Skip to content

Biology Descriptive Essay Natural Nature Selection Theoretical Tropical

RECORD: Wallace, A. R. 1895. Natural selection and tropical nature: Essays on descriptive and theoretical biology. 2d edn London: Macmillan.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed (single key) by AEL Data 10.2008, corrections by John van Wyhe 9.2012. RN2

[title page]








All rights reserved

[page iv]

NATURAL SELECTION. First Edition 1870

TROPICAL NATURE. First Edition 1878

First published together 1891. Reprinted 1895

[page v]


THE present volume consists mainly of a reprint of two volumes of essays—Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, which appeared in 1870, which a second edition in 1871, and has now been many years out of print; and, Tropical Nature and Other Essays, which appeared in 1878.

In preparing a new edition of these works to appear as a single volume I have thought it advisable to omit two essays—that on "The Malayan Papilionidæ" as being too technical for general readers, and that on "The Distribution of Animals as indicating Geographical Changes," which contains nothing that is not more fully treated in my other works. Another essay—"By - Paths in the Domain of Biology"—has also been partly omitted, one portion of it forming a short chapter on "The Antiquity and Origin of Man," while another portion has been incorporated in the chapter on "The Colours of Animals and Sexual Selection." More than compensating for these omissions are two new chapters—"The Antiquity of Man in North America" and "The Debt of Science to Darwin."

Many corrections and some important additions have been made to the text, the chief of which are indicated in the table given below; and to facilitate reference the two original works have separate headings, and form Parts I. and II. of the present volume.

[page] vi


221221Additional facts as to birds acquiring the song of other species105
223223A 223BMr. Spruce's remarks on young birds pairing with old107
228228A 228BPouchet's observations on a change in the nests of swallowsomitted
229Passage omitted about nest of Golden Crested Warbler, which had been inserted on Rennie's authority, but has not been confirmed by any later observers.
261261Daines Barrington, on importance of protection to the female bird138
372Note A205
372BNote B209



Additional facts by Leroy, Spalding, Lowne, and Dixon on the Nest-Building and other Instincts of Birds108–112
Dr. Abbott on Nesting of Baltimore Oriole114
Professor Jeitteles and Mr. Henry Reeks on Alterations in Mode of Nest-Building115


Note on Dr. Shufeldt's Investigations into the Affinities of Swifts and Humming-Birds337


(Additional Chapter)433–449


(Additional Chapter)450–475


March 1891.

[page vii]




Geographical Distribution dependent on Geologic Changes—A Law deduced from well-known Geographical and Geological facts—The Form of a true system of Classification determined by this Law—Geographical Distribution of Organisms—Geological Distribution of the Forms of Life—High Organisation of very ancient Animals consistent with this Law—Objections to Forbes's Theory of Polarity—Rudimentary Organs—Conclusion Pages 3–19


Introductory Note—Instability of Varieties supposed to prove the permanent distinctness of Species—The Struggle for Existence—The Law of Population of Species—The Abundance or Rarity of a Species dependent upon its more or less perfect Adaptation to the Conditions of Existence—Useful Variations will tend to Increase; useless or hurtful Variations to Diminish—Superior Varieties will ultimately Extirpate the Original Species—The Partial Reversion of Domesticated Varieties explained—Lamarck's Hypothesis very different from that now advanced—Conclusion 20–33


Test of true and false Theories—Importance of the Principle of Utility—Popular Theories of Colour in Animals—Importance of Concealment as Influencing Colour—Special Modifications of Colour—Theory

[page] viii

of Protective Colouring—Objection that Colour, as being dangerous, should not exist in Nature—Mimicry—Mimicry among Lepidoptera—Lepidoptera mimicking other Insects—Mimicry among Beetles—Beetles mimicking other Insects—Insects mimicking Species of other Orders—Cases of Mimicry among the Vertebrata—Mimicry among Snakes—Mimicry among Birds—Mimicry among Mammals—Objections to Mr. Bates's Theory of Mimicry—Mimicry by Female Insects only—Cause of the dull Colours of Female Birds—Use of the gaudy Colours of many Caterpillars—Summary—General deductions as to Colour in Nature—Conclusion. Pages 34–90


How Instinct may be best Studied—Definition of Instinct—Does Man possess Instincts?—How Indians travel through unknown and trackless Forests 91–97


Instinct or Reason in the Construction of Birds' Nests—Do Men build by Reason or by Imitation?—Why does each Bird build a peculiar kind of Nest?—How do young Birds learn to build their first Nest? Do Birds sing by Instinct or by Imitation?—How young Birds may learn to build Nests—The Skill exhibited in Nest-building Exaggerated—Man's Works mainly Imitative—Birds do Alter and Improve their Nests when altered Conditions require it—Conclusion



Changed Conditions and persistent Habits as influencing Nidification—Classification of Nests—Sexual differences of Colour in Birds—The Law which connects the Colours of Female Birds with the mode of Nidification—What the Facts Teach us—Colour more variable than Structure or Habits, and therefore the Character which has generally been Modified—Exceptional cases confirmatory of the above Explanation—Real or apparent exceptions to the Law stated at page 124—Various modes of Protection of Animals—Females of some groups require and obtain more Protection than the Males—Conclusion



Laws from which the Origin of Species may be deduced—Mr. Darwin's Metaphors liable to Misconception—A case of Orchid-structure ex-

[page] ix

plained by Natural Selection—Adaptation brought about by General Laws—Beauty in Nature—How New Forms are produced by Variation and Selection—The Objection that there are Limits to Variation—Objection to the Argument from Classification—The Times on Natural Selection—Intermediate or generalised Forms of Extinct Animals an indication of Transmutation or Development—Conclusion—A Demonstration of the Origin of Species by Natural Selection

Pages 141–166


Wide differences of Opinion as to Man's Origin—Outline of the Theory of Natural Selection—Different Effects of Natural Selection on Animals and on Man—Influence of External Nature in the development of the Human Mind—Extinction of Lower Races—The Origin of the Races of Man—The Bearing of these Views on the Antiquity of Man—Their Bearing on the Dignity and Supremacy of Man—Their Bearing on the future Development of Man—Summary—Conclusion 167–185


What Natural Selection can Not do—The Brain of the Savage shown to be Larger than he Needs it to be—Size of Brain an important Element of Mental Power—Comparison of the Brains of Man and of Antropoid Apes—Range of Intellectual Power in Man—Intellect of Savages and of Animals compared—The use of the Hairy Covering of Mammalia—The Constant Absence of Hair from certain parts of Man's body a remarkable Phenomenon—Savage Man feels the want of this Hairy Covering—Man's Naked Skin could not have been produced by Natural Selection—Feet and Hands of Man considered as Difficulties on the Theory of Natural Selection—The Voice of Man—The Origin of some of Man's Mental Faculties, by the preservation of Useful Variations, not possible—Difficulty as to the Origin of the Moral Sense—Summary of the Argument as to the Insufficiency of Natural Selection to account for the Development of Man—The Origin of Consciousness—The Nature of Matter—Matter is Force—All Force is probably will force—Conclusion 186–214

[page] x



The three Climatal Zones of the Earth—Temperature of the Equatorial Zone—Causes of the Uniform High Temperature near the Equator—Influence of the Heat of the Soil—Influence of the Aqueous Vapour of the Atmosphere—Influence of Winds on the Temperature of the Equator—Heat due to the Condensation of Atmospheric Vapour—General Features of the Equatorial Climate—Uniformity of the Equatorial Climate in all Parts of the Globe—Effects of Vegetation on Climate—Short Twilight of the Equatorial Zone—The Aspect of the Equatorial Heavens—Intensity of Meteorological Phenomena at the Equator—Concluding Remarks Pages 217–237


The Equatorial Forest-belt and its Causes—General Features of the Equatorial Forests—Characteristics of the Larger Forest-Trees—Flowering Trunks and their Probable Cause—Uses of Equatorial Forest-trees—The Climbing Plants of the Equatorial Forests—Palms—Uses of Palm-trees and their Products—Ferns—Ginger-worts and Wild Banauas—Arums—Screw-pines—Orchids—Bamboos—Uses of the Bamboo—Mangroves—Sensitive Plants—Comparative Scarcity of Flowers—Concluding Remarks on Tropical Vegetation 238–269


Difficulties of the Subject—General Aspect of the Animal Life of Equatorial Forests—Diurnal Lepidoptera or Butterflies—Peculiar Habits of Tropical Butterflies—Ants, Wasps, and Bees—Ants—Special Relations between Ants and Vegetation—Wasps and Bees—Orthoptera and other Insects—Beetles—Wingless Insects—General Observations on Tropical Insects—Birds—Parrots—Pigeons—Picariæ—Cuckoos—Trogons, Barbets, Toucans, and Hornbills—Passeres—Reptiles and Amphibia: Lizards—Snakes—Frogs and Toads—Mammalia: Monkeys—Bats—Summary of the Aspects of Animal Life in the Tropics



[page] xi


Structure—Colours and Ornaments—Descriptive Names—The Motions and Habits of Humming-birds—Display of Ornaments by the Male—Food—Nests—Geographical Distribution and Variation—Humming-birds of Juan Fernandez as illustrating Variation and Natural Selection—The Relations and Affinities of Humming-birds—How to Determine Doubtful Affinities—Resemblances of Swifts and Humming-birds—Differences between Sun-birds and Humming-birds—Conclusion

Pages 312–337


General Phenomena of Colour in the Organic World—Theory of Heat and Light as producing Colour—Changes of Colour in Animals produced by Coloured Light—Classification of Organic Colours—Protective Colours—Warning Colours—Sexual Colours—Normal Colours—The Nature of Colour—How Animal Colours are produced—Colour a Normal Product of Organisation—Theory of Protective Colours—Theory of Warning Colours—Imitative Warning Colours—The Theory of Mimicry—Theory of Sexual Colours—Colour as a means of Recognition—Colour proportionate to Integumentary Development—Selection by Females not a cause of Colour—Probable use of the Horns of Beetles—Cause of the greater Brilliancy of some Female Insects—Origin of the Ornamental Plumage of Male Birds—Theory of the Display of Ornaments by Males—Natural Selection as neutralising Sexual Selection—Greater Brilliancy of some Female Birds—Colour-development as illustrated by Humming-birds—Theory of Normal Colours—Local causes of Colour-development—The influence of Locality on Colour in Butterflies and birds—Sense-perception influenced by Colour of the Integuments—Summary on Colour-development in Animals 338–394


Source of Colouring Matter in Plants—Protective Coloration and Mimicry in Plants—Attractive Colours of Fruits—Protective Colours of Fruits—Attractive Colours of Flowers—Attractive Odours in Flowers—Attractive Grouping of Flowers—Why Alpine Flowers are so Beautiful—Why Allied Species of Flowers differ in Size and Beauty—Absence of Colour in Wind-fertilised Flowers—The same Theory of Colour applicable to Animals and Plants—Relation of the Colours

[page] xii

of Flowers and their Geographical Distribution—Recent Views as to Direct Action of Light on the Colours of Flowers and Fruits—Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Colour in the Organic World—On the Origin of the Colour-sense: Supposed Increase of Colour-perception within the Historical Period—Concluding Remarks on the Colour-sense Pages 395–415


Indications of Man's extreme Antiquity—Antiquity of Intellectual Man—Sculptures on Easter Island—North American Earthworks—The Great Pyramid—Conclusion 416–432


Ancient Shell Mounds—Man Coeval with Extinct Mammalia—Man in the Glacial Period—Palæolithic Implements in North America—The Auriferous Gravels of California—Fossil Remains under the Ancient Lava Beds—Works of Art in the Auriferous Gravels—Human Remains in the Auriferous Gravels—Concluding Remarks on the Antiquity of Man 433–449


The Century before Darwin—The Voyage of the Beagle—The Journal of Researches—Studies of Domestic Animals—Studies of Cultivated and Wild Plants—Researches on the Cowslip, Primrose, and Loose-strife—The Struggle for Existence—Geographical Distribution and Dispersal of Organisms—The Descent of Man and later Works—Estimate of Darwin's Life-Work 450–475


[page 2]



[page 3]



Geographical Distribution dependent on Geologic Changes

EVERY naturalist who has directed his attention to the subject of the geographical distribution of animals and plants must have been interested in the singular facts which it presents. Many of these facts are quite different from what would have been anticipated, and have hitherto been considered as highly curious, but quite inexplicable. None of the explanations attempted from the time of Linnæus are now considered at all satisfactory; none of them have given a cause sufficient to account for the facts known at the time, or comprehensive enough to include all the new facts which have since been, and are daily being, added. Of late years, however, a great light has been thrown upon the subject by geological investigations, which have shown that the present state of the earth and of the organisms now inhabiting it is but the last stage of a long and uninterrupted series of changes which it has undergone, and consequently, that to endeavour to explain and account for its present condition without any reference to those changes (as has frequently been done) must lead to very imperfect and erroneous conclusions.

