Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/November 1909/The World of Life as Visualized and Interpreted by Darwinism

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THE lecturer began by stating, that, although the theory of Darwinism is one of the most simple of comprehension in the whole range of science, there is none that is so widely and persistently misunderstood. This is the more remarkable, on account of its being founded upon common and universally admitted facts of nature, more or less familiar to all who take any interest in living things; and this misunderstanding is not confined to the ignorant or unscientific, but prevails among the educated classes, and is even found among eminent students and professors of various departments of biology.

Darwinism is almost entirely based upon these external facts of nature, the close observation and description of which constituted the old-fashioned "naturalists," and it is the specialization in modern science that has led to the misunderstanding referred to. Those who have devoted years to the almost exclusive study of anatomy, physiology or embryology, and that equally large class, who make the lower forms of life (mostly aquatic) the subject of microscopical investigation, are naturally disposed to think that a theory which can dispense with all their work (though often strikingly supported by it), can not be so important and far-reaching as it is found to be.


Numbers, Variety and Intermingling of Life-forms

Coming to the first great group of facts upon which Darwinism rests, the lecturer calls attention to the great number of distinct species both of vegetable and animal life found even in our own very limited and rather impoverished islands, as compared with the more extensive areas. Great Britain possessed somewhat less than 2,000 species of flowering plants while many equal areas on the continent of Europe have twice the number. The whole of Europe contains 9,000 species, and the world 136,000 species already described; but the total number, if the whole earth were as well known as Europe, would be almost certainly more than double that number or about a quarter of a million species. The following table, showing how much more crowded are the species in small than in large areas, was exhibited on the wall. It affords an excellent illustration of the fact of the great intermingling of species, so that large numbers are able lb live in close contact with other, usually very distinct, species.


Numbers of Flowering Plants[2]

Square Miles. Species.
The County of Surrey 760 840
A portion containing 60 660
A portion containing 10 600
A portion containing 1 400

The above figures were given by the late Mr. H. C. Watson, one of our most eminent British botanists, and as he lived most of his life in the country, they are probably the results of his personal observation, and are therefore quite trustworthy.

Continuing the above enquiry to still smaller areas, one perch equalling 160 acre, or less than the 1100000 of a square mile, has been found to have about forty distinct species, while on a patch 4 feet by 3 feet in Kent (or about 125000000 of a square mile) Mr. Darwin found twenty species.

The same law of increase of numbers in proportion to areas applies to the animal world, if we count all the species that visit a garden or field during the year, though those that can continuously live there are not perhaps so numerous in very small areas.


The Increase of Plants and Animals

The powers of increase of plants and animals were next discussed, and were shown to be enormously great. An oak tree may produce some millions of acorns in a good year, but only one of these becomes a tree in several hundred years, to replace the parent. Kerner states that a common weed, Sisymbrium Sophia, produces about three quarters of a million of seeds; and if all these grew and multiplied for three years, the plants produced would cover the whole land surface of the globe.

Equally striking is the possible increase in the animal world. Darwin calculated that the slowest breeding of all animals, the elephant, would in 750 years from a single pair produce nineteen millions. Rabbits, which have several litters a year would produce a million from a single pair in four or five years, as they have probably done in Australia, where they have become a national calamity. As illustrative of this part of the subject, the lecturer referred at some length to the cases of the bison and the passenger pigeon in North America, and the lemmings of Scandinavia. In the insect tribes still more rapid powers of increase exist. The common flesh-fly goes through its complete transformations from egg to perfect insect in two weeks; and Linnæus estimated that three of these flies could eat up a dead horse as quickly as a lion.

It is these enormous powers of rapid increase that have ensured the continuance of the various types of existing life from the earliest geological ages in unbroken succession; while it has also been an important factor in the production of new forms which have successively occupied every vacant station with specially adapted species.


Inheritance and Variation

The vitally important facts of inheritance with variation was next discussed, and their exact nature and universal application pointed out. The laws of the frequency and the amount of variations, and their occurrence in all the various parts and external organs of the higher animals, was illustrated by a series of diagrams. These showed the actual facts of variation in adult animals of the same sex obtained at the same time and place, which had been carefully measured in numbers varying from twenty to several thousand individuals. The general result deduced from hundreds of such measurements and comparisons, was, that the individuals of all species varied around a mean value—that the numbers became less and less as we receded from that mean, and that the limit of variation in each direction was soon reached. Thus, when the heights of 2,600 men, taken at random, were measured, those about 5 feet 8 inches in height were found to be far the most numerous. About half the total number had heights between 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 10 inches, while only ten reached 6 feet 6 inches, or were so little as 4 feet 10 inches, and at 6 feet 8 inches and 4 feet 8 inches there were only one of each.

The diagrams from the measurements of various species of birds and mammals were shown to agree exactly in general character; and the further fact was exhibited by all of them, that the parts and organs varied more or less independently, so that the wings, tails, toes or bills of birds were often very long, while the body, or some other part was very short, a point of extreme importance, as supplying ample materials for adaptation through natural selection.


The Law of Natural Selection

The next subject discussed was the nature and mode of action of natural selection. It was pointed out that since the glacial epoch no decided change of species had occurred. This showed us that the adaptation of every existing species to its environment was not only special but general. The seasons changed from year to year, but the extremes of change only occurred at long intervals, perhaps of many centuries, with lesser, but still very considerable variations twice or thrice in a century. It was by the action of these seasons of extreme severity at long intervals, whether of arctic winters, or summer droughts, that the very existence of species was endangered; and it was at such times that the enormous population of most species and their wide range over the whole continents, always secured the preservation of considerable numbers of the best adapted in the most favored localities. Then the rapidity of multiplication came into play, so that in two or three years the population of each species became as great as ever; while, as all the least favorable variations had been destroyed, the species as a whole had become better adapted to its environment than before the almost catastrophic destruction of such a large proportion of them.

