Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection


As natural selection acts by life and death, by the survival of the fittest, and by the destruction of the less well-fitted individuals, I have sometimes felt great difficulty in understanding the origin or formation of parts of little importance; almost as great, though of a very different kind, as in the case of the most perfect and complex organs.

In the first place, we are much too ignorant in regard to the whole economy of any one organic being to say what slight modifications would be of importance or not. In a former chapter I have given instances of very trifling characters, such as the down on fruit and the colour of its flesh, the colour of the skin and hair of quadrupeds, which, from being correlated with constitutional differences, or from determining the attacks of insects, might assuredly be acted on by natural selection. The tail of the giraffe looks like an artificially constructed fly-flapper; and it seems at first incredible that this could have been adapted for its present purpose by successive slight modifications, each better and better fitted, for so trifling an object as to drive away flies; yet we should pause before being too positive even in this case, for we know that the distribution and existence of cattle and other animals in South America absolutely depend on their power of resisting the attacks of insects: so that individuals which could by any means defend themselves from these small enemies, would be able to range into new pastures and thus gain a great advantage. It is not that the larger quadrupeds are actually destroyed (except in some rare cases) by flies, but they are incessantly harassed and their strength reduced, so that they are more subject to disease, or not so well enabled in a coming dearth to search for food, or to escape from beasts of prey.

Organs now of trifling importance have probably in some cases been of high importance to an early progenitor, and, after having been slowly perfected at a former period, have been transmitted to existing species in nearly the same state, although now of very slight use; but any actually injurious deviations in their structure would of course have been checked by natural selection. Seeing how important an organ of locomotion the tail is in most aquatic animals, its general presence and use for many purposes in so many land animals, which in their lungs or modified swim-bladders betray their aquatic origin, may perhaps be thus accounted for. A well-developed tail having been formed in an aquatic animal, it might subsequently come to be worked in for all sorts of purposes, as a fly-flapper, an organ of prehension, or as an aid in turning, as in the case of the dog, though the aid in this latter respect must be slight, for the hare, with hardly any tail, can double still more quickly.

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