The facts proved by geology are briefly these: That

1 This article, written at Sarawak in February 1855 and published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, September 1855, was intended to show that some form of evolution of one species from another was needed in order to explain the various classes of facts here indicated; but at that time no means has been suggested by which the actual change of species could have been brought about.

[page] 4

during an immense but unknown period the surface of the earth has undergone successive changes; land has sunk beneath the ocean, while fresh land has risen up from it; mountain chains have been elevated; islands have been formed into continents, and continents submerged till they have become islands; and these changes have taken place, not once merely, but perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.—That all these operations have been more or less continuous but unequal in their progress, and during the whole series the organic life of the earth has undergone a corresponding alteration. This alteration also has been gradual, but complete; after a certain interval not a single species existing which had lived at the commencement of the period. This complete renewal of the forms of life also appears to have occurred several times.—That from the last of the geological epochs to the present or historical epoch, the change of organic life has been gradual: the first appearance of animals now existing can in many cases be traced, their numbers gradually increasing in the more recent formations, while other species continually die out and disappear, so that the present condition of the organic world is clearly derived by a natural process of gradual extinction and creation of species from that of the latest geological periods. We may therefore safely infer a like gradation and natural sequence from one geological epoch to another.

Now, taking this as a fair statement of the results of geological inquiry, we see that the present geographical distribution of life upon the earth must be the result of all the previous changes, both of the surface of the earth itself and of its inhabitants. Many causes, no doubt, have operated of which we must ever remain in ignorance, and we may, therefore, expect to find many details very difficult of explanation, and in attempting to give one, must allow ourselves to call into our service geological changes which it is highly probable may have occurred, though we have no direct evidence of their individual operation.

The great increase of our knowledge within the last twenty years, both of the present and past history of the organic world, has accumulated a body of facts which should afford a sufficient foundation for a comprehensive law embracing and

[page] 5

explaining them all, and giving a direction to new researches. It is about ten years since the idea of such a law suggested itself to the writer of this essay, and he has since taken every opportunity of testing it by all the newly-ascertained facts with which he has become acquainted, or has been able to observe himself. These have all served to convince him of the correctness of his hypothesis. Fully to enter into such a subject would occupy much space, and it is only in consequence of some views having been lately promulgated, he believes, in a wrong direction, that he now ventures to present his ideas to the public, with only such obvious illustrations of the arguments and results as occur to him in a place far removed from all means of reference and exact information.

A Law deduced from well-known Geographical and Geological Facts

The following propositions in Organic Geography and Geology give the main facts on which the hypothesis is founded.


1. Large groups, such as classes and orders, are generally spread over the whole earth, while smaller ones, such as families and genera, are frequently confined to one portion, often to a very limited district.

2. In widely distributed families the genera are often limited in range; in widely distributed genera well-marked groups of species are peculiar to each geographical district.

3. When a group is confined to one district, and is rich in species, it is almost invariably the case that the most closely allied species are found in the same locality or in closely adjoining localities, and that therefore the natural sequence of the species by affinity is also geographical.

4. In countries of a similar climate, but separated by a wide sea or lofty mountains, the families, genera, and species of the one are often represented by closely allied families, genera, and species peculiar to the other.


5. The distribution of the organic world in time is very similar to its present distribution in space.

[page] 6

6. Most of the larger and some small groups extend through several geological periods.

7. In each period, however, there are peculiar groups, found nowhere else, and extending through one or several formations.

8. Species of one genus, or genera of one family occurring in the same geological time, are more closely allied than those separated in time.

9. As, generally, in geography no species or genus occurs in two very distant localities without being also found in intermediate places, so in geology the life of a species or genus has not been interrupted. In other words, no group or species has come into existence twice.

10. The following law may be deduced from these facts: Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.

This law agrees with, explains, and illustrates all the facts connected with the following branches of the subject: 1st, The system of natural affinities. 2d, The distribution of animals and plants in space. 3d, The same in time, including all the phenomena of representative groups, and those which Professor Forbes supposed to manifest polarity. 4th, The phenomena of rudimentary organs. We will briefly endeavour to show its bearing upon each of these.

The Form of a true system of Classification determined by this Law

If the law above enunciated be true, it follows that the natural series of affinities will also represent the order in which the several species came into existence, each one having had for its immediate antitype a closely allied species existing at the time of its origin. It is evidently possible that two or three distinct species may have had a common antitype, and that each of these may again have become the antitypes from which other closely allied species were created. The effect of this would be, that so long as each species has had but one new species formed on its model, the line of affinities will be simple, and may be represented by placing the several species in direct succession in a straight line. But if two or more species have been independently formed on the plan of a

[page] 7

common antitype, then the series of affinities will be compound, and can only be represented by a forked or many-branched line. Now, all attempts at a Natural classification and arrangement of organic beings show that both these plans have obtained in creation. Sometimes the series of affinities can be well represented for a space by a direct progression from species to species or from group to group, but it is generally found impossible so to continue. There constantly occur two or more modifications of an organ or modifications of two distinct organs, leading us on to two distinct series of species, which at length differ so much from each other as to form distinct genera or families. These are the parallel series or representative groups of naturalists, and they often occur in different countries, or are found fossil in different formations. They are said to have an analogy to each other when they are so far removed from their common antitype as to differ in many important points of structure, while they still preserve a family resemblance. We thus see how difficult it is to determine in every case whether a given relation is an analogy or an affinity, for it is evident that as we go back along the parallel or divergent series, towards the common antitype, the analogy which existed between the two groups becomes an affinity. We are also made aware of the difficulty of arriving at a true classification, even in a small and perfect group; in the actual state of nature it is almost impossible, the species being so numerous and the modifications of form and structure so varied, arising probably from the immense number of species which have served as antitypes for the existing species, and thus produced a complicated branching of the lines of affinity, as intricate as the twigs of a gnarled oak or the vascular system of the human body. Again, if we consider that we have only fragments of this vast system, the stem and main branches being represented by extinct species of which we have no knowledge, while a vast mass of limbs and boughs and minute twigs and scattered leaves is what we have to place in order, so as to determine the true position which each originally occupied with regard to the others, the whole difficulty of the true Natural System of classification becomes apparent to us.

We shall thus find ourselves obliged to reject all those

[page] 8

systems of classification which arrange species or groups in circles, as well as those which fix a definite number for the divisions of each group. The latter class have been very generally rejected by naturalists, as contrary to nature, notwithstanding the ability with which they have been advocated; but the circular system of affinities seems to have obtained a deeper hold, many eminent naturalists having to some extent adopted it. We have, however, never been able to find a case in which the circle has been closed by a direct and close affinity. In most cases a palpable analogy has been substituted, in others the affinity is very obscure or altogether doubtful. The complicated branching of the lines of affinities in extensive groups must also afford great facilities for giving a show of probability to any such purely artificial arrangements. Their death-blow was given by the admirable paper of the lamented Mr. Strickland, published in the Annals of Natural History, in which he so clearly showed the true synthetical method of discovering the Natural System.

Geographical Distribution of Organisms

If we now consider the geographical distribution of animals and plants upon the earth, we shall find all the facts beautifully in accordance with, and readily explained by, the present hypothesis. A country having species, genera, and whole families peculiar to it, will be the necessary result of its having been isolated for a long period, sufficient for many series of species to have been created on the type of pre-existing ones, which, as well as many of the earlier-formed species, have become extinct, and thus made the groups appear isolated. If in any case the antitype had an extensive range, two or more groups of species might have been formed, each varying from it in a different manner, and thus producing several representative or analogous groups. The Sylviadæ of Europe and the Sylvicolidæ of North America, the Heliconidæ of South America and the Euplœas of the East, the group of Trogons inhabiting Asia and that peculiar to South America, are examples that may be accounted for in this manner.

Such phenomena as are exhibited by the Galapagos Islands, which contain little groups of plants and animals peculiar to themselves, but most nearly allied to those of South America,

[page] 9

have not hitherto received any, even a conjectural explanation. The Galapagos are a volcanic group of high antiquity, and have probably never been more closely connected with the continent than they are at present. They must have been first peopled, like other newly-formed islands, by the action of winds and currents, and at a period sufficiently remote to have had the original species die out, and the modified prototypes only remain. In the same way we can account for the separate islands having each their peculiar species, either on the supposition that the same original emigration peopled the whole of the islands with the same species from which differently modified prototypes were created, or that the islands were successively peopled from each other, but that new species have been created in each on the plan of the pre-existing ones. St. Helena is a similar case of a very ancient island having obtained an entirely peculiar, though limited, flora. On the other hand, no example is known of an island which can be proved geologically to be of very recent origin (late in the Tertiary, for instance), and yet possesses generic or family groups, or even many species peculiar to itself.

When a range of mountains has attained a great elevation, and has so remained during a long geological period, the species of the two sides at and near their bases will be often very different, representative species of some genera occurring, and even whole genera being peculiar to one side only, as is remarkably seen in the case of the Andes and Rocky Mountains. A similar phenomenon occurs when an island has been separated from a continent at a very early period. The shallow sea between the Peninsula of Malacea, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo was probably a continent or large island at an early epoch, and may have become submerged as the volcanic ranges of Java and Sumatra were elevated; the organic results we see in the very considerable number of species of animals common to some or all of these countries, while at the same time a number of closely allied representative species exist peculiar to each, showing that a considerable period has elapsed since their separation. The facts of geographical distribution and of geology may thus mutually explain each other in doubtful cases, should the principles here advocated be clearly established.

