Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/October 1904/Heredity and Evolution

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IN choosing a subject for this address I have availed myself of the kindly usage which permits a sectional president to divert the attention of his hearers into those lines of inquiry which he himself is accustomed to pursue. Nevertheless, in taking the facts of breeding for my theme, I am sensible that this privilege is subjected to a certain strain.

Heredity—and variation too—are matters of which no naturalist likes to admit himself entirely careless. Every one knows that, somewhere hidden among the phenomena denoted by these terms, there must be principles which, in ways untraced, are ordering the destinies of living things. Experiments in heredity have thus, as I am told, a universal fascination. All are willing to offer an outward deference to these studies. The limits of that homage, however, are soon reached, and, though all profess interest, few are impelled to make even the moderate mental effort needed to apprehend what has been already done. It is understood that heredity is an important mystery, and variation another mystery. The naturalist, the breeder, the horticulturist, the sociologist, man of science and man of practise alike, have daily occasion to make and to act on assumptions as to heredity and variation, but many seem well content that such phenomena should remain forever mysterious.

The position of these studies is unique. At once fashionable and neglected, nominally the central common ground of botany and zoology, of morphology and physiology, belonging specially to neither, this area is thinly tenanted. Now, since few have leisure for topics with which they can not suppose themselves concerned, I am aware that, when I ask you in your familiar habitations to listen to tales of a no man's land, I must forego many of those supports by which a speaker may maintain his hold on the intellectual sympathy of an audience.

Those whose pursuits have led them far from their companions can not be exempt from that differentiation which is the fate of isolated groups. The stock of common knowledge and common ideas grows smaller till the difficulty of intercommunication becomes extreme. Not only has our point of view changed, but our materials are unfamiliar, our methods of inquiry new, and even the results attained accord little with the common expectations of the day. In the progress of sciences we are used to be led from the known to the unknown, from the half-perceived to the proven, the expectation of one year becoming the certainty of the next. It will aid appreciation of the change coming over evolutionary science if it be realized that the new knowledge of heredity and variation rather replaces than extends current ideas on those subjects.

Convention requires that a president should declare all well in his science; but I can not think it a symptom indicative of much health in our body that the task of assimilating the new knowledge has proved so difficult. An eminent foreign professor lately told me that he believed there were not half a dozen in his country conversant with what may be called Mendelism, though he added hopefully, 'I find these things interest my students more than my colleagues.' A professed biologist can not afford to ignore a new life history, the Okapi, or the other last new version of the old story; but phenomena which put new interpretations on the whole, facts witnessed continually by all who are working in these fields, he may conveniently disregard as matters of opinion. Had a discovery comparable in magnitude with that of Mendel been announced in physics or in chemistry, it would at once have been repeated and extended in every great scientific school throughout the world. We could come to a British Association audience to discuss the details of our subject—the polymorphism of extracted types, the physiological meaning of segregation, its applicability to the case of sex, the nature of non-segregable characters, and like problems with which we are now dealing—sure of finding sound and helpful criticism, nor would it be necessary on each occasion to begin with a popular presentation of the rudiments. This state of things in a progressive science has arisen, as I think, from a loss of touch with the main line of inquiry. The successes of descriptive zoology are so palpable and so attractive, that, not unnaturally, these which are the means of progress have been mistaken for the end. But now that the survey of terrestrial types by existing methods is happily approaching completion, we may hope that our science will return to its proper task, the detection of the fundamental nature of living things. I say return, because, in spite of that perfecting of the instruments of research characteristic of our time, and an extension of the area of scrutiny, the last generation was nearer the main quest. No one can study the history of biology without perceiving that in some essential respects the spirit of the naturalists of fifty years ago was truer in aim, and that their methods of inquiry were more direct and more fertile—so far, at least, as the problem of evolution is concerned—than those which have replaced them.

If we study the researches begun by Kölreuter and continued with great vigor till the middle of the sixties, we can not fail to see that, had the experiments he and' his successors undertook been continued on the same lines, we should.by now have advanced far into the unknown. More than this: if a knowledge of what those men actually accomplished had not passed away from the memory of our generation, we should now be able to appeal to an informed public mind, having some practical acquaintance with the phenomena, and possessing sufficient experience of these matters to recognize absurdity in statement and deduction, ready to provide that healthy atmosphere of instructed criticism most friendly to the growth of truth.

