Mimicry in Butterflies/Chapter 1

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It is now more than fifty years since Darwin gave the theory of natural selection to the world, and the conception of a gradual evolution has long ago become part of the currency of thought. Evolution for Darwin was brought about by more than one factor. He believed in the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts, and he also regarded sexual selection as operating at any rate among the higher animals. Yet he looked upon the natural selection of small favourable variations as the principal factor in evolutionary change. Since Darwin's time the trend has been to magnify natural selection at the expense of the other two factors. The doctrine of the inherited effects of use and disuse, vigorously challenged by Weismann, failed to make good its case, and it is to-day discredited by the great majority of biologists. Nor perhaps does the hypothesis of sexual selection command the support it originally had. At best it only attempted to explain those features, more especially among the higher animals, in which the sexes differ from one another in pattern, ornament, and the like. With the lapse of time there has come about a tendency to find in natural selection alone a complete explanation of the process of evolution, and to regard it as the sole factor by which all evolutionary change is brought about. Evolution on this view is a gradual process depending upon the slow accumulation by natural selection of small variations, which are more or less inherited, till at last a well-marked change of type is brought about. Could we have before us all the stages through which a given form has passed as natural selection transforms it into another, they would constitute a continuous series such that even refined scrutiny might fail to distinguish between any two consecutive terms. If the slight variations are not of service they will get no favour from natural selection and so can lead to nothing. But if of use in the struggle for existence natural selection preserves them and subsequent variations in the same direction until at length man recognises the accumulation as a new form. Moreover when the perfect thing is once elaborated natural selection will keep it perfect by discouraging any tendency to vary from perfection.

Upon this view, of which the most distinguished protagonist was Weismann, natural selection is the sole arbiter of animal and plant form. Through it and it alone the world has come to be what it is. To it must be ascribed all righteousness, for it alone is the maker. Such in its extreme form is the modern development of Darwin's great contribution to philosophy.

But is it true? Will natural selection really serve to explain all? Must all the various characters of plants and animals be supposed to owe their existence to the gradual operation of this factor working upon small variations?

Of recent years there has arisen a school of biologists to whom the terms mutationist and Mendelian are frequently applied. Influenced by the writings of Bateson and de Vries, and by the experimental results that have flowed from Mendel's discovery in heredity, they have come to regard the process of evolution as a discontinuous one. The new character that differentiates one variety from another arises suddenly as a sport or mutation, not by the gradual accretion of a vast number of intermediate forms. The white flowered plant has arisen suddenly from the blue, or the dwarf plant from the tall, and intermediates between them need never have existed. The ultimate fate of the new form that has arisen through causes yet unknown may depend upon natural selection. If better endowed than the parent form in the struggle for existence it may through natural selection come to supplant it. If worse endowed natural selection will probably see to its elimination. But if, as may quite possibly happen, it is neither better nor worse adapted than the form from which it sprang, then there would seem to be no reason for natural selection having anything to do with the relation of the new form to its parent.

Between the older and the newer or mutationist point of view an outstanding difference is the rôle ascribed to natural selection. On the one view it builds up the new variety bit by bit, on the other the appearance of the new variety is entirely independent of it. From this there follows a radical difference with regard to the meaning of all the varied characters of plants and animals. Those who uphold the all-powerfulness of natural selection are bound to regard every character exhibited by an animal or plant as of service to it in the struggle for existence. Else it could not have arisen through the operation of natural selection. In other words every character in plant or animal must be adaptive. On the mutationist view this of course does not follow. If the new character which arises independently of natural selection is neither of service nor disservice to its possessors in the struggle for existence, there seems no reason why it should not persist in spite of natural selection. In attempting to decide between the two conflicting views the study of adaptation is of the first importance.

It was perhaps in connection with adaptation that Darwin obtained the most striking evidence in support of his theory, and it is clear from his writings that it was in this field he laboured with most delight. The marvellous ways in which creatures may be adapted in structure and habit for the life they lead had not escaped the attention of the older naturalists. John Ray wrote a book[1] upon the subject in which he pointed out that all things in the Universe, from the fixed stars to the structure of a bird, or the tongue of a chameleon, or the means whereby some seeds are wind distributed, are "argumentative of Providence and Design" and must owe their existence to "the Direction of a Superior Cause." Nor have there been wanting other authors who have been equally struck by the wonders of adaptation. But their studies generally led to the same conclusion, an exhortation to praise the infinite Wisdom of Him Who in the days of Creation had taken thought for all these things.

The advent of natural selection threw a new light upon adaptation and the appearance of design in the world. In such books as those on The Fertilization of Orchids and The Forms of Flowers Darwin sought to shew that many curious and elaborate structures which had long puzzled the botanist were of service to the plant, and might therefore have arisen through the agency of natural selection. Especially was this the case in orchids where Darwin was able to bring forward striking evidence in favour of regarding many a bizarre form of flower as specially adapted for securing the benefits of cross-fertilization through the visits of insects. In these and other books Darwin opened up a new and fascinating field of investigation, and thenceforward the subject of adaptation claimed the attention of many naturalists. For the most part it has been an observational rather than an experimental study. The naturalist is struck by certain peculiarities in the form or colour or habits of a species. His problem is to account for their presence, and as nearly all students of adaptation have been close followers of Darwin, this generally means an interpretation in terms of natural selection. Granted this factor it remains to shew that the character in question confers some advantage upon the individuals that possess it. For unless it has a utilitarian value of some sort it clearly cannot have arisen through the operation of natural selection. However when it comes to the point direct proof of this sort is generally difficult to obtain. Consequently the work of most students of adaptation consists in a description of the character or characters studied together with such details of its life-history as may seem to bear upon the point, and a suggestion as to how the particular character studied may be of value to its possessors in the struggle for existence. In this way a great body of most curious and interesting facts has been placed on record, and many ingenious suggestions have been made as to the possible use of this or that character. But the majority of workers have taken natural selection for granted and then interested themselves in shewing how the characters studied by them might be of use. Probably there is no structure or habit for which it is impossible to devise some use[2], and the pursuit has doubtless provided many of its devotees with a pleasurable and often fascinating exercise of the imagination. So it has come about that the facts instead of being used as a test of the credibility of natural selection, serve merely to emphasise the pæan of praise with which such exercises usually conclude. The whole matter is too often approached in much the same spirit as that in which John Ray approached it two centuries ago, except that the Omnipotency of the Deity is replaced by the Omnipotency of Natural Selection. The vital point, which is whether Natural Selection does offer a satisfactory explanation of the living world, is too frequently lost sight of. Whether we are bound or not to interpret all the phenomena of life in terms of natural selection touches the basis of modern philosophy. It is for the biologist to attempt to find an answer, and there are few more profitable lines of attack than a critical examination of the facts of adaptation. Though "mimicry" is but a small corner in this vast field of inquiry it is a peculiarly favourable one owing to the great interest which it has excited for many years and the consequently considerable store of facts that has been accumulated. If then we would attempt to settle this most weighty point in philosophy there is probably nothing to which we can appeal with more confidence than to the butterfly.

  1. The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Creation, London, 1691.
  2. Ray gives the case of an elephant "that was observed always when he slept to keep his trunk so close to the ground, that nothing but Air could get in between them," and explains it as an adaptation in habit to prevent the mice from crawling into its lungs—"a strange sagacity and Providence in this Animal, or else an admirable instinct."