[page] 10

In all those cases in which an island has been separated from a continent, or raised by volcanic or coralline action from the sea, or in which a mountain-chain has been elevated in a recent geological epoch, the phenomena of peculiar groups or even of single representative species will not exist. Our own island is an example of this, its separation from the continent being geologically very recent, and we have consequently scarcely a species which is peculiar to it; while the Alpine range, one of the most recent mountain elevations, separates faunas and floras which scarcely differ more than may be due to climate and latitude alone.

The series of facts alluded to in Proposition (3), of closely allied species in rich groups being found geographically near each other, is most striking and important. Mr. Lovell Reeve has well exemplified it in his able and interesting paper on the Distribution of the Bulimi. It is also seen in the Humming-birds and Toucans, little groups of two or three closely allied species being often found in the same or closely adjoining districts, as we have had the good fortune of personally verifying. Fishes give evidence of a similar kind: each great river has its peculiar genera, and in more extensive genera its groups of closely allied species. But it is the same throughout Nature; every class and order of animals will contribute similar facts. Hitherto no attempt has been made to explain these singular phenomena, or to show how they have arisen. Why are the genera of Palms and of Orchids in almost every case confined to one hemisphere? Why are the closely allied species of brown-backed Trogons all found in the East, and the green-backed in the West? Why are the Macaws and the Cockatoos similarly restricted? Insects furnish a countless number of analogous examples—the Goliathi of Africa, the Ornithopteræ of the Indian Islands, and Heliconidæ of South America, the Danaidæ of the East, and in all the most closely allied species found in geographical proximity. The question forces itself upon every thinking mind, Why are these things so? They could not be as they are had no law regulated their creation and dispersion. The law here enunciated not merely explains but necessitates the facts we see to exist, while the vast and long-continued geological changes of the earth

[page] 11

readily account for the exceptions and apparent discrepancies that here and there occur. The writer's object in putting forward his views in the present imperfect manner is to submit them to the test of other minds, and to be made aware of all the facts supposed to be inconsistent with them. As his hypothesis is one which claims acceptance solely as explaining and connecting facts which exist in nature, he expects facts alone to be brought to disprove it, not à priori arguments against its probability.

Geological Distribution of the Forms of Life

The phenomena of geological distribution are exactly analogous to those of geography. Closely allied species are found associated in the same beds, and the change from species to species appears to have been as gradual in time as in space. Geology, however, furnishes us with positive proof of the extinction and production of species, though it does not inform us how either has taken place. The extinction of species, however, offers but little difficulty, and the modus operandi has been well illustrated by Sir C. Lyell in his admirable Principles. Geological changes, however gradual, must occasionally have modified external conditions to such an extent as to have rendered the existence of certain species impossible. The extinction would in most cases be effected by a gradual dying-out, but in some instances there might have been a sudden destruction of a species of limited range. To discover how the extinct species have from time to time been replaced by new ones down to the very latest geological period, is the most difficult, and at the same time the most interesting problem in the natural history of the earth. The present inquiry, which seeks to eliminate from known facts a law which has determined, to a certain degree, what species could and did appear at a given epoch, may, it is hoped, be considered as one step in the right direction towards a complete solution of it.

High Organisation of very ancient Animals consistent with this Law

Much discussion has of late years taken place on the question whether the succession of life upon the globe has

[page] 12

been from a lower to a higher degree of organisation. The admitted facts seem to show that there has been a general, but not a detailed progression. Mollusca and Radiata existed before Vertebrata, and the progression from Fishes to Reptiles and Mammalia, and also from the lower mammals to the higher, is indisputable. On the other hand, it is said that the Mollusca and Radiata of the very earliest periods were more highly organized than the great mass of those now existing, and that the very first fishes that have been discovered are by no means the lowest organised of the class. Now it is believed the present hypothesis will harmonise with all these facts, and in a great measure serve to explain them; for though it may appear to some readers essentially a theory of progression, it is in reality only one of gradual change. It is, however, by no means difficult to show that a real progression in the sale of organisation is perfectly consistent with all the appearances, and even with apparent retrogression, should such occur.

Returning to the analogy of a branching tree, as the best mode of representing the natural arrangement of species and their successive creation, let us suppose that at an early geological epoch any group (say a class of the Mollusca) has attained to a great richness of species and a high organisation. Now let this great branch of allied species, by geological mutations, be completely or partially destroyed. Subsequently a new branch springs from the same trunk—that is to say, new species are successively created, having for their antitypes the same lower organised species which had served as the antitypes for the former group, but which have survived the modified conditions which destroyed it. This new group being subject to these altered conditions, has modifications of structure and organisation given to it, and becomes the representative group of the former one in another geological formation. It may, however, happen, that though later in time, the new series of species may never attain to so high a degree of organisation as those preceding it, but in its turn become extinct, and give place to yet another modification from the same root, which may be of higher or lower organisation, more or less numerous in species, and more or less varied in form and structure, than either of those which preceded it

[page] 13

Again, each of these groups may not have become totally extinct, but may have left a few species, the modified prototypes of which have existed in each succeeding period, a faint memorial of their former grandeur and luxuriance. Thus every case of apparent retrogression may be in reality a progress, though an interrupted one: when some monarch of the forest loses a limb, it may be replaced by a feeble and sickly substitute. The foregoing remarks appear to apply to the case of the Mollusca, which, at a very early period, had reached a high organisation and a great development of forms and species in the testaceous Cephalopoda. In each succeeding age modified species and genera replaced the former ones which had become extinct, and as we approach the present era, but few and small representatives of the group remain, while the Gasteropods and Bivalves have acquired an immense preponderance. In the long series of changes the earth has undergone, the process of peopling it with organic beings has been continually going on, and whenever any of the higher groups have become nearly or quite extinct, the lower forms which have better resisted the modified physical conditions have served as the antitypes on which to found the new races. In this manner alone, it is believed, can the representative groups at successive periods, and the risings and fallings in the scale of organisation, be in every case explained.

Objections to Forbes' Theory of Polarity

The hypothesis of polarity, recently put forward by Professor Edward Forbes to account for the abundance of generic forms at a very early period and at present, while in the intermediate epochs there is a gradual diminution and impoverishment, till the minimum occurred at the confines of the Palæozoic and Secondary epochs, appears to us quite unnecessary, as the facts may be readily accounted for on the principles already laid down. Between the Palæozoic and Neozoic periods of Professor Forbes there is scarcely a species in common, and the greater parts of the genera and families also disappear, to the replaced by new ones. It is almost universally admitted that such a change in the organic world must have occupied a vast period of time. Of this interval we have no record; probably because the whole area of the early

[page] 14

formations now exposed to our researches was elevated at the end of the Palæozoic period, and remained so through the interval required for the organic changes which resulted in the fauna and flora of the Secondary period. The records of this interval are buried beneath the ocean which covers three-fourths of the globe. Now it appears highly probable that a long period of quiescence or stability in the physical conditions of a district would be most favourable to the existence of organic life in the greatest abundance, both as regards individuals and also as to variety of species and generic group, just as we now find that the places best adapted to the rapid growth and increase of individuals also contain the greatest profusion of species and the greatest variety of forms,—the tropics in comparison with the temperate and arctic regions. On the other hand, it seems no less probable that a change in the physical conditions of a district, even small in amount if rapid, or even gradual if to a great amount, would be highly unfavourable to the existence of individuals, might cause the extinction of many species, and would probably be equally unfavourable to the creation of new ones. In this too we may find an analogy with the present state of our earth, for it has been shown to be the violent extremes and rapid changes of physical conditions, rather than the actual mean state in the temperate and frigid zones, which renders them less prolific than the tropical regions, as exemplified by the great distance beyond the tropics to which tropical forms penetrate when the climate is equable, and also by the richness in species and forms of tropical mountain regions which principally differ from the temperate zone in the uniformity of their climate. However this may be, it seems a fair assumption that during a period of geological repose the new species which we know to have been created would have appeared, that the creations would then exceed in number the extinctions, and therefore the number of species would increase. In a period of geological activity, on the other hand, it seems probable that the extinctions might exceed the creations, and the number of species consequently diminish. That such effects did take place in connection with the causes to which we have imputed them, is shown in the case of the Coal formation, the faults and contortions of which show a period

[page] 15

of great activity and violent convulsions, and it is in the formation immediately succeeding this that the poverty of forms of life is most apparent. We have then only to suppose a long period of somewhat similar action during the vast unknown interval at the termination of the Palæozoic period, and then a decreasing violence or rapidity through the Secondary period, to allow for the gradual repopulation of the earth with varied forms, and the whole of the facts are explained.1 We thus have a clue to the increase of the forms of life during certain periods, and their decrease during others, without recourse to any causes but those we know to have existed, and to effects fairly deducible from them. The precise manner in which the geological changes of the early formations were effected is so extremely obscure, that when we can explain important facts by a retardation at one time and an acceleration at another of a process which we know from its nature and from observation to have been unequal,—a cause so simple may surely be preferred to one so obscure and hypothetical as polarity.

I would also venture to suggest some reasons against the very nature of the theory of Professor Forbes. Our knowledge of the organic world during any geological epoch is necessarily very imperfect. Looking at the vast numbers of species and groups that have been discovered by geologists, this may be doubted; but we should compare their numbers not merely with those that now exist upon the earth, but with a far larger amount. We have no reson for believing that the number of species on the earth at any former period was much less than at present; at all events the aquatic portion, with which geologists have most acquaintance, was probably often as great or greater. Now we know that there have been many complete changes of species; new sets of organisms have many times been introduced in place of old ones which have become extinct, so that the total amount which have existed on the earth from the earliest geological period must have borne about the same proportion to those now living, as the whole human race who have lived and died upon the

1 Professor Ramsay has since shown that a glacial epoch probably occurred at the time of the Permian formation, which will more satisfactorily account for the comparative poverty of species.

[page] 16

earth to the population at the present time. Again, at each epoch, the whole earth was, no doubt, as now, more or less the theatre of life, and as the successive generations of each species died, their exuviæ and preservable parts would be deposited over every portion of the then existing seas and oceans, which we have reason for supposing to have been more, rather than less, extensive than at present. In order then to understand our possible knowledge of the early world and its inhabitants, we must compare, not the area of the whole field of our geological researches with the earth's surface, but the area of the examined portion of each formation separately with the whole earth. For example, during the Silurian period all the earth was Silurian, and animals were living and dying and depositing their remains more or less over the whole area of the globe, and they were probably (the species at least) nearly as varied in different latitudes and longitudes as at present. What proportion do the Silurian districts bear to the whole surface of the globe, land and sea (for far more extensive Silurian districts probably exist beneath the ocean than above it), and what portion of the known Silurian districts has been actually examined for fossils? Would the area of rock actually laid open to the eye be the thousandth or the tenthousandth part of the earth's surface? Ask the same question with regard to the Oolite or the Chalk, or even to particular beds of these when they differ considerably in their fossils, and you may then get some notion of how small a portion of the whole we know.