Elsewhere I have noted the paradox that the appearance of the work of Darwin, which crowns the great period in the study of the phenomena of species, was the signal for a general halt. The 'Origin, of Species,' the treatise which for the first time brought the problem of species fairly within the range of human intelligence, so influenced the course of scientific thought that the study of this particular phenomenon—specific difference—almost entirely ceased. That this was largely due to the simultaneous opening up of lines of research in many other directions may be granted; but in greater measure, I believe, it is to be ascribed to the substitution of a conception of species which, with all the elements of truth it contains, is yet barren and unnatural. It is not wonderful that those who held that specific difference must be a phenomenon of slowest accumulation, proceeding by steps needing generations for their perception, should turn their attention to subjects deemed more amenable to human enterprise.

The indiscriminate confounding of all divergences from type into one heterogeneous heap under the name 'Variation' effectually concealed those features of order which the phenomena severally present, creating an enduring obstacle to the progress of evolutionary science. Specific normality and distinctness being regarded as an accidental product of exigency, it was thought safe to treat departures from such normality as comparable differences: all were 'variations' alike. Let us illustrate the consequences. Princess of Wales is a large modern violet, single, with stalks a foot long or more. Marie Louise is another, with large double flowers, pale color, short stalks, peculiar scent, leaf, etc. We call these 'varieties,' and we speak of the various fixed differences between these two, and between them and wild odorata, as due to variation; and, again, the transient differences between the same odorata in poor, dry soil, or in a rich hedge-bank, we call variation, using but the one term for differences, quantitative or qualitative, permanent or transitory, in size, number of parts, chemistry, and the rest. We might as well use one term to denote the differences between a bar of silver, a stick of lunar caustic, a shilling or a teaspoon. No wonder that the ignorant tell us they can find no order in variation.

This prodigious confusion, which has spread obscurity over every part of these inquiries, is traceable to the original misconception of the nature of specific difference, as a thing imposed and not inherent. From this, at least, the earlier experimenters were free; and the undertakings of Gärtner and his contemporaries were informed by the true conception that the properties and behavior of species were themselves specific. Free from the later fancy that but for selection the forms of animals and plants would be continuous and indeterminate, they recognized the definiteness of species and variety, and boldly set themselves to work out case by case the manifestations and consequences of that definiteness.

Over this work of minute and largely experimental analysis, rapidly growing, the new doctrine that organisms are mere conglomerates of adaptative devices descended like a numbing spell. By an easy confusion of thought, faith in the physiological definiteness of species and variety passed under the common ban which had at last exorcised the demon immutability. Henceforth no naturalist must hold communion with either, on pain of condemnation as an apostate, a danger to the dynasty of selection. From this oppression we in England, at least, are scarcely beginning to emerge. Bentham's 'Flora' teaching very positively that the primrose, the cowslip, and the oxlip are impermanent varieties of one species, is in the hand of every beginner, while the British Museum reading-room finds it unnecessary to procure Gärtner's 'Bastarderzeugung.'

And so this mass of specific learning has passed out of account. The evidence of the collector, the horticulturist, the breeder, the fancier, has been treated with neglect, and sometimes, I fear, with contempt. That' wide field whence Darwin drew his wonderful store of facts has been some forty years untouched. Speak to professional zoologists of any breeder's matter, and how many will not intimate to you politely that fanciers are unscientific persons, and their concerns beneath notice? For the concrete in evolution we are offered the abstract. Our philosophers debate with great fluency whether between imaginary races sterility could grow up by an imaginary selection; whether selection working upon hypothetical materials could produce sexual differentiation; how under a system of natural selection bodily symmetry may have been impressed on formless protoplasm—that monstrous figment of the mind, fit starting-point for such discussions. But by a physiological irony enthusiasm for these topics is sometimes fully correlated with indifference even to the classical illustrations; and for many whose minds are attracted by the abstract problem of interracial sterility there are few who can name for certain ten cases in which it has been already observed.

And yet in the natural world, in the collecting-box, the seed-bed, the poultry-yard, the places where variation, heredity, selection, may be seen in operation and their properties tested, answers to these questions meet us at every turn—fragmentary answers, it is true, but each direct to the point. For if any one will stoop to examine nature in those humble places, will do a few days' weeding, prick out some rows of cabbages, feed up a few score of any variable larva, he will not wait long before he learns the truth about variation. If he go further and breed two or three generations of almost any controllable form, he will obtain immediately facts as to the course of heredity which obviate the need for much laborious imagining. If strictly trained, with faith in the omnipotence of selection, he will not proceed far before he encounters disquieting facts. Upon whatever character the attention be fixed, whether size, number, form of the whole or of the parts, proportion, distribution of differentiation, sexual characters, fertility, precocity or lateness, color, susceptibility to cold or to disease—in short, all the kinds of characters which we think of as best exemplifying specific difference, we are certain to find illustrations of the occurrence of departures from normality, presenting exactly the same definiteness elsewhere characteristic of normality itself. Again and again the circumstances of their occurrence render it impossible to suppose that these striking differences are the product of continued selection, or, indeed, that they represent the results of a gradual transformation of any kind. Whenever by any collocation of favoring circumstance such definite novelties possess a superior viability, supplanting their 'normal' relatives, it is obvious that new types will be created.

