Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Rev. George Henslow on Natural Selection
(S503: 1894)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: This note, primarily concerning the notion of inheritance of acquired characters in plants, appeared in the Natural Science of September 1894. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. 177]] In Natural Science of July Mr. Henslow makes some statements with regard to variation and Natural Selection which call for critical remark. He says that, though cultivated plants vary indefinitely, and therefore require selection to produce definite modifications, this is not the case in Nature--"Variation in Nature is always in strict adaptation to the direct action of the environment; in other words, natural variation is always definite." This statement seems to me so extraordinary, and so opposed to well-known facts, that I can only impute it to the use of the terms "vary" and "variation" in two very distinct senses; first, as meaning those individual variations which occur abundantly both in nature and under cultivation; and, secondly, as meaning those particular variations which alone survive under nature and produce a "variety" or a "species." In this latter sense, of course, "natural variation" is definite; but so, in the same sense, are the variations of cultivated plants. From unstable and indefinite "variations" man and nature alike produce definite "varieties." As one out of the innumerable examples of indefinite variation which might be named are the fifteen different modes of variation observed by Alph. de Candolle on a single oak tree, while in a great number of common species an equal amount of variability may be observed both in wild and cultivated individuals; and all these variations are indefinite, in the sense that they do not usually occur in one direction only, from the typical form. A few examples of such variations have been given in my "Darwinism," pp. 76-80. I cannot, therefore, understand either the meaning or the value of the statement--"natural variation is always definite."

    It is not quite clear whether Mr. Henslow admits the agency of Natural Selection at all. He says: "I would ask what facts are producible to prove that Natural Selection acts at all on the maintenance, if not the origin, of any floral and, indeed, other structures?" It is, of course, admitted that direct proof of the action of Natural Selection is at present wanting; but the indirect proofs have been so cogent as to overcome the most violent prejudice and opposition, and to convert a large majority of naturalists to a belief in its agency. It is, therefore, rather late in the day to deny its existence without [[p. 178]] adducing some adequate and proved substitute. What Mr. Henslow does put in its place is the reaction of vegetable tissues to the environment, resulting in adaptation; and in the special case of flowers he imputes all the variety of form and endless modifications of structure to "the responsive action of the protoplasm, in consequence of the irritations set up by the weights, pressures, thrusts, tensions, etc., of the insect visitors."1 Now the very first essential to this theory is to prove that modifications produced by such irritations are hereditary. Here, if anywhere, we want facts. Yet in the very interesting volume to which Mr. Henslow refers us, crowded as it is with facts and observations, I can find only two or three slight references to this most vital point. At page 147 he quotes Darwin as saying that the excellence of our milking cows and goats may be attributed partly to selection and "partly to the inherited effect of the increased action, through man's art, of the secreting glands," and adds, "This fact" is strictly analogous to what takes place in the vegetable kingdom! Here we have a mere opinion of Darwin's, nowhere supported by direct observation or experiment, and now seriously challenged by a large body of naturalists, set forth as "a fact." Again, at page 157, the case of the various "ant-plants" of the eastern tropics is referred to, and it is stated that Dr. Beccari explains the curious hollow stem in which the ants dwell as partly due to the irritation of the ants inducing hypertrophy of the vegetable tissue, which "then becomes hereditary"; and Mr. Henslow concludes that there is abundant evidence to prove that many organs of a plant, if subjected to irritation, can become materially altered and develop new processes, and, "secondly, that these altered states, if the irritation be persisted in, may become hereditary." Here again are only opinions without a particle of proof; and I can find nothing more to the point in the whole volume. The case of galls is very briefly referred to at p. 144, and their non-heredity is passed by with the remark that the predisposition to produce them may be greater now than formerly, and that the galls themselves may be larger than they were at first. But surely if the effects of insect irritation are anywhere hereditary it would be here. An oak tree which lives several hundred years is subject to this irritation in greater or less degree almost every year, and the irritation itself is not momentary and intermittent, as in the case of insects visiting flowers, but is kept up by the presence of the egg and growing larva during a considerable portion of the period of active vegetable growth, and this has been going on for thousands, probably millions, of years. Yet neither do oaks nor any other plants produce galls spontaneously, as they certainly should do if the results of irritations are in any general sense hereditary. This seems to me to be a really crucial experiment continually repeated by nature.