But yet more important is the probability, nay, almost the certainty, that whole formations containing the records of vast geological periods are entirely buried beneath the ocean, and for ever beyond our reach. Most of the gaps in the geological series may thus be filled up, and vast numbers of unknown and unimaginable animals, which might help to elucidate the affinities of the numerous isolated groups which are a perpetual puzzle to the zoologist, may there be buried, till future revolutions may raise them in their turn above the waters, to afford materials for the study of whatever race of intelligent beings may then have succeeded us. These considerations must lead us to the conclusion that our knowledge of the whole series of the former inhabitants of the earth is

[page] 17

necessarily most imperfect and fragmentary,—as much so as our knowledge of the present organic world would be, wee we forced to make our collections and observations only in spots equally limited in area and in number with those actually laid open for the collection of fossils. Now, the hypothesis of Professor Forbes is essentially one that assumes to a great extent the completeness of our knowledge of the whole series of organic beings which have existed on the earth. This appears to be a fatal objection to it, independently of all other considerations. It may be said that the same objections exist against every theory on such a subject, but this is not necessarily the case. The hypothesis put forward in this paper depends in no degree upon the completeness of our knowledge of the former condition of the organic world, but takes what facts we have as fragments of a vast whole, and deduces from them something of the nature and proportions of that whole which we can never know in detail. It is founded upon isolated groups of facts, recognizes their isolation, and endeavours to deduce from them the nature of the intervening protions.

Rudimentary Organs

Another important series of facts, quite in accordance with, and even necessary deductions from, the law now developed, are those of rudimentary organs. That these really do exist, and in most cases have no special function in the animal economy, is admitted by the first authorities in comparative anatomy. The minute limbs hidden beneath the skin in many of the snake-like lizards, the anal hooks of the boa constrictor, the complete series of jointed finger-bones in the paddle of the Manatus and whale, are a few of the most familiarinstances. In botany a similar class of facts has been long recognised. Abortive stamens, rudimentary floral envelopes and undeveloped carpels, are of the most frequent occurrence. To every thoughtful naturalist the question must arise, What are these for? What have they to do with the great laws of creation? Do they not teach us something of the system of Nature? If each species has been created independently, and without any necessary relations with pre-existing species, what do these rudiments, these apparent imperfections mean?

[page] 18

There must be a cause for them; they must be the necessary results of some great natural law. Now, if, as it has been endeavoured to be shown, the great law which has regulated the peopling of the earth with animal and vegetable life is, that every change shall be gradual; that no new creature shall be formed widely differing from anything before existing; that in this, as in everything else in nature, there shall be gradation and harmony,—then these rudimentary organs are necessary, and are an essential part of the system of nature. Ere the higher Vertebrata were formed, for instance, many steps were required, and many organs had to undergo modifications from the rudimental condition in which only they had as yet existed. We still see remaining an antitypal sketch of a wing adapted for flight in the scaly flapper of the penguin, and limbs first concealed beneath the skin, and then weakly protruding from it, wee the necessary gradations before others should be formed fully adapted for locomotion.1 Many more of these modifications should we behold, and more complete series of them, had we a view of all the forms which have ceased to live. The great gaps that exist between fishes, reptiles, birds, and mammals would then, no doubt, be softened down be intermediate groups, and the whole organic world would be seen to be an unbroken and harmonious system.


It has now been shown though most briefly and imperfectly, how the law that "Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species," connects together and renders intelligible a vast number of independent and hitherto unexplained facts. The natural system of arrangement of organic beings, their geographical distribution, their geological sequence, the phenomena of representative and substituted groups in all their modifications, and the most singular peculiarities of anatomical structure, are all explained and illustrated by it, in perfect accordance with the vast mass of facts which the researches of modern naturalists have brought together, and, it is believed,

1 The theory of Natural Selection has now taught us that these are not the steps by which limbs have been formed; and that most rudimentary organs have been produced by abortion, owing to disuse, as explained by Mr. Darwin.

[page] 19

not materially opposed to any of them. It also claims a superiority over previous hypotheses, on the ground that it not merely explains, but necessitates what exists. Granted the law, and many of the most important facts in Nature could not have been otherwise, but are almost as necessary deductions from it as are the elliptic orbits of the planets from the law of gravitation.

[page 20]


As this chapter sets forth the main features of a theory identical with that discovered by Mr. Darwin many years before but not then published, and as it has thus an historical interest, a few words of personal statement may be permissible. After writing the preceding paper the question of how changes of species could have been brought about was rarely out of my mind, but no satisfactory conclusion was reached till February 1858. At that time I was suffering from a rather severe attack of intermittent fever at Ternate in the Moluccas, and one day while lying on my bed during the cold fit, wrapped in blankets, though the thermometer was at 88° F., the problem again presented itself to me, and something led me to think of the "positive checks" described by Malthus in his "Essay on Population," a work I had read several years before, and which had made a deep and permanent impression on my mind. These checks—war, disease, famine and the like—must, it occurred to me, act on animals as well as on man. Then I thought of the enormously rapid multiplication of animals, causing these checks to be much more effective in them than in the case of man; and while pondering vaguely on this fact there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest—that the individuals removed by these checks must be on the whole inferior to those that survived. In the two hours that elapsed before my ague fit was over I had thought out almost the whole of the theory, and the same evening I sketched the draft of my paper, and in the two succeeding evenings wrote it out in full, and sent it by the next post to Mr. Darwin. Up to this time the only letters I had received from him were those printed in the second volume of his Life and Letters, (vol. ii. pp. 95 and 108),

[page] 21

in which he speaks of its being the twentieth year since he "opened his first note-book on the question how and in what way do species and varieties differ from each other," and after referring to oceanic islands, the means of distribution of landshells, etc., added: "My work, on which I have now been at work more or less for twenty years, will not fix or settle anything; but I hope it will aid by giving a large collection of facts, with one definite end." The words I have italicised, and the whole tone of his letters, led me to conclude that he had arrived at no definite view as to the origin of species, and I fully anticipated that my theory would be new to him, because it seemed to me to settle a great deal. The immediate result of my paper was that Darwin was induced at once to prepare for publication his book on the Origin of Species in the condensed form in which it appeared, instead of waiting an indefinite number of years to complete a work on a much larger scale which he had partly written, but which in all probability would not have carried conviction to so many persons in so short a time. I feel much satisfaction in having thus aided in bringing about the publication of this celebrated book, and with the ample recognition by Darwin himself of my independent discovery of "natural selection." (See Origin of Species, 6th ed., introduction, p. 1, and Life and Letters, vol. ii. chap. iv., pp. 115–129 and 145.)

[page 22]



Instability of Varieties supposed to prove the permanent
distinctness of Species

ONE of the strongest arguments which have been adduced to prove the original and permanent distinctness of species is, that varieties produced in a state of domesticity are more or less unstable, and often have a tendency, if left to themselves, to return to the normal form of the parent species; and this instability is considered to be a distinctive peculiarity of all varieties, even of those occurring among wild animals in a state of nature, and it constitute a provision for preserving unchanged the originally created distinct species.

In the absence or scarcity of facts and observations as to varieties occurring among wild animals, this argument has had great weight with naturalists, and has led to a very general and somewhat prejudiced belief in the stability of species. Equally general, however, is the belief in what are called "permanent or true varieties,"—races of animals which continually propagate their like, but which differ so slightly (although constantly) from some other race, that the one is considered to be a variety of the other. Which is the variety and which the original species, there is generally no means of determining, except in those rare cases in which the one race has been known to produce an offspring unlike itself and resembling the other. This, however, would seem quite incompatible with the "permanent invariability of species,"

[page] 23

but the difficulty is overcome by assuming that such varieties have strict limits, and can never again vary further from the original type, although they may return to it, which, from the analogy of the domesticated animals, is considered to be highly probable, if not certainly proved.

It will be observed that this argument rests entirely on the assumption that varieties occurring in a state of nature are in all respects analogous to or even identical with those of domestic animals, and are governed by the same laws as regards their permanence or further variation. But it is the object of the present paper to show that this assumption is altogether false, that there is a general principle in nature which will cause many varieties to survive the parent species, and to give rise to successive variations departing further and further from the original type, and which also produces, in domesticated animals, the tendency of varieties to return to the parent form.

The Struggle for Existence

The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence. The full exertion of all their faculties and all their energies is required to preserve their own existence and provide for that of their infant offspring. The possibility of procuring food during the least favourable seasons, and of escaping the attacks of their most dangerous enemies, are the primary conditions which determine the existence both of individuals and of entire species. These conditions will also determine the population of a species; and by a careful consideration of all the circumstances we may be enabled to comprehend, and in some degree to explain, what at first sight appears so inexplicable—the excessive abundance of some species, while others closely allied to them are very rare.

The Law of Population of Species

The general proportion that must obtain between certain groups of animals is readily seen. Large animals cannot be so abundant as small ones; the carnivora must be less numerous than the herbivora; eagles and lions can never be so plentiful as pigeons and antelopes; and the wild asses of the Tartarian deserts cannot equal in numbers the horses of

[page] 24

the more luxuriant prairies and pampas of America. The greater or less fecundity of an animal is often considered to be one of the chief causes of its abundance or scarcity; but a consideration of the facts will show us that it really has little or nothing to do with the matter. Even the least prolific of animals would increase rapidly if unchecked, whereas it is evident that the animal population of the globe must be stationary, or perhaps, through the influence of man, decreasing. Fluctuations there may be; but permanent increase, except in restricted localities, is almost impossible. For example, our own observation must convince us that birds do not go on increasing every year in a geometrical ratio, as they would do were there not some powerful check to their natural increase. Very few birds produce less than two young ones each year, while many have six, eight, or ten; four will certainly be below the average; and if we suppose that each pair produce young only four times in their life, that will also be below the average, supposing them not to die either by violence or want of food. Yet at this rate how tremendous would be the increase in a few years from a single pair! A simple calculation will show that in fifteen years each pair of birds would have increased to nearly ten millions!1 whereas we have no reason to believe that the number of the birds of any country increases at all in fifteen or in one hundred and fifty years. With such powers of increase the population must have reached its limits, and have become stationary, in a very few years after the origin of each species. It is evident, therefore, that each year an immense number of birds must perish—as many in fact as are born; and as on the lowest calculation the progeny are each year twice as numerous as their parents, it follows that, whatever be the average number of individuals existing in any given country, twice that number must perish annually,—a striking result, but one which seems at least highly probable, and is perhaps under rather than over the truth. It would therefore appear that, so far as the continuance of the species and the keeping up the average number of individuals are concerned, large broods are superfluous. On the average all above one become

1 This is under estimated. The number would really amount to more than two thousand millions!

[page] 25

food for hawks and kites, wild cats or weasels, or perish of cold and hunger as winter comes on. This is strikingly proved by the case of particular species; for we find that their abundance in individuals bears no relation whatever to their fertility in producing offspring.

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of an immense bird population is that of the passenger pigeon of the United States, which lays only one, or at most two eggs, and is said to rear generally but one young one. Why is this bird so extraordinarily abundant, while others producing two or three times as many young are much less plentiful? The explanation is not difficult. The food most congenial to this species, and on which it thrives best, is abundantly distributed over a very extensive region, offering such differences of soil and climate, that in one part or another of the area the supply never fails. The bird is capable of a very rapid and long-continued flight, so that it can pass without fatigue over the whole of the district it inhabits, and as soon as the supply of food begins to fail in one place is able to discover a fresh feeding-ground. This example strikingly shows us that the procuring a constant supply of wholesome food is almost the sole condition requisite for ensuring the rapid increase of a given species, since neither the limited fecundity nor the unrestrained attacks of birds of prey and of man are here sufficient to check it. In no other birds are these peculiar circumstances so strikingly combined. Either their food is more liable to failure, or they have not sufficient power of wing to search for it over an extensive area, or during some season of the year it becomes very scarce, and less wholesome substitutes have to be found; and thus, though more fertile in offspring, they can never increase beyond the supply of food in the least favourable seasons.

