduced as evidence in the investigation of the origin of species. There is no doubt that they may have much in common as regards their manner of origin, and that the origin of species, once understood, may lead to a better understanding of the monstrosities. But the reverse is not true, at least not as regards the main lines of development. Here, it is clear, monstrosities cannot have played a part of any significance.
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.