The earliest statement of this simple inference is, I believe, that of Marchant,[1] who in 1719, commenting on certain plants of Mercurialis with laciniated and hair-like leaves, which for a time established themselves in his garden, suggested that species may arise in like manner. Though the same conclusion has appeared inevitable to many, including authorities of very diverse experience, such as Huxley, Virchow, F. Galton, it has been strenuously resisted by the bulk of scientific opinion, especially in England. Lately, however, the belief in mutation, as De Vries has taught us to call it, has made notable progress,[2] owing to the publication of his splendid collection of observations and experiments, which must surely carry conviction of the reality and abundance of mutation to the minds of all whose judgments can be affected by evidence.

That the dread test of natural selection must be passed by every aspirant to existence, however brief, is a truism which needs no special proof. Those who find satisfaction in demonstrations of the obvious may amply indulge themselves by starting various sorts of some annual, say French poppy, in a garden, letting them run to seed, and noticing in a few years how many of the finer sorts are represented; or by sowing an equal number of seeds taken from several varieties of carnation, lettuce or auricula, and seeing in what proportions the fine kinds survive in competition with the common.

Selection is a true phenomenon; but its function is to select, not to create. Many a white-edged poppy may have germinated and perished before Mr. Wilks saved the individual which in a few generations gave rise to the shirleys. Many a black Amphidasys betularia ay have emerged before, some sixty years ago, in the urban conditions of Manchester the black var. doubledayaria found its chance, soon practically superseding the type in its place of origin, extending itself over England, and reappearing even in Belgium and Germany.

Darwin gave us sound teaching when he compared man's selective operations with those of nature. Yet how many who are ready to expound nature's methods have been at the pains to see how man really proceeds? To the domesticated form our fashions are what environmental exigency is to the wild. For years the conventional Chinese primrose threw sporadic plants of the loose-growing stellata variety, promptly extirpated because repugnant to mid-Victorian primness. But when taste, as we say, revived, the graceful star primula was saved by Messrs. Sutton, and a stock raised which is now of the highest fashion. I dare assert that few botanists meeting P. stellata in nature would hesitate to declare it a good species. This and the shirleys precisely illustrate the procedure of the raiser of novelties. His operations start from a definite beginning. As in the case of P. stellata, he may notice a mutational form thrown off perfect from the start, or, as in the shirleys, what catches his attention may be the first indication of that flaw which if allowed to extend will split the type into a host of new varieties each with its own peculiarities and physiological constitution.

Let any one who doubts this try what he can do by selection without such a definite beginning. Let him try from a pure strain of black and white rats to raise a white one by breeding from the whitest, or a black one by choosing the blackest. Let him try to raise a dwarf ('Cupid') sweet pea from a tall race by choosing the shortest, or a crested fowl by choosing the birds with most feathers on their heads. To formulate such suggestions is to expose their foolishness.

The creature is beheld to be very good after, not before its creation. Our domesticated races are sometimes represented as so many incarnations of the breeder's prophetic fancy. But except in recombinations of preexisting characters—now a comprehensible process—and in such intensifications and such finishing touches as involve variations which analogy makes probable, the part played by prophecy is small. Variation leads; the breeder follows. The breeder's method is to notice a desirable novelty, and to work up a stock of it, picking up other novelties in his course—for these genetic disturbances often spread—and we may rest assured the method of nature is not very different.

The popular belief that evolution, whether natural or artificial, is effected by mass-selection of impalpable differences arises from many errors which are all phases of one—imperfect analysis—though the source of the error differs with the circumstances of its exponent. When the scientific advocate professes that he has statistical proofs of the continuity of variation, he is usually availing himself of that comprehensive use of the term variation to which I have referred. Statistical indications of such continuity are commonly derived from the study, not of nascent varieties, but of the fluctuations to which all normal populations are subject. Truly varying material needs care in its collection, and if found is often sporadic or in some other way unsuitable for statistical treatment. Sometimes it happens that the two phenomena are studied together in inextricable entanglement, and the resulting impression is a blur.