Many birds can only exist by migrating, when their food becomes scarce, to regions possessing a milder, or at least a different climate, though, as these migrating birds are seldom excessively abundant, it is evident that the countries they visit are still deficient in a constant and abundant supply of wholesome food. Those whose organisation does not permit them to migrate when their food becomes periodically scarce, can never attain a large population. This is probably the

[page] 26

reason why woodpeckers are scarce with us, while in the tropics they are among the most abundant of solitary birds. Thus the house sparrow is more abundant than the redbreast, because its food is more constant and plentiful,—seeds of grasses being preserved during the winter, and our farm-yards and stubble-fields furnishing an almost inexhaustible supply. Why, as a general rule, are aquatic, and especially sea-birds, very numerous in individuals? Not because they are more prolific than others, generally the contrary; but because their food never fails, the sea-shores and river-banks daily swarming with a fresh supply of small mollusca an crustacea. Exactly the same laws will apply to mammals. Wild cats are prolific and have few enemies; why then are they never as abundant as rabbits? The only intelligible answer is, that their supply of food is more precarious. It appears evident, therefore, that so long as a country remains physically unchanged, the numbers of its animal population cannot materially increase. If one species does so, some others requiring the same king of food must diminish in proportion. The numbers that die annually must be immense; and as the individual existence of each animal depends upon itself, those that die must be the weakest—the very young, the aged, and the diseased—while those that prolong their existence can only be the most perfect in health and vigour—those who are best able to obtain food regularly, and avoid their numerous enemies. It is, as we commenced by remarking, "a struggle for existence," in which the weakest and least perfectly organized must always succumb.

The Abundance or Rarity of a Species dependent upon its more or less perfect Adaptation to the Conditions of Existence

It seems evident that what takes place among the individuals of a species must also occur among the several allied species of a group,—viz., that those which are best adapted to obtain a regular supply of food, and to defend themselves against the attacks of their enemies and the vicissitudes of the seasons, must necessarily obtain and preserve a superiority in population; while those species which, from some defect of power or organisation, are the least capable of counteracting the vicissitudes of food-supply, etc., must diminish in numbers,

[page] 27

and, in extreme cases, become altogether extinct. Between these extremes the species will present various degrees of capacity for ensuring the means of preserving life; and it is thus we account for the abundance or rarity of species. Our ignorance will generally prevent us from accurately tracing the effects to their causes; but could we become perfectly acquainted with the organisation and habits of the various species of animals, and could we measure the capacity of each for performing the different acts necessary to its safety and existence under all the varying circumstances by which it is surrounded, we might be able even to calculate the proportionate abundance of individuals which is the necessary result.

If now we have succeeded in establishing these two points—1st, that the animal population of a country is generally stationary, being kept down by a periodical deficiency of food, and other checks; and, 2d, that the comparative abundance or scarcity of the individuals of the several species is entirely due to their organisation and resulting habits, which, rendering it more difficult to procure a regular supply of food and to provide for their personal safety1 in some cases than in others, can only be balanced by a difference in the population which have to exist in a given area—we shall be in a condition to proceed to the consideration of varieties, to which the preceding remarks have a direct and very important application.

Useful Variations will tend to Increase; useless or hurtful Variations to Diminish

Most or perhaps all the variations from the typical form of a species must have some definite effect, however slight, on the habits or capacities of the individuals. Even a change of colour might, by rendering them more or less distinguishable, affect their safety; a greater or less development of hair might modify their habits. More important changes, such as an increase in the power or dimensions of the limbs or any of the external organs, would more or less affect their mode of procuring food or the range of country which they could in-

1 "And that of their offspring" should have been added. But it must be remembered that the writer had no opportunity of correcting the proofs of this paper.

[page] 28

habit. It is also evident that most changes would affect, either favourably or adversely, the powers of prolonging existence. An antelope with shorter or weaker legs must necessarily suffer more from the attacks of the feline carnivora; the passenger pigeon with less powerful wings would sooner or later be affected in its powers of procuring a regular supply of food; and in both cases the result must necessarily be a diminution of the population of the modified species. If on the other hand, any species should produce a variety having slightly increased powers of preserving existence, that variety must inevitably in time acquire a superiority in numbers. These results must follow as surely as old age, intemperance, or scarcity of food produce an increased mortality. In both cases there may be many individual exceptions: but on the average the rule will invariably be found to hold good. All varieties will therefore fall into two classes—those which under the same conditions would never reach the population of the parent species, and those which would in time obtain and keep a numerical superiority. Now, let some alteration of physical conditions occur in the district—a long period of drought, a destruction of vegetation by locusts, the irruption of some fresh carnivorous animal seeking "pastures new"— any change in fact tending to render existence more difficult to the species in question, and tasking its utmost powers to avoid complete extermination,—it is evident that, of all the individuals composing the species, those forming the least numerous and most feebly organised variety would suffer first, and, were the pressure severe, must soon become extinct. The same causes continuing in action, the parent species would next suffer, would gradually diminish in numbers, and with a recurrence of similar unfavourable conditions might also become extinct. The superior variety would then alone remain, and on a return to favourable circumstances would rapidly increase in numbers and occupy the place of the extinct species and variety.

Superior Varieties will ultimately Extirpate the original Species

The variety would now have replaced the Species, of it would be a more perfectly developed and more organised form. It would be in all respects better a

[page] 29

to secure its safely, and to prolong its individual existence and that of the race. Such a variety could not return to the original form; for that form is an inferior one, and could never compete with it for existence. Granted, therefore, a "tendency" to reproduce the original type of the species, still the variety must ever remain preponderant in numbers, and under adverse physical conditions again alone survive. But this new, improved, and populous race might itself, in course of time, give rise to new varieties, exhibiting several diverging modifications of forms, any of which, tending to increase the facilities for preserving existence, must, by the same general law, in their turn become predominant. Here, then, we have progression and continued divergence deduced from the general laws which regulate the existence of animals in a state of nature, and from the undisputed fact that varieties do frequently occur. It is not, however, contended that this result would be invariable; a change of physical conditions in the district might at times materially modify it, rendering the race which had been the most capable of supporting existence under the former conditions now the least so, and even causing the extinction of the newer and, for a time, superior race, while the old or parent species and its first inferior varieties continued to flourish. Variations in unimportant parts might also occur, having no perceptible effect on the life-preserving powers; and the varieties so furnished might run a course parallel with the parent species, either giving rise to further variations or returning to the former type. All we argue for is, that certain varieties have a tendency to maintain their existence longer than the original species, and this tendency, must itself felt; for though the doctrine of chances or averages can never be trusted on a limited scale, yet, if applied to high numbers, the results come nearer to what theory demands, and, as we approach to an infinity of examples, become strictly accurate. Now the scale on which nature works is so vast—the numbers of individuals and the periods of time with which she deals approach so near to infinity—that any cause, however slight, and however liable to be veiled and counteracted by accidental circumstances, must in the end produce its full legitimate results.

[page] 30

The Partial Reversion of Domesticated Varieties explained

Let us now turn to domesticated animals, and inquire how varieties produced among them are affected by the principles here enunciated. The essential difference in the condition of wild and domestic animals is this,—that among the former, their well-being and very existence depend upon the full exercise and healthy condition of all their senses and physical powers, whereas, among the latter, these are only partially exercised, and in some cases are absolutely unused. A wild animal has to search, and often to labour, for every mouthful of food—to exercise sight, hearing, and smell in seeking it, and in avoiding dangers, in procuring shelter from the inclemency of the seasons, and in providing for the subsistence and safety of its offspring. There is no muscle of its body that is not called into daily and hourly activity; there is no sense or faculty that is not strengthened by continual exercise. The domestic animal, on the other hand, has food provided for it, is sheltered, and often confined, to guard it against the vicissitudes of the seasons, is carefully secured from the attacks of its natural enemies, and seldom even rears its young without human assistance. Half of its senses and faculties become quite useless, and the other half are but occasionally called into feeble exercise, while even its muscular system is only irregularly brought into action.

Now when a variety of such an animal occurs having increased power or capacity in any organ or sense, such increase is totally useless, is never called into action, and may even exist without the animal ever becoming aware of it. In the wild animal, on the contrary, all its faculties and powers being brought into full action for the necessities of existence, any increase becomes immediately available, is strengthened by exercise, and must even slightly modify the food, the habits, and the whole economy of the race. It creates as it were a new animal, one of superior powers, and which will necessarily increase in numbers and outlive those which are inferior to it.

Again, in the domesticated animal all variations have an equal chance of continuance; and those which would decidedly render a wild animal unable to compete with its fellows and continue its existence are no disadvantage what-

[page] 31

ever in a state of domesticity. Our quickly fattening pigs, short-legged sheep, pouter pigeons, and poodle dogs could never have come into existence in a state of nature, because the very first steps towards such inferior forms would have led to the rapid extinction of the race; still less could they now exist in competition with their wild allies. The great speed but slight endurance of the racehorse, the unwieldly strength of the ploughman's team, would both be useless in a state of nature. If turned wild on the pampas, such animals would probably soon become extinct, or under favourable circumstances might each gradually lose those extreme qualities which would never be called into action, and in a few generations revert to a common type, which must be that in which the various powers and faculties are so proportioned to each other as to be best adapted to procure food and secure safety,—that in which, by the full exercise of every part of its organisation, the animal can alone continue to live. Domestic varieties, when turned wild, must return to something near the type of the original wild stock, or become altogether extinct.1

We see, then, that no inferences as to the permanence of varieties in a state of nature can be deduced from the observations of those occurring among domestic animals. The two are so much opposed to each other in every circumstance of their existence, that what applies to the one is almost sure not to apply to the other. Domestic animals are abnormal, irregular, artificial; they are subject to variations which never occur, in a state of nature: their very existence depends altogether on human care—so far are many of them removed from that just proportion of faculties, that true balance of organisation, by means of which alone an animal left to its own resources can preserve its existence and continue its race.

Lamarck's Hypothesis very different from that now advanced

The hypothesis of Lamarck—that progressive changes in species have been produced by the attempts of animals to

1 That is, they will vary, and the variations which tend to adapt them to the wild state, and therefore approximate them to wild animals, will be preserved. Those individuals which do not vary sufficiently will perish.