It is the fact of the adaptation of almost all existing species to a continually fluctuating environment—fluctuating between periodical extremes of great severity—that has produced an amount of adaptation that in ordinary seasons is superfluously complete. This is shown by the well-known fact that large numbers of adult animals that have not only reached maturity but have also produced offspring and successfully reared them, continue to live and breed for many years in succession, although varying considerably from the mean, while almost the whole of the inexperienced young fall victims to the various causes of destruction that surround them.


The Nature of Adaptation

The next subject discussed was the complex nature of adaptations in many cases, and probably in all; a subject of great extent and difficulty. The lecturer directed special attention to the relations between the superabundance of vegetation in spring and summer, the enormous, but, to us, mostly invisible, hosts of the insect tribes which devour this vegetation, and the great multitudes of our smaller birds whose young are fed almost exclusively on these insects. Without these hosts of insects the birds would soon become extinct; while without the birds, the insects would increase so enormously as to destroy a considerable amount of vegetable life, which would, in its turn, lead to the destruction of much of the insect, and even of the highest animal groups, leaving the world greatly impoverished in its forms of life.

The vast numbers of insects required daily and hourly to feed each brood of young birds was next referred to, and the wonderful adaptation of each kind of parent bird which enables it to discover and to capture a sufficient quantity immediately around its nest, in competition with many others engaged in the same task in every copse and garden, was next pointed out. The facts were shown to involve specialities of structure, agility of motions, and acuteness of the senses, which could only have been attained by the preservation of each successive slight variation of a beneficial character throughout geological time; while the emotions of parental love must also have been continuously increased, this being the great motive power of the strenuous activity exhibited by these charming little creatures.


Lord Salisbury on Natural Selection

As illustrating the strange and almost incredible misconceptions prevailing as to the mode of action of natural selection, the lecturer quoted the following passage from the late Lord Salisbury's presidential address to the British Association at Oxford in 1894. After describing how the diverse races of domestic animals have been produced by artificial selection, Lord Salisbury continued thus:

But in natural selection, who is to supply the breeder's place? Unless the crossing is properly arranged the new breed will never come into being. What is to secure that the two individuals of opposite sexes in the primeval forest, who have been both accidentally blessed with the same advantageous variation, shall meet, and transmit by inheritance that variation to their successors? Unless this step is made good the modification will never get a start; and yet there is nothing to ensure that step but pure chance. The law of chance takes the place of the cattle-breeder or the pigeon-fancier. The biologists do well to ask for an immeasurable expanse of time, if the occasional meetings of advantageously varied couples, from age to age, are to provide the pedigree of modifications which unite us to our ancestors, the jelly-fish.

Here we have the extraordinary misconception presented to a scientific audience as actual fact, that advantageous variations occur singly, at long intervals, and remote from each other; each statement being, as is well known, the absolute reverse of what is really the case. It totally ignores the fact, that every abundant species consists of tens or hundreds of millions of individuals, and that as regards any faculty or quality whatever, this vast host may be divided into two portions—the less and the more adapted—not very unequal in amount. It follows that at any given time, in any given country, the advantageous variations always present are not to be counted by ones and twos, as stated by Lord Salisbury, but by scores of millions; and not in individuals widely apart from each other, but constituting in every locality or country, somewhere about one half of the whole population of the species.

The facts of nature being what they are, it is impossible to imagine any slow change of environment to which the more populous species would not become automatically adjusted under the laws of multiplication, variation and survival of the fittest. Almost every objection that has been made to Darwinism assumes conditions of nature very unlike those which actually exist, and which must, under the same general laws of life, always have existed.


Protective Color and Mimicry

The phenomena of protective coloration and mimicry were very briefly alluded to, both because they are comparatively well known and had formed the subject of previous lectures; while they are very easily explained on the general principles now set forth. The explanation is the more easy and complete, because of all the characters of living organisms, color is that which varies most, is most distinctive of the different species, and is almost universally utilized for concealment, for warning or for recognition. And further, its useful results are clear and unmistakable, and have never been attempted to be accounted for in detail by any other theory than that of the continuous selection of beneficial variations.


The Dispersal of Seeds

The subject of the dispersal of seeds through the agency of the wind, or of carriage by birds or mammals in a variety of ways, and often by most curious and varied arrangements, of hooks, spines or sticky exudations almost infinitely varied in the different species, was also briefly treated, since they are all readily explicable by the laws of variation and selection, while no other rational explanation of their formation has ever been given.



In concluding, the lecturer called attention to a series of cases which had shown us the actual working of natural selection at the present time. He also explained that these cases were at present few in number, first, because they had not been searched for; but perhaps mainly, because they only occur on a large scale at rather long intervals, when some great and rather rapid modification of the environment is taking place.

In the following paragraph he endeavored to summarize the entire problem and its solution:

It is only by continually keeping in our minds all the facts of nature which I have endeavored, however imperfectly to set before you, that we can possibly realize and comprehend the great problems presented by the "World of Life"—its persistence in ever-changing but unchecked development throughout the geological ages, the exact adaptations of every species to its actual environment both inorganic and organic, and the exquisite forms of beauty and harmony in flower and fruit, in mammal and bird, in mollusc and in the infinitude of the insect-tribes; all of which have been brought into existence through the unknown but supremely marvelous powers of life, in strict relation to that great law ©f usefulness, which constitutes the fundamental principle of Darwinism.
  1. Abstract of a lecture before the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
  2. Other tables illustrating similar facts in other parts of the world were prepared, but not exhibited, as being likely to distract attention from the lecture itself.