    I may here remark that Mr. Henslow's theory utterly breaks down owing to the want of any conceivable connection between [[p. 179]] insect irritation and most of the innumerable adaptations of the parts of flowers to attract insects and secure cross-fertilisation. Such are the sticky glands, the elastic filaments, the springs and traps, and the accurately timed motions of the pollinia in orchids; the innumerable complexities in papilionaceous flowers; the large coloured tracts in Bougainvillea, Poinsettia, and many others; the flowers with tightly-closed lips, as Linaria, Antirrhinum, Melampyrum, etc.; the enlarged rays of Compositæ, Umbelliferæ, and Caprifoliaceæ; the general massing of small flowers into heads, umbels, corymbs, or dense racemes, so as to become conspicuous, and many other characters. To these may be added the negative evidence of the numerous genera and orders of regular flowers, such as Campanula, Rosaceæ, Gentianaceæ, and many others, which, though thoroughly adapted for insect fertilisation, and whose lower petals have therefore been always subject to irritations, have never developed irregular flowers. In all these cases variation with Natural Selection will account for the phenomena, while insect irritations, even if we admit heredity, will not do so. From whatever point of view we approach the question, the attempt to explain floral structure and colour without the aid of Natural Selection is a hopeless failure.

    In the Journal of the Linnean Society ("Botany," no. 208, July 10) there has just appeared an elaborate paper by Mr. Henslow on "The Origin of Plant-Structures by Self-Adaptation to the Environment, exemplified by Desert or Xerophilous Plants," in which the author still further develops his view as to the influence of the direct action of the environment unaided by selection. The only portion of this paper on which I propose to remark is that dealing with the origin of spines and prickles, on which I have already had occasion to write in my book on "Darwinism," when combating Professor Geddes' views on the same subject. Mr. Henslow imputes the spines and prickles of so many plants inhabiting dry countries to the direct influence of the conditions under which they live. This, he thinks, is proved by some of these plants losing their spines when grown under other conditions; he adduces numerous examples of the abundance of spiny plants in such countries as Nubia, Abyssinia, and the Kalahari Desert; and he again and again reiterates the statement that these characters are "simply the inevitable results of the action of environment."

    Now if these statements comprised all the facts, that is, if in all dry countries spiny plants abounded, while in all moist or fertile districts they were absent or very rare, the explanation given of their origin would have some plausibility. But there is no such general coincidence of aridity of soil or atmosphere with abundance of spiny plants, as very little enquiry will show. Mr. Henslow points out several other plant-characteristics which indicate, and, as he thinks, are directly caused by, aridity. Such are very small, coriaceous, or rolled up leaves, or their complete absence; a hairy or woolly covering [[p. 180]] to the whole plant; succulent foliage; special protection of the buds; enormous development of roots; abundance of bulbs and tubers; together with thickness of bark and various protective coatings to stems and leaves. Now many of these peculiarities are present in the flora of the Brazilian Campos--as well described in the memoir of Eug. Warming on Lagoa Santa--which is referred to by Mr. Henslow as corresponding in many respects with that of other arid regions. Yet the author of this memoir expressly states that "spiny plants are very rare" (p. 463). Again, the plants of the Galapagos present similar indications of aridity--shrubs with minute and almost invisible leaves, for example--yet, except the cacti, which may be of American origin, none of the endemic species are spiny. So, also, the rich Sandwich Island flora contains hardly a single endemic spiny plant; and I am informed by the Rev. R. P. Murray, who is well acquainted with the botany of the Canaries, that spiny plants are exceedingly rare in those islands, though much of the surface, owing to the porous volcanic rock and the long periods of drought, presents the conditions which elsewhere are said to produce spines.