[page] 32

increase the development of their own organs, and thus modify their structure and habits—has been repeatedly and easily refuted by all writers on the subject of varieties and species, and it seems to have been considered that when this was done the whole question has been finally settled; but the view here developed renders such an hypothesis quite unnecessary, by showing that similar results must be produced by the action of principles constantly at work in nature. The powerful retractile talons of the falcon and the cat tribes have not been produced or increased by the volition of those animals; but among the different varieties which occurred in the earlier and less highly organised forms of these groups, those always survived longest which had the greatest facilities for seizing their prey. Neither did the giraffe acquire its long neck by desiring to reach the foliage of the more lofty shrubs, and constantly stretching its neck for the purpose, but because any varieties which occurred among its antitypes with a longer neck than usual at once secured a fresh range of pasture over the same ground as their shorter-necked companions, and on the first scarcity of food were thereby enabled to outlive them. Even the peculiar colours of many animals, more especially of insects, so closely resembling the soil or leaves or bark on which they habitually reside, are explained on the same principle; for though in the course of ages varieties of many tints may have occurred, yet those races having colours best adapted to concealment from their enemies would inevitably survive the longest. We have also here an acting cause to account for that balance so often observed in nature,—a deficiency in one set of organs always being compensated by an increased development of some others—powerful wings accompanying weak feet, or great velocity making up for the absence of defensive weapons; for it has been shown that all varieties in which an unbalanced deficiency occurred could not long continue their existence. The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam-engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by

[page] 33

rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow. An origin such as is here advocated will also agree with the peculiar character of the modifications of form and structure which obtain in organised beings—the many lines of divergence from a central type, the increasing efficiency and power of a particular organ through a succession of allied species, and the remarkable persistence of unimportant parts, such as colour, texture of plumage and hair, form of horns or crests, through a series of species differing considerably in more essential characters. It also furnishes us with a reason for that "more specialised structure" which Professor Owen states to be a characteristic of recent compared with extinct forms, and which would evidently be the result of the progressive modification of any organ applied to a special purpose in the animal economy.


We believe we have now shown that there is an tendency in nature to the continued progression of certain classes of varieties further and further from the original type—a progression to which there appears no reason to assign any definite limits—and that the same principle which produces this result in a state of nature will also explain why domestic varieties have a tendency, when they become wild, to revert to the original type. This progression, by minute steps, in various directions, but always checked and balanced by the necessary conditions, subject to which alone existence can be preserved, may, it is believed, be followed out so as to agree with all the phenomena presented by organised beings, their extinction and succession in past ages, and all the extraordinary modifications of form, instinct, and habits which they exhibit.


[page 34]


THERE is no more convincing proof of the truth of a comprehensive theory than its power of absorbing and finding a place for new facts, and its capability of interpreting phenomena which had been previously looked upon as unaccountable anomalies. It is thus that the law of universal gravitation and the undulatory theory of light have become established and universally accepted by men of science. Fact after fact has been brought forward as being apparently inconsistent with them, and one after another these very facts have been shown to be the consequences of the laws they were at first supposed to disprove. A false theory will never stand this test. Advancing knowledge brings to light whole groups of facts which it cannot deal with, and its advocates steadily decrease in numbers, notwithstanding the ability and scientific skill with which it may have been supported. The great name of Edward Forbes did not prevent his theory of "Polarity in the distribution of Organic beings in Time" from dying a natural death; but the most striking illustration of the behaviour of a false theory is to be found in the "Circular and Quinarian System" of classification propounded by MacLeay, and developed by Swainson, with an amount of knowledge and ingenuity that has rarely been surpassed. This theory was eminently attractive, both from its symmetry and completeness, and from the interesting nature of the varied analogies and affinities

1 First published in the Westminster Review, July 1867; reprinted in 1870 with additions and corrections.

[page] 35

which it brought to light and made use of. The series of Natural History volumes in Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopœdia, in which Mr. Swainson developed it in most departments of the animal kingdom, made it widely known; and in fact for a long time these were the best and almost the only popular text-books for the rising generation of naturalists. It was favourably received too by the older school, which was perhaps rather an indication of its unsoundness. A considerable number of well-known naturalists either spoke approvingly of it, or advocated similar principles, and for a good many years it was decidedly in the ascendant. With such a favourable introduction, and with such talented exponents, it must have become established if it had had any germ of truth in it; yet it quite died out in a few short years; its very existence is now a matter of history; and so rapid was its fall that its talented creator, Swainson, perhaps lived to be the last man who believed in it.

Such is the course of a false theory. That of a true one is very different, as may be well seen by the progress of opinion on the subject of Natural Selection. In less than eight years The Origin of Species has produced conviction in the minds of a majority of the most eminent living men of science. New facts, new problems, new difficulties as they arise are accepted, solved, or removed by this theory; and its principles are illustrated by the progress and conclusions of every well established branch of human knowledge. It is the object of the present chapter to show how it has recently been applied to connect together and explain a variety of curious facts which had long been considered as inexplicable anomalies.

Importance of the Principle of Utility

Perhaps no principle has ever been announced so fertile in results as that which Mr. Darwin so earnestly impresses upon us, and which is indeed a necessary deduction from the theory of Natural Selection, namely—that none of the definite facts or organic nature, no special organ, no characteristic form of marking, no peculiarities of instinct or of habit, no relations between species or between groups of species—can exist, but which must now be or once have been useful to the individuals or the races which possess them.

[page] 36

This great principle gives us a clue which we can follow out in the study of many recondite phenomena, and leads us to seek a meaning and a purpose of some definite character in minutiæ which we should otherwise be almost sure to pass over as insignificant or unimportant.

Popular Theories of Colour in Animals

The adaptation of the external colouring of animals to their conditions of life has long been recognised, and had been imputed either to an originally created specific peculiarity, or to the direct action of climate, soil, or food. Where the former explanation has been accepted it has completely checked inquiry, since we could never get any further than the fact of the adaptation. There was nothing more to be known about the matter. The second explanation was soon found to be quite inadequate to deal with all the varied phases of the phenomena, and to be contradicted by many well known facts. For example, wild rabbits are always of gray of brown tints well suited for concealment among grass and fern. But when these rabbits are domesticated, without any change of climate or food, they vary into white or black, and these varieties may be multiplied to any extent, forming white or black races. Exactly the same thing has occurred with pigeons; and in the case of rats and mice, the white variety has not been shown to be at all dependent on alteration of climate, food, or other external conditions. In many cases the wings of an insect not only assume the exact tint of the bark or leaf it is accustomed to rest on, but the form and veining of the leaf or the exact rugosity of the bark is imitated; and these detailed modifications cannot be reasonably imputed to climate or to food, since in many cases the species does not feed on the substance it resembles, and when it does, no reasonable connection can be shown to exist between the supposed causes and the effect produced. It was reserved for the theory of Natural Selection to solve all these problems, and many others which were not at first supposed to be directly connected with them. To make these latter intelligible, it will be necessary to give a sketch of the whole series of phenomena which may be classed under the head of useful or protective resemblances.

[page] 37

Importance of Concealment as Influencing Colour

Concealment, more or less complete, is useful to many animals, and absolutely essential to some. Those which have numerous enemies from which they cannot escape by rapidity of motion find safety in concealment. Those which prey upon others must also be so constituted as not to alarm them by their presence or their approach, or they would soon die of hunger. Now it is remarkable in how many cases nature gives this boon to the animal, by colouring it with such tints as may best serve to enable it to escape from its enemies or to entrap its prey. Desert animals as a rule are desert- coloured. The lion is a typical example of this, and must be almost invisible when crouched upon the sand or among desert rocks and stones. Antelopes are all more or less sandy-coloured. The camel is pre-eminently so. The Egyptian cat and the Pampas cat are sandy are earth-coloured. The Australian kangaroos are of the same tints, and the original colour of the wild horse is supposed to have been a sandy or clay-colour.

The desert birds are still more remarkably protected by their assimilative hues. The stonechats, the larks, the quails, the goatsuckers and the grouse, which abound in the North African and Asiatic deserts, are all tinted and mottled so as to resemble with wonderful accuracy the average colour and aspect of the soil in the district they inhabit. The Rev. H. Tristram, in his account of the ornithology of North Africa in the first volume of the Ibis, says: "In the desert, where neither trees, brushwood, nor even undulation of the surface afford the slightest protection to its foes, a modification of colour which shall be assimilated to that of the surrounding country is absolutely necessary. Hence without exception the upper plumage of every bird, whether lark, sylvain, or sand-grouse, and also the fur of all the smaller mammals, and the skin of all the snakes and lizards, is of one uniform isabelline or sand colour." After the testimony of so able an observer it is unnecessary to adduce further examples of the protective colours of desert animals.

Almost equally striking are the cases of arctic animals possessing the white colour that best conceals them upon

[page] 38

snowfields and icebergs. The polar bear is the only bear that is white, and it lives constantly among snow and ice. The arctic fox, the ermine, and the alpine hare change to white in winter only, because in summer white would be more conspicuous than any other colour, and therefore a danger rather than a protection; but the American polar hare, inhabiting regions of almost perpetual snow, is white all the year round. Other animals inhabiting the same Northern regions do not, however, change colour. The sable is a good example, for throughout the severity of a Siberian winter it retains its rich brown fur. But its habits are such that it does not need the protection of colour, for it is said to be able to subsist on fruits and berries in winter, and to be so active upon the trees as to catch small birds among the branches. So also the woodchuck of Canada has a dark-brown fur; but then it lives in burrows and frequents river banks, catching fish and small animals that live in or near the water.

Among birds, the ptarmigan is a fine example of protective colouring. Its summer plumage so exactly harmonises with the lichen-coloured stones among which it delights to sit, that a person may walk through a flock of them without seeing a single bird; while in winter its white plumage is an almost equal protection. The snow-bunting, the jer-falcon, and the snowy owl are also white-coloured birds inhabiting the arctic regions, and there can be little doubt but that their colouring is to some extent protective.

Nocturnal animals supply us with equally good illustrations. Mice, rats, bats and moles possess the least conspicuous of hues, and must be quite invisible at times when any light colour would be instantly seen. Owls and goatsuckers are of those dark mottled tints that will assimilate with bark and lichen, and thus protect them during the day, and at the same time be inconspicuous in the dusk.

It is only in the tropics, among forests which never lose their foliage, that we find whole groups of birds whose chief colour is green. The parrots are the most striking example, but we have also a group of green pigeons in the East; and the barbets, leaf-thrushes, bee-eaters, white-eyes, turacos, and several smaller groups, have so much green in their plumage as to tend greatly to conceal them among the foliage.

[page] 39

Special Modifications of Colour

The conformity of tint which has been so far shown to exist between animals and their habitations is of a somewhat general character; we will now consider the cases of more special adaptation. If the lion is enabled by his sandy colour readily to conceal himself by merely crouching down upon the desert, how, it may be asked, do the elegant markings of the tiger, the jaguar, and the other large cats, agree with this theory? We reply that these are generally cases of more or less special adaptation. The tiger is a jungle animal, and hides himself among tufts of grass or of bamboos, and in these positions the vertical stripes with which his body is adorned must so assimilate with the vertical stems of the bamboo as to assist greatly in concealing him from his approaching prey.1 How remarkable it is that besides the lion and tiger, almost all the other large cats are arboreal in their habits, and almost all have ocellated or spotted skins, which must certainly tend to blend them with the background of foliage; while the one exception, the puma, has a ashy brown uniform fur, and has the habit of clinging so closely to a limb of a tree while waiting for his prey to pass beneath as to be hardly distinguishable from the bark.

Mechanism of evolution by differential survival and reproduction of individuals

For other uses, see natural selection (disambiguation).

Natural selection is the differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in phenotype. It is a key mechanism of evolution, the change in the heritabletraits characteristic of a population over generations. Charles Darwin popularised the term "natural selection", contrasting it with artificial selection, which is intentional, whereas natural selection is not.

Variation exists within all populations of organisms. This occurs partly because random mutations arise in the genome of an individual organism, and offspring can inherit such mutations. Throughout the lives of the individuals, their genomes interact with their environments to cause variations in traits. The environment of a genome includes the molecular biology in the cell, other cells, other individuals, populations, species, as well as the abiotic environment. Because individuals with certain variants of the trait tend to survive and reproduce more than individuals with other, less successful, variants, the population evolves. Other factors affecting reproductive success include sexual selection (now often included in natural selection) and fecundity selection.

