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Variation and Natural Selection (S440: 1891)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor regarding a C. Lloyd Morgan address. Printed in the 1 October 1891 number of Nature. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S440.htm

    [[p. 518]] In Prof. C. Lloyd Morgan's Presidential address to the Bristol Naturalists' Society, on "The Nature and Origin of Variations" (of which he has kindly sent me a reprint from the Society's Proceedings), there are one or two points on which there seems to me to be a slight misconception; and as the difficulties suggested have probably occurred to other naturalists, I wish to make a few observations in the hope of throwing a little light on this obscure subject.

    After referring to the proofs of the variability of species in a state of nature which I have adduced in my "Darwinism" (to which proofs Prof. Lloyd Morgan has made some important additions in his recent work on "Animal Life and Intelligence") he remarks:--"We have been apt to suppose that a species is so nicely adjusted to its surrounding conditions that all variations from the type, unless of a very insignificant character, would be rapidly and inevitably weeded out. This, it is clear, is not true at any rate for some species." And a little further on, after discussing the question whether variations in all directions occur in equal proportions--an equality which does not appear to me to be at all necessary, or to have been ever suggested as occurring--he says: "And the candid biologist must, I think, admit that the evidence in Mr. Wallace's third chapter, while conclusive as to the occurrence of variations, gives on analysis little or no evidence of any selective agency at work."

    The difficulties here stated appear to me to depend, chiefly, on not taking account of some important facts in nature. The first fact is, that the struggle for existence is intermittent in character, and only reaches a maximum at considerable intervals, which may be measured by tens of years or by centuries. The average number of the individuals of any species which reach maturity may be able to survive for some years in ordinary seasons or under ordinary attacks of enemies, but when exceptional periods of cold or drought or wet occur, with a corresponding scarcity of certain kinds of food, or greater persecution from certain enemies, then a rigid selection comes into play, and all those individuals which vary too far from the mean standard of efficiency are destroyed.

    Another important consideration is that these epochs of severe struggle will not be all of a like nature, and thus only one particular kind of unbalanced or injurious variation may be eliminated by each of them. Hence it may be that for considerable periods almost all the individuals that reach maturity may be able to survive, even though they exhibit large variations in many directions from the central type of the species. During such quiescent periods, the chief elimination will be among the young and immature. Thus, with birds probably nine-tenths of the destruction occurs among the eggs and half-fledged young, or among those which have just escaped from parental care; while those which have survived to breeding age only suffer a slight destruction in ordinary years, and this may occur partly among the less experienced, partly among those which are old and somewhat feeble.

    The severe elimination that occurs in the earlier stages may be thought to be accidental, but I doubt if it is really so except in a very small degree. The protection and concealment of the eggs and young in the nest will depend chiefly on the mental qualities or instincts of the parents, and these will have been always subject to a rigid selection owing to the fact that those with deficient instincts will leave fewer offspring to inherit their deficiency. And with young birds of the first year there will be an equally rigid selection of the incautious, and of those who are deficient in any of the sense-perceptions, or are less strong and active than their fellows.

    The proof that there is a selective agency at work is, I think, to be found in the general stability of species during the period of human observation, notwithstanding the large amount of variability that has been proved to exist. If there were no selection constantly going on, why should it happen that the kind of variations that occur so frequently under domestication never maintain themselves in a state of nature? Examples of this class are white blackbirds or pigeons, black sheep, and unsymmetrically marked animals generally. These occur not unfrequently, as well as such sports as six-toed or stump-tailed cats, and they all persist and even increase under domestication, but never in a state of nature; and there seems no reason for this but that in the latter case they are quickly eliminated through the struggle for existence--that is, by natural selection.

    One more point I will advert to is Prof. Lloyd Morgan's doubt, in opposition to Mr. Ball, "whether a thicker or thinner sole to the foot is a character of elimination value, whether it would determine survival or elimination, and make all the difference between passing or being plucked in life's great competitive examination." This seems to me to be a rather unfortunate objection, since, in constantly recurring circumstances during the life of a savage, this very character must be of vital importance. Whether on the war-path, or in pursuit of game, [[p. 519]] or when escaping from a human enemy or from a dangerous animal, the thickness of the sole, its insensibility to pain, and its resistance to wear and tear must have often determined life or death. A man who became sore-footed after a long day's tramp, or one whose thin sole was easily cut or torn by stones or stumps, could never compete with his thicker soled companions, other things being equal; and it seems to me that it would be difficult to choose a single physical character whose variations would be more clearly subject to the law of selection.

    With the greater portion of Prof. Lloyd Morgan's very interesting address I am in perfect accord, and it is because his remarks and suggestions are usually so acute and so well founded that I have thought it advisable to point out where I think that his objections have a less stable foundation.

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