But when a practical man, describing his own experience, declares that the creation of his new breed has been a very long affair, the scientist, feeling that he has found a favorable witness, puts forward this testimony as conclusive. But on cross-examination it appears that the immense period deposed to seldom goes back beyond the time of the witness's grandfather, covering, say, seventy years; more often ten, or eight, or even five years will be found to have accomplished most of the business. Next, in this period—which, if we take it at seventy years, is a mere point of time compared with the epochs of which the selectionist discourses—a momentous transformation has often been effected, not in one character but many. Good characters have been added, it may be, of form, fertility, precocity, color and other physiological attributes, undesirable qualities have been eliminated, and all sorts of defects 'rogued' out. On analysis these operations can be proved to depend on a dozen discontinuities. Be it, moreover, remembered that within this period, besides producing his mutational character and combining it with other characters (or it may be groups of characters), the breeder has been working up a stock, reproducing in quantity that quality which first caught his attention, thus converting, if you will, a phenomenon of individuals into a phenomenon of a mass, to the future mystification of the careless.

Operating among such phenomena the gross statistical method is a misleading instrument; and, applied to these intricate discriminations, the imposing correlation table into which the biometrical Procrustes fits his arrays of unanalyzed data is still no substitute for the common 6ieve of a trained judgment. For nothing but minute analysis of the facts by an observer thoroughly conversant with the particular plant or animal, its habits and properties, checked by the test of crucial experiment, can disentangle the truth.

To prove the reality of selection as a factor in evolution is, as I have said, a work of supererogation. With more profit may experiments be employed in defining the limits of what selection can accomplish. For whenever we can advance no further by selection, we strike that hard outline fixed by the natural properties of organisms. We come upon these limits in various unexpected places, and to the naturalist ignorant of breeding nothing can be more surprising or instructive.

Whatever be the mode of origin of new types, no theoretical evolutionist doubts that selection will enable him to fix his character when obtained. Let him put his faith into practise. Let him set about breeding canaries to win in the class for Clear Yellow Norwich at the Crystal Palace Show. Being a selectionist, his plan will be to pick up winning yellow cocks and hens at shows and breed them together. The results will be disappointing. Not getting what he wants, he may buy still better clear yellows and work them in, and so on till his funds are exhausted, but he will pretty certainly breed no winner, be he never so skilful. For no selection of winning yellows will make them into a breed. They must be formed afresh by various combinations of colors appropriately crossed and worked up. Though breeders differ as to the system of combinations to be followed, all would agree that selection of birds representing the winning type was a sure way to fail. The same is true for nearly all canary colors except in lizards, and, I believe, for some pigeon and poultry colors also.

Let this scientific fancier now go to the Palace Poultry Show and buy the winning brown leghorn cock and hen, breed from them, and send up the result of such a mating year after year. His chance of a winner is not quite, but almost nil. For in its wisdom the fancy has chosen one type for the cock and another for the hen. They belong to distinct strains. The hen corresponding to the winning cock is too bright, and the cock corresponding to the winning hen is too dull for the judge's taste. The same is the case in nearly every breed where the sex-colors differ markedly. Rarely winners of both sexes have come in one strain—a phenomenon I can not now discuss—but the contrary is the rule. Does any one suppose that this system of 'double mating' would be followed, with all the cost and trouble it involves, if selection could compress the two strains into one? Yet current theory makes demands on selection to which this is nothing.

The tyro has confidence in the power of selection to fix type, but he never stops to consider what fixation precisely means. Yet a simple experiment will tell him. He may go to a great show and claim the best pair of Andalusian fowls for any number of guineas. When he breeds from them he finds, to his disgust, that only about half their chickens, or slightly more, come blue at all, the rest being blacks or splashed whites. Indignantly, perhaps, he will complain to the vendor that he has been supplied with no selected breed, but worthless mongrels. In reply he may learn that beyond a doubt his birds come from blues only in the direct line for an indefinite number of generations, and that to throw blacks and splashed whites is the inalienable property of blue Andalusians. But now let him breed from his 'wasters,' and he will find that the extracted blacks are pure and give blacks only, that the splashed whites similarly give only whites or splashed whites—but if the two sorts of 'wasters' are crossed together blues only will result. Selection will never make the blues breed true; nor can this ever come to pass unless a blue be found whose germ-cells are bearers of the blue character—which may or may not be possible. If the selectionist reflect on this experience he will be led straight to the center of our problem. There will fall, as it were, scales from his eyes, and in a flash he will see the true meaning of fixation of type, variability and mutation, vaporous mysteries no more.