    Now without denying that--other conditions being equal--aridity may favour and moisture may check the growth of spines, there is another and altogether different set of conditions which seem more directly connected with their abundance or rarity. This is, the presence or absence of herbivorous mammals, against whose ravages spines are a protection. The most destructive of these animals are camels, goats, and antelopes, and it is where these are indigenous--in Arabia, North-east and South Africa, and Central Asia, that thorny shrubs and trees are especially abundant. Again, few countries have more spiny plants than Chili, where the camel-like vicugnas and alpacas, as well as large rodents, are very destructive. But the country is not especially arid, and the remarkable Puyas, whose leaves are armed with excessively sharp recurved spines, inhabit the subalpine regions where rain and mist prevail. In our own moist islands we have a full proportion of prickly plants, and the same may be said of North America, where the Gleditschia or Honey Locust has the young branches, and in old trees the trunk, armed with groups of very strong and sharp spines. So also in Japan, notwithstanding its moist insular climate, we have an Olea and an Osmanthus with holly-like prickly leaves; while the prickly Berberis Darwinii is found in the damp atmosphere of the Straits of Magellan.

    Equally opposed to the theory of aridity as the efficient cause of spines is their abundance on palms growing in the hottest and moistest regions of the globe. In many Amazonian species the stem is thickly set with long and very sharp spines pointing downwards, and thus forming a complete protection against monkeys and other arboreal fruit-eating mammals. Many species of Bactris and Astrocaryum are thus armed, as is also the beautiful Guilielma speciosa, the Peach palm, whose fruit is large and edible. It is a suggestive [[p. 181]] circumstance that, with the exception of palms, few large trees are spiny, and when they are so, as in the case of the Gleditschia, the spines are most abundant on the trunk and on the younger branches. In the same way, our holly, when it grows to a large size, usually has the leaves towards the top spineless: the wild pear also is spiny below but unarmed above. The climbing palms, on the other hand, are armed to the very top, but in this case the spines assist climbing.

    The anomaly of the flora of the Brazilian Campos having most of the true xerophilous characteristics, yet being almost wholly without spiny forms, is quite in harmony with the fact of the great poverty of this region in mammals destructive of woody vegetation. There are really none but a few deer and cavies, which are mostly inhabitants of the more wooded valleys, and which are kept from undue multiplication by the considerable number of species of Felidæ and Canidæ in the same area.

    We are, therefore, led to conclude that the apparent direct dependence of an unusually spinescent vegetation on arid conditions of soil or climate is to a great extent deceptive. Such conditions are inimical to the growth of dense forest, and it is a well-known fact that the larger mammalia abound most in partially wooded or open country. Many of these animals are exceedingly destructive to shrubby or aborescent vegetation, especially in districts which are subject to occasional droughts; and it is in such areas that so many of these plants have acquired the protective armature of spines or prickles, while others not so protected have sooner or later succumbed, thus leading to a preponderance of the former. But the numerous instances in which considerable areas and extensive floras are found to have hardly any spinous plants, as compared with other areas in which the soil and climate are generally similar and where such plants abound--the only important difference being the absence or presence of destructive herbivorous or frugivorous mammals--show us clearly that it is the latter rather than the former condition which is the real starting point and efficient cause for the development of spines, while the mode of their production has been through spontaneous variation and Natural Selection.2

    A few remarks may now be added on the general question of adaptation in the vegetable kingdom. Reference has already been made to the numerous cases in which the special adaptations of flowers to insect-fertilisation can by no stretch of imagination be imputed to the direct action of insects, and the same thing is equally clear in many other directions. The whole group of insectivorous plants, for instance, exhibit strange and complex adaptations which have no [[p. 182]] direct relation to the mere fact of insects crawling over them or settling upon them. So also are those varied adaptations by which, as Kerner has shown, injurious insects are prevented from reaching the flowers.

