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


It may be urged as an overwhelming argument that there must be some essential distinction between species and varieties inasmuch as the latter, however much they may differ from each other in external appearance, cross with perfect facility, and yield perfectly fertile offspring. With some exceptions, presently to be given, I fully admit that this is the rule. But the subject is surrounded by difficulties, for, looking to varieties produced under nature, if two forms hitherto reputed to be varieties be found in any degree sterile together, they are at once ranked by most naturalists as species. For instance, the blue and red pimpernel, which are considered by most botanists as varieties, are said by Gartner to be quite sterile when crossed, and he consequently ranks them as undoubted species. If we thus argue in a circle, the fertility of all varieties produced under nature will assuredly have to be granted.

If we turn to varieties, produced, or supposed to have been produced, under domestication, we are still involved in some doubt. For when it is stated, for instance, that certain South American indigenous domestic dogs do not readily unite with European dogs, the explanation which will occur to everyone, and probably the true one, is that they are descended from aboriginally distinct species. Nevertheless the perfect fertility of so many domestic races, differing widely from each other in appearance, for instance, those of the pigeon, or of the cabbage, is a remarkable fact; more especially when we reflect how many species there are, which, though resembling each other most closely, are utterly sterile when intercrossed. Several considerations, however, render the fertility of domestic varieties less remarkable. In the first place, it may be observed that the amount of external difference between two species is no sure guide to their degree of mutual sterility, so that similar differences in the case of varieties would be no sure guide. It is certain that with species the cause lies exclusively in differences in their sexual constitution. Now the varying conditions to which domesticated animals and cultivated plants have been subjected, have had so little tendency towards modifying the reproductive system in a manner leading to mutual sterility, that we have good grounds for admitting the directly opposite doctrine of Pallas, namely, that such conditions generally eliminate this tendency; so that the domesticated descendants of species, which in their natural state probably would have been in some degree sterile when crossed, become perfectly fertile together. With plants, so far is cultivation from giving a tendency towards sterility between distinct species, that in several well- authenticated cases already alluded to, certain plants have been affected in an opposite manner, for they have become self-impotent, while still retaining the capacity of fertilising, and being fertilised by, other species. If the Pallasian doctrine of the elimination of sterility through long-continued domestication be admitted, and it can hardly be rejected, it becomes in the highest degree improbable that similar conditions long- continued should likewise induce this tendency; though in certain cases, with species having a peculiar constitution, sterility might occasionally be thus caused. Thus, as I believe, we can understand why, with domesticated animals, varieties have not been produced which are mutually sterile; and why with plants only a few such cases, immediately to be given, have been observed.

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