Natural selection acts on the phenotype, the characteristics of the organism which actually interact with the environment, but the genetic (heritable) basis of any phenotype that gives that phenotype a reproductive advantage may become more common in a population. Over time, this process can result in populations that specialise for particular ecological niches (microevolution) and may eventually result in speciation (the emergence of new species, macroevolution). In other words, natural selection is a key process in the evolution of a population.

Natural selection is a cornerstone of modern biology. The concept, published by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in a joint presentation of papers in 1858, was elaborated in Darwin's influential 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. He described natural selection as analogous to artificial selection, a process by which animals and plants with traits considered desirable by human breeders are systematically favoured for reproduction. The concept of natural selection originally developed in the absence of a valid theory of heredity; at the time of Darwin's writing, science had yet to develop modern theories of genetics. The union of traditional Darwinian evolution with subsequent discoveries in classical genetics formed the modern synthesis of the mid-20th century. The addition of molecular genetics has led to evolutionary developmental biology, which explains evolution at the molecular level. While genotypes can slowly change by random genetic drift, natural selection remains the primary explanation for adaptive evolution.

Historical development[edit]

Main article: History of evolutionary thought

Pre-Darwinian theories[edit]

Several philosophers of the classical era, including Empedocles[1] and his intellectual successor, the Roman poet Lucretius,[2] expressed the idea that nature produces a huge variety of creatures, randomly, and that only those creatures that manage to provide for themselves and reproduce successfully persist. Empedocles' idea that organisms arose entirely by the incidental workings of causes such as heat and cold was criticised by Aristotle in Book II of Physics.[3] He posited natural teleology in its place, and believed that form was achieved for a purpose, citing the regularity of heredity in species as proof.[4][5] Nevertheless, he accepted in his biology that new types of animals, monstrosities (τερας), can occur in very rare instances (Generation of Animals, Book IV).[6] As quoted in Darwin's 1872 edition of The Origin of Species, Aristotle considered whether different forms (e.g., of teeth) might have appeared accidentally, but only the useful forms survived:

So what hinders the different parts [of the body] from having this merely accidental relation in nature? as the teeth, for example, grow by necessity, the front ones sharp, adapted for dividing, and the grinders flat, and serviceable for masticating the food; since they were not made for the sake of this, but it was the result of accident. And in like manner as to the other parts in which there appears to exist an adaptation to an end. Wheresoever, therefore, all things together (that is all the parts of one whole) happened like as if they were made for the sake of something, these were preserved, having been appropriately constituted by an internal spontaneity, and whatsoever things were not thus constituted, perished, and still perish.

— Aristotle, Physics, Book II, Chapter 8[7]

But Aristotle rejected this possibility in the next paragraph, making clear that he is talking about the development of animals as embryos with the phrase "either invariably or normally come about", not the origin of species:

... Yet it is impossible that this should be the true view. For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter. If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.

— Aristotle, Physics, Book II, Chapter 8[8]

The struggle for existence was later described by the Islamic writer Al-Jahiz in the 9th century.[9][10][11]

The classical arguments were reintroduced in the 18th century by Pierre Louis Maupertuis[12] and others, including Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

Until the early 19th century, the prevailing view in Western societies was that differences between individuals of a species were uninteresting departures from their Platonic ideals (or typus) of created kinds. However, the theory of uniformitarianism in geology promoted the idea that simple, weak forces could act continuously over long periods of time to produce radical changes in the Earth's landscape. The success of this theory raised awareness of the vast scale of geological time and made plausible the idea that tiny, virtually imperceptible changes in successive generations could produce consequences on the scale of differences between species.[13]

The early 19th-century zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested the inheritance of acquired characteristics as a mechanism for evolutionary change; adaptive traits acquired by an organism during its lifetime could be inherited by that organism's progeny, eventually causing transmutation of species.[14] This theory, Lamarckism, was an influence on the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko's antagonism to mainstream genetic theory as late as the mid 20th century.[15]

Between 1835 and 1837, the zoologist Edward Blyth worked on the area of variation, artificial selection, and how a similar process occurs in nature. Darwin acknowledged Blyth's ideas in the first chapter on variation of On the Origin of Species.[16]

Darwin's theory[edit]

Main articles: Inception of Darwin's theory and Development of Darwin's theory

Further information: Coloration evidence for natural selection

In 1859, Charles Darwin set out his theory of evolution by natural selection as an explanation for adaptation and speciation. He defined natural selection as the "principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved".[17] The concept was simple but powerful: individuals best adapted to their environments are more likely to survive and reproduce. As long as there is some variation between them and that variation is heritable, there will be an inevitable selection of individuals with the most advantageous variations. If the variations are heritable, then differential reproductive success leads to a progressive evolution of particular populations of a species, and populations that evolve to be sufficiently different eventually become different species.[18][19]

Darwin's ideas were inspired by the observations that he had made on the second voyage of HMS Beagle (1831–1836), and by the work of a political economist, Thomas Robert Malthus, who, in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), noted that population (if unchecked) increases exponentially, whereas the food supply grows only arithmetically; thus, inevitable limitations of resources would have demographic implications, leading to a "struggle for existence".[20] When Darwin read Malthus in 1838 he was already primed by his work as a naturalist to appreciate the "struggle for existence" in nature. It struck him that as population outgrew resources, "favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species."[21] Darwin wrote:

If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being's own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

— Darwin summarising natural selection in the fourth chapter of On the Origin of Species[22]

Once he had his theory, Darwin was meticulous about gathering and refining evidence before making his idea public. He was in the process of writing his "big book" to present his research when the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace independently conceived of the principle and described it in an essay he sent to Darwin to forward to Charles Lyell. Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker decided to present his essay together with unpublished writings that Darwin had sent to fellow naturalists, and On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection was read to the Linnean Society of London announcing co-discovery of the principle in July 1858.[23] Darwin published a detailed account of his evidence and conclusions in On the Origin of Species in 1859. In the 3rd edition of 1861 Darwin acknowledged that others—like William Charles Wells in 1813, and Patrick Matthew in 1831—had proposed similar ideas, but had neither developed them nor presented them in notable scientific publications.[24]

Darwin thought of natural selection by analogy to how farmers select crops or livestock for breeding, which he called "artificial selection"; in his early manuscripts he referred to a "Nature" which would do the selection. At the time, other mechanisms of evolution such as evolution by genetic drift were not yet explicitly formulated, and Darwin believed that selection was likely only part of the story: "I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification."[25] In a letter to Charles Lyell in September 1860, Darwin regretted the use of the term "Natural Selection", preferring the term "Natural Preservation".[26]

For Darwin and his contemporaries, natural selection was in essence synonymous with evolution by natural selection. After the publication of On the Origin of Species,[27] educated people generally accepted that evolution had occurred in some form. However, natural selection remained controversial as a mechanism, partly because it was perceived to be too weak to explain the range of observed characteristics of living organisms, and partly because even supporters of evolution balked at its "unguided" and non-progressive nature,[28] a response that has been characterised as the single most significant impediment to the idea's acceptance.[29] However, some thinkers enthusiastically embraced natural selection; after reading Darwin, Herbert Spencer introduced the phrase survival of the fittest, which became a popular summary of the theory.[30][31] The fifth edition of On the Origin of Species published in 1869 included Spencer's phrase as an alternative to natural selection, with credit given: "But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient."[32] Although the phrase is still often used by non-biologists, modern biologists avoid it because it is tautological if "fittest" is read to mean "functionally superior" and is applied to individuals rather than considered as an averaged quantity over populations.[33]

The modern synthesis[edit]

Main article: Modern synthesis (20th century)

Natural selection relies crucially on the idea of heredity, but developed before the basic concepts of genetics. Although the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a contemporary of Darwin's, his work lay in obscurity, only being rediscovered in 1900.[34] With the early 20th century integration of evolution with Mendel's laws of inheritance, the so-called modern synthesis, scientists generally came to accept natural selection.[35][36] The synthesis grew from advances in different fields. Ronald Fisher developed the required mathematical language and wrote The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930).[37]J. B. S. Haldane introduced the concept of the "cost" of natural selection.[38][39]Sewall Wright elucidated the nature of selection and adaptation.[40] In his book Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), Theodosius Dobzhansky established the idea that mutation, once seen as a rival to selection, actually supplied the raw material for natural selection by creating genetic diversity.[41][42]

A second synthesis[edit]

Main article: Evolutionary developmental biology § History

Ernst Mayr recognised the key importance of reproductive isolation for speciation in his Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942).[44]W. D. Hamilton conceived of kin selection in 1964.[45][46] This synthesis cemented natural selection as the foundation of evolutionary theory, where it remains today. A second synthesis was brought about at the end of the 20th century by advances in molecular genetics, creating the field of evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo"), which seeks to explain the evolution of form in terms of the genetic regulatory programs which control the development of the embryo at molecular level. Natural selection is here understood to act on embryonic development to change the morphology of the adult body.[47][48][49][50]


The term natural selection is most often defined to operate on heritable traits, because these directly participate in evolution. However, natural selection is "blind" in the sense that changes in phenotype can give a reproductive advantage regardless of whether or not the trait is heritable. Following Darwin's primary usage, the term is used to refer both to the evolutionary consequence of blind selection and to its mechanisms.[27][37][51][52] It is sometimes helpful to explicitly distinguish between selection's mechanisms and its effects; when this distinction is important, scientists define "(phenotypic) natural selection" specifically as "those mechanisms that contribute to the selection of individuals that reproduce", without regard to whether the basis of the selection is heritable.[53][54][55] Traits that cause greater reproductive success of an organism are said to be selected for, while those that reduce success are selected against.[56]


Heritable variation, differential reproduction[edit]

Main article: Genetic variation

Natural variation occurs among the individuals of any population of organisms. Some differences may improve an individual's chances of surviving and reproducing such that its lifetime reproductive rate is increased, which means that it leaves more offspring. If the traits that give these individuals a reproductive advantage are also heritable, that is, passed from parent to offspring, then there will be differential reproduction, that is, a slightly higher proportion of fast rabbits or efficient algae in the next generation. Even if the reproductive advantage is very slight, over many generations any advantageous heritable trait becomes dominant in the population. In this way the natural environment of an organism "selects for" traits that confer a reproductive advantage, causing evolutionary change, as Darwin described.[57] This gives the appearance of purpose, but in natural selection there is no intentional choice. Artificial selection is purposive where natural selection is not, though biologists often use teleological language to describe it.[58]

The peppered moth exists in both light and dark colours in Great Britain, but during the industrial revolution, many of the trees on which the moths rested became blackened by soot, giving the dark-coloured moths an advantage in hiding from predators. This gave dark-coloured moths a better chance of surviving to produce dark-coloured offspring, and in just fifty years from the first dark moth being caught, nearly all of the moths in industrial Manchester were dark. The balance was reversed by the effect of the Clean Air Act 1956, and the dark moths became rare again, demonstrating the influence of natural selection on peppered moth evolution.[59]


Main article: Fitness (biology)