    Even more unintelligible on this theory are modifications of fruits and seeds, by which some attract birds or mammals to eat them, while others are guarded against being eaten; some seeds have beautiful wings or plumes for wind dispersal, others have hooks or sticky hairs which cling to wool or feathers, while others again are scattered abroad by the sudden elastic bursting of the capsules. Take the comparatively simple case of nuts. Did they acquire their hard covering and brown protective tints and detachment from the tree as soon as ripe by the direct agency of birds, or monkeys, or squirrels? Of course, the question is absurd, since those eaten by these creatures could not transmit their special qualities; but those that, by the possession of any of these qualities, escaped being eaten, would transmit those qualities to the next generation.3

    Any conceivable direct action of the environment can therefore have produced only a very small portion of the modifications and adaptations that actually exist. In by far the larger number of cases no such explanation is possible, and no other adequate explanation has been suggested except variation and Natural Selection. It is, of course, admitted that the action of the environment does produce definite changes in all organisms, more especially in plants, but there is no evidence that such changes are transmitted to the offspring of the individuals in which they have been produced.

    On the other hand, there is direct evidence that many such changes are not transmitted, an example of which is the Arabis anachoretica with remarkable tissue-papery leaves, due to its growth in hollows of the rock, where neither sun nor rain reach it. Seeds of this plant when cultivated at Kew produced the common Arabis alpina. The same thing occurs with many plants, as every cultivator knows; but other forms with no greater peculiarities externally preserve their characters under cultivation, though exposed to the most varied conditions. As we thus know that some variations directly due to the environment are not transmitted, and also know that an immense number of spontaneous or congenital variations are transmitted, since by taking advantage of this fact almost all the improvement in our domestic animals and cultivated plants has been effected; and yet further, that no case has been found in which such spontaneous variations are wholly intransmissible,--the logical conclusion is that the two kinds of variation are distinct in their nature. This view of the subject is adopted by those botanists who are now endeavouring to determine the true nature of the [[p. 183]] numerous alleged species, sub-species, and varieties of our native plants. They test the fixity of the characters which distinguish each form by cultivation. If these characters remain unchanged, and are transmitted by seed, the form is a permanent one and deserves to be recorded as a species or sub-species; but if, as frequently occurs with forms which appear quite as distinct as those which are stable, the plant reverts on cultivation to some other form, it is evidently a modification due to some local conditions of the environment, and should be treated differently. Mr. Beeby has proposed to call the former "intrinsic," the latter "extrinsic" varieties, terms corresponding to Weismann's "germ variation" and "somatic variation," and these can in many cases only be distinguished from each other by the test of cultivation under different conditions. On this point Mr. Beeby remarks:--"The most transient states of plants due to the direct action of their environment are often far more distinct in appearance from their normal forms than are some varieties from their types; but the first-named return at once to their normal state on being removed from their special surroundings, while the latter remain permanently distinct from their types even when grown under circumstances most disadvantageous to the continuation of the particular variation. That these two kinds of variation exist in plants is certain; and the separation of them seems to be the very basis on which all investigations of the Phanerogamia must be made, if it is hoped that this branch of botany is to throw any further light on Evolution."4

    In conclusion, I submit that the whole body of facts in relation to the direct action of the environment indicates that modifications thus produced in the individual are not transmitted to the offspring; and that until it is demonstrated by experiment that they are so transmitted, theories of plant modification founded on that assumption are altogether worthless.

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1"The Origin of Floral Structures," p. 340. [[on p. 178]]

2Professor A. Kerner gives an admirable account of the various forms of spiny and prickly plants, which are exceedingly numerous in the Mediterranean district, and he adds: "In northern regions not exposed to summer drought, where grazing animals find in summer enough green fodder, this form of plant is almost entirely absent." ("The Natural History of Plants," English Translation, vol. i., p. 445.) [[on p. 181]]

3Other cases of the want of relation between adaptations and their supposed cause are given in my article, "Are Individually Acquired Characters Inherited?" in the Fortnightly Review of May, 1893, pp. 664-9. [[on p. 182]]

4"On the Flora of Shetland." Annals of Scottish Natural History. January, 1892, p. 52. [[on p. 183]]

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