Owing to the unhappy subdivisions of our studies, such phenomena as these—constant companions of the breeder—come seldom within the purview of modern science, which, forced for a moment to contemplate them, expresses astonishment and relapses into indolent scepticism. It is in the hope that a little may be done to draw research back into these forgotten paths that I avail myself of this great opportunity of speaking to my colleagues with somewhat wider range of topic than is possible within the limits of a scientific paper. For I am convinced that the investigation of heredity by experimental methods offers the sole chance of progress with the fundamental problems of evolution.

In saying this I mean no disrespect to that study of the physiology of reproduction by histological means, which, largely through the stimulus of Weismann's speculations, has of late made such extraordinary advances. It needs no penetration to see that, by an exact knowledge of the processes of maturation and fertilization, a vigorous stock is being reared, upon which some day the experience of the breeder will be firmly grafted, to our mutual profit. We, who are engaged in experimental breeding, are watching with keenest interest the researches of Strasburger, Boveri, Wilson, Farmer and their many fellow-workers and associates in this difficult field, sure that in the near future we shall be operating in common. We know already that the experience of the breeder is in no way opposed to the facts of the histologist; but the point at which we shall unite will be found when it is possible to trace in the maturing germ an indication of some character afterwards recognizable in the resulting organism. Till then, in order to pursue directly the course of heredity and variation, it is evident that we must fall back on those tangible manifestations which are to be studied only by field observation and experimental breeding.

The breeding-pen is to us what the test-tube is to the chemist—an instrument whereby we examine the nature of our organisms and determine empirically what for brevity I may call their genetic properties. As unorganized substances have their definite properties, so have the several species and varieties which form the materials of our experiments. Every attempt to determine these definite properties contributes immediately to the solution of that problem of problems, the physical constitution of a living organism. In those morphological studies which I suppose most of us have in our time pursued, we sought inspiration from the belief that in the examination of present normalities we were tracing the past, the phylogenetic order of our types, the history—as we conceived—of evolution. In the work which I am now pressing upon your notice we may claim to be dealing not only with the present and the past, but with the future also.

On such an occasion as this it is impossible to present to you in detail the experiments—some exceedingly complex—already made in response to this newer inspiration. I must speak of results, not of methods. At a later meeting, moreover, there will be opportunities of exhibiting practically to those interested some of the more palpable illustrations. It is also impossible to-day to make use of the symbolic demonstrations by which the lines of analysis must be represented. The time can not be far distant when ordinary Mendelian formulæ will be mere as in præsenti to a biological audience. Nearly five years have passed since this extraordinary rediscovery was made known to the scientific world by the practically simultaneous papers of De Vries, Correns and Tschermak, not to speak of thirty-five years of neglect endured before. Yet a phenomenon comparable in significance with any that biological science has revealed remains the intellectual possession of specialists. We still speak sometimes of Mendel's hypothesis or theory, but in truth the terms have no strict application. It is no theory that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, though we can not watch the atoms unite, and it is no theory that the blue Andalusian fowl I produce was made by the meeting of germ-cells bearing respectively black and a peculiar white. Both are incontrovertible facts deduced from observation. The two facts have this in common also, that their perception gives us a glimpse into that hidden order out of which the seeming disorder of our world is built. If I refer to Mendelian 'theory,' therefore, in the words with which Bacon introduced his Great Instauration, 'I entreat men to believe that it is not an opinion to be held, but a work to be done; and to be well assured that I am laboring to lay the foundation, not of any sect or doctrine, but of human utility and power.'

  1. Marchant, Mém. Ac. roy. des sci. for 1719; 1721, p. 59, Pls. 6-7. I owe this reference to Coutagne, L'hérédité chez les vers à soie (Bull. sci. Fr. Belg., 1902).
  2. This progress threatens to be rapid indeed. Since these lines were written Professor Hubrecht, in an admirable exposition (Pop. Sci. Monthly, July, 1904) of De Vries's 'Mutations-theorie,' has even blamed me for having ten years ago attached any importance to continuous variation. Nevertheless, when the unit of segregation is small, something mistakably like continuous evolution must surely exist. (Cp. Johannsen, 'Ueb. Erblichkeit in Populationen und in reinen Linien,' 1903.)