The concept of fitness is central to natural selection. In broad terms, individuals that are more "fit" have better potential for survival, as in the well-known phrase "survival of the fittest", but the precise meaning of the term is much more subtle. Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes become more common in the adult population of the next generation. Though natural selection acts on individuals, the effects of chance mean that fitness can only really be defined "on average" for the individuals within a population. The fitness of a particular genotype corresponds to the average effect on all individuals with that genotype.[60]


Main article: Competition (biology)

In biology, competition is an interaction between organisms in which the fitness of one is lowered by the presence of another. This may be because both rely on a limited supply of a resource such as food, water, or territory.[61] Competition may be within or between species, and may be direct or indirect.[62] Species less suited to compete should in theory either adapt or die out, since competition plays a powerful role in natural selection, but according to the "room to roam" theory it may be less important than expansion among larger clades.[62][63]

Competition is modelled by r/K selection theory, which is based on Robert MacArthur and E. O. Wilson's work on island biogeography.[64] In this theory, selective pressures drive evolution in one of two stereotyped directions: r- or K-selection.[65] These terms, r and K, can be illustrated in a logistic model of population dynamics:[66]

where r is the growth rate of the population (N), and K is the carrying capacity of its local environmental setting. Typically, r-selected species exploit empty niches, and produce many offspring, each with a relatively low probability of surviving to adulthood. In contrast, K-selected species are strong competitors in crowded niches, and invest more heavily in much fewer offspring, each with a relatively high probability of surviving to adulthood.[66]

Types of selection[edit]

Natural selection can act on any heritable phenotypic trait,[67] and selective pressure can be produced by any aspect of the environment, including sexual selection and competition with members of the same or other species.[68][69] However, this does not imply that natural selection is always directional and results in adaptive evolution; natural selection often results in the maintenance of the status quo by eliminating less fit variants.[57]

Selection can be classified in several different ways, such as by its effect on a trait, on genetic diversity, by the life cycle stage where it acts, by the unit of selection, or by the resource being competed for.

Selection has different effects on traits. Stabilizing selection acts to hold a trait at a stable optimum, and in the simplest case all deviations from this optimum are selectively disadvantageous. Directional selection favours extreme values of a trait. The uncommon disruptive selection also acts during transition periods when the current mode is sub-optimal, but alters the trait in more than one direction. In particular, if the trait is quantitative and univariate then both higher and lower trait levels are favoured. Disruptive selection can be a precursor to speciation.[57]

Alternatively, selection can be divided according to its effect on genetic diversity. Purifying or negative selection acts to remove genetic variation from the population (and is opposed by de novo mutation, which introduces new variation.[70][71] In contrast, balancing selection acts to maintain genetic variation in a population, even in the absence of de novo mutation, by negative frequency-dependent selection. One mechanism for this is heterozygote advantage, where individuals with two different alleles have a selective advantage over individuals with just one allele. The polymorphism at the human ABO blood group locus has been explained in this way.[72]

Another option is to classify selection by the life cycle stage at which it acts. Some biologists recognise just two types: viability (or survival) selection, which acts to increase an organism's probability of survival, and fecundity (or fertility or reproductive) selection, which acts to increase the rate of reproduction, given survival. Others split the life cycle into further components of selection. Thus viability and survival selection may be defined separately and respectively as acting to improve the probability of survival before and after reproductive age is reached, while fecundity selection may be split into additional sub-components including sexual selection, gametic selection, acting on gamete survival, and compatibility selection, acting on zygote formation.[73]

Selection can also be classified by the level or unit of selection. Individual selection acts on the individual, in the sense that adaptations are "for" the benefit of the individual, and result from selection among individuals. Gene selection acts directly at the level of the gene. In kin selection and intragenomic conflict, gene-level selection provides a more apt explanation of the underlying process. Group selection, if it occurs, acts on groups of organisms, on the assumption that groups replicate and mutate in an analogous way to genes and individuals. There is an ongoing debate over the degree to which group selection occurs in nature.[74]

Finally, selection can be classified according to the resource being competed for. Sexual selection results from competition for mates. Sexual selection typically proceeds via fecundity selection, sometimes at the expense of viability. Ecological selection is natural selection via any means other than sexual selection, such as kin selection, competition, and infanticide. Following Darwin, natural selection is sometimes defined as ecological selection, in which case sexual selection is considered a separate mechanism.[75]

Sexual selection[edit]

Main article: Sexual selection

Sexual selection as first articulated by Darwin (using the example of the peacock's tail)[76] refers specifically to competition for mates,[78] which can be intrasexual, between individuals of the same sex, that is male–male competition, or intersexual, where one gender chooses mates, most often with males displaying and females choosing.[79] However, in some species, mate choice is primarily by males, as in some fishes of the family Syngnathidae.[80][81]

Phenotypic traits can be displayed in one sex and desired in the other sex, causing a positive feedback loop called a Fisherian runaway, for example, the extravagant plumage of some male birds such as the peacock.[77] An alternate theory proposed by the same Ronald Fisher in 1930 is the sexy son hypothesis, that mothers want promiscuous sons to give them large numbers of grandchildren and so choose promiscuous fathers for their children. Aggression between members of the same sex is sometimes associated with very distinctive features, such as the antlers of stags, which are used in combat with other stags. More generally, intrasexual selection is often associated with sexual dimorphism, including differences in body size between males and females of a species.[79]

Natural selection in action[edit]

Further information: Antimicrobial resistance

Natural selection is seen in action in the development of antibiotic resistance in microorganisms. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have been used to fight bacterial diseases. The widespread misuse of antibiotics has selected for microbial resistance to antibiotics in clinical use, to the point that the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been described as a "superbug" because of the threat it poses to health and its relative invulnerability to existing drugs.[82] Response strategies typically include the use of different, stronger antibiotics; however, new strains of MRSA have recently emerged that are resistant even to these drugs.[83] This is an evolutionary arms race, in which bacteria develop strains less susceptible to antibiotics, while medical researchers attempt to develop new antibiotics that can kill them. A similar situation occurs with pesticide resistance in plants and insects. Arms races are not necessarily induced by man; a well-documented example involves the spread of a gene in the butterfly Hypolimnas bolina suppressing male-killing activity by Wolbachia bacteria parasites on the island of Samoa, where the spread of the gene is known to have occurred over a period of just five years[84][85]

Evolution by means of natural selection[edit]

Main articles: Evolution and Darwinism

A prerequisite for natural selection to result in adaptive evolution, novel traits and speciation is the presence of heritable genetic variation that results in fitness differences. Genetic variation is the result of mutations, genetic recombinations and alterations in the karyotype (the number, shape, size and internal arrangement of the chromosomes). Any of these changes might have an effect that is highly advantageous or highly disadvantageous, but large effects are rare. In the past, most changes in the genetic material were considered neutral or close to neutral because they occurred in noncoding DNA or resulted in a synonymous substitution. However, many mutations in non-coding DNA have deleterious effects.[86][87] Although both mutation rates and average fitness effects of mutations are dependent on the organism, a majority of mutations in humans are slightly deleterious.[88]

Some mutations occur in "toolkit" or regulatory genes. Changes in these often have large effects on the phenotype of the individual because they regulate the function of many other genes. Most, but not all, mutations in regulatory genes result in non-viable embryos. Some nonlethal regulatory mutations occur in HOX genes in humans, which can result in a cervical rib[89] or polydactyly, an increase in the number of fingers or toes.[90] When such mutations result in a higher fitness, natural selection favours these phenotypes and the novel trait spreads in the population. Established traits are not immutable; traits that have high fitness in one environmental context may be much less fit if environmental conditions change. In the absence of natural selection to preserve such a trait, it becomes more variable and deteriorate over time, possibly resulting in a vestigial manifestation of the trait, also called evolutionary baggage. In many circumstances, the apparently vestigial structure may retain a limited functionality, or may be co-opted for other advantageous traits in a phenomenon known as preadaptation. A famous example of a vestigial structure, the eye of the blind mole-rat, is believed to retain function in photoperiod perception.[91]


Main article: Speciation

Speciation requires a degree of reproductive isolation—that is, a reduction in gene flow. However, it is intrinsic to the concept of a species that hybrids are selected against, opposing the evolution of reproductive isolation, a problem that was recognised by Darwin. The problem does not occur in allopatric speciation with geographically separated populations, which can diverge with different sets of mutations. E. B. Poulton realized in 1903 that reproductive isolation could evolve through divergence, if each lineage acquired a different, incompatible allele of the same gene. Selection against the heterozygote would then directly create reproductive isolation, leading to the Bateson–Dobzhansky–Muller model, further elaborated by H. Allen Orr[92] and Sergey Gavrilets.[93] With reinforcement, however, natural selection can favor an increase in pre-zygotic isolation, influencing the process of speciation directly.[94]

Genetic basis[edit]

Genotype and phenotype[edit]

Main article: Genotype–phenotype distinction

Natural selection acts on an organism's phenotype, or physical characteristics. Phenotype is determined by an organism's genetic make-up (genotype) and the environment in which the organism lives. When different organisms in a population possess different versions of a gene for a certain trait, each of these versions is known as an allele. It is this genetic variation that underlies differences in phenotype. An example is the ABOblood typeantigens in humans, where three alleles govern the phenotype.[95]

Some traits are governed by only a single gene, but most traits are influenced by the interactions of many genes. A variation in one of the many genes that contributes to a trait may have only a small effect on the phenotype; together, these genes can produce a continuum of possible phenotypic values.[96]

Directionality of selection[edit]

Main article: Directional selection

When some component of a trait is heritable, selection alters the frequencies of the different alleles, or variants of the gene that produces the variants of the trait. Selection can be divided into three classes, on the basis of its effect on allele frequencies: directional, stabilizing, and purifying selection.[97] Directional selection occurs when an allele has a greater fitness than others, so that it increases in frequency, gaining an increasing share in the population. This process can continue until the allele is fixed and the entire population shares the fitter phenotype.[98] Far more common is stabilizing selection, which lowers the frequency of alleles that have a deleterious effect on the phenotype – that is, produce organisms of lower fitness. This process can continue until the allele is eliminated from the population. Purifying selection conserves functional genetic features, such as protein-coding genes or regulatory sequences, over time by selective pressure against deleterious variants.[99]

Some forms of balancing selection do not result in fixation, but maintain an allele at intermediate frequencies in a population. This can occur in diploid species (with pairs of chromosomes) when heterozygous individuals (with just one copy of the allele) have a higher fitness than homozygous individuals (with two copies). This is called heterozygote advantage or over-dominance, of which the best-known example is the resistance to malaria in humans heterozygous for sickle-cell anaemia. Maintenance of allelic variation can also occur through disruptive or diversifying selection, which favours genotypes that depart from the average in either direction (that is, the opposite of over-dominance), and can result in a bimodal distribution of trait values. Finally, balancing selection can occur through frequency-dependent selection, where the fitness of one particular phenotype depends on the distribution of other phenotypes in the population. The principles of game theory have been applied to understand the fitness distributions in these situations, particularly in the study of kin selection and the evolution of reciprocal altruism.[100][101]

Modern biology began in the nineteenth century with Charles Darwin's work on evolution by natural selection.
Aristotle considered whether different forms could have appeared, only the useful ones surviving.
Selection in action: resistance to antibiotics grows though the survival of individuals less affected by the antibiotic. Their offspring inherit the resistance.