The Descent of Man – Day 56 of 151

There are many other structures and instincts which must have been developed through sexual selection–such as the weapons of offence and the means of defence of the males for fighting with and driving away their rivals–their courage and pugnacity–their various ornaments–their contrivances for producing vocal or instrumental music–and their glands for emitting odours, most of these latter structures serving only to allure or excite the female. It is clear that these characters are the result of sexual and not of ordinary selection, since unarmed, unornamented, or unattractive males would succeed equally well in the battle for life and in leaving a numerous progeny, but for the presence of better endowed males. We may infer that this would be the case, because the females, which are unarmed and unornamented, are able to survive and procreate their kind. Secondary sexual characters of the kind just referred to, will be fully discussed in the following chapters, as being in many respects interesting, but especially as depending on the will, choice, and rivalry of the individuals of either sex. When we behold two males fighting for the possession of the female, or several male birds displaying their gorgeous plumage, and performing strange antics before an assembled body of females, we cannot doubt that, though led by instinct, they know what they are about, and consciously exert their mental and bodily powers.

Just as man can improve the breeds of his game-cocks by the selection of those birds which are victorious in the cockpit, so it appears that the strongest and most vigorous males, or those provided with the best weapons, have prevailed under nature, and have led to the improvement of the natural breed or species. A slight degree of variability leading to some advantage, however slight, in reiterated deadly contests would suffice for the work of sexual selection; and it is certain that secondary sexual characters are eminently variable. Just as man can give beauty, according to his standard of taste, to his male poultry, or more strictly can modify the beauty originally acquired by the parent species, can give to the Sebright bantam a new and elegant plumage, an erect and peculiar carriage– so it appears that female birds in a state of nature, have by a long selection of the more attractive males, added to their beauty or other attractive qualities. No doubt this implies powers of discrimination and taste on the part of the female which will at first appear extremely improbable; but by the facts to be adduced hereafter, I hope to be able to shew that the females actually have these powers. When, however, it is said that the lower animals have a sense of beauty, it must not be supposed that such sense is comparable with that of a cultivated man, with his multiform and complex associated ideas. A more just comparison would be between the taste for the beautiful in animals, and that in the lowest savages, who admire and deck themselves with any brilliant, glittering, or curious object.

From our ignorance on several points, the precise manner in which sexual selection acts is somewhat uncertain. Nevertheless if those naturalists who already believe in the mutability of species, will read the following chapters, they will, I think, agree with me, that sexual selection has played an important part in the history of the organic world. It is certain that amongst almost all animals there is a struggle between the males for the possession of the female. This fact is so notorious that it would be superfluous to give instances. Hence the females have the opportunity of selecting one out of several males, on the supposition that their mental capacity suffices for the exertion of a choice. In many cases special circumstances tend to make the struggle between the males particularly severe. Thus the males of our migratory birds generally arrive at their places of breeding before the females, so that many males are ready to contend for each female. I am informed by Mr. Jenner Weir, that the bird-catchers assert that this is invariably the case with the nightingale and blackcap, and with respect to the latter he can himself confirm the statement.

Mr. Swaysland of Brighton has been in the habit, during the last forty years, of catching our migratory birds on their first arrival, and he has never known the females of any species to arrive before their males. During one spring he shot thirty-nine males of Ray’s wagtail (Budytes Raii) before he saw a single female. Mr. Gould has ascertained by the dissection of those snipes which arrive the first in this country, that the males come before the females. And the like holds good with most of the migratory birds of the United States. (5. J.A. Allen, on the ‘Mammals and Winter Birds of Florida,’ Bulletin of Comparative Zoology, Harvard College, p. 268.) The majority of the male salmon in our rivers, on coming up from the sea, are ready to breed before the females. So it appears to be with frogs and toads. Throughout the great class of insects the males almost always are the first to emerge from the pupal state, so that they generally abound for a time before any females can be seen. (6. Even with those plants in which the sexes are separate, the male flowers are generally mature before the female. As first shewn by C.K. Sprengel, many hermaphrodite plants are dichogamous; that is, their male and female organs are not ready at the same time, so that they cannot be self-fertilised. Now in such flowers, the pollen is in general matured before the stigma, though there are exceptional cases in which the female organs are beforehand.) The cause of this difference between the males and females in their periods of arrival and maturity is sufficiently obvious. Those males which annually first migrated into any country, or which in the spring were first ready to breed, or were the most eager, would leave the largest number of offspring; and these would tend to inherit similar instincts and constitutions. It must be borne in mind that it would have been impossible to change very materially the time of sexual maturity in the females, without at the same time interfering with the period of the production of the young–a period which must be determined by the seasons of the year. On the whole there can be no doubt that with almost all animals, in which the sexes are separate, there is a constantly recurrent struggle between the males for the possession of the females.

Our difficulty in regard to sexual selection lies in understanding how it is that the males which conquer other males, or those which prove the most attractive to the females, leave a greater number of offspring to inherit their superiority than their beaten and less attractive rivals. Unless this result does follow, the characters which give to certain males an advantage over others, could not be perfected and augmented through sexual selection. When the sexes exist in exactly equal numbers, the worst-endowed males will (except where polygamy prevails), ultimately find females, and leave as many offspring, as well fitted for their general habits of life, as the best-endowed males. From various facts and considerations, I formerly inferred that with most animals, in which secondary sexual characters are well developed, the males considerably exceeded the females in number; but this is not by any means always true. If the males were to the females as two to one, or as three to two, or even in a somewhat lower ratio, the whole affair would be simple; for the better-armed or more attractive males would leave the largest number of offspring. But after investigating, as far as possible, the numerical proportion of the sexes, I do not believe that any great inequality in number commonly exists. In most cases sexual selection appears to have been effective in the following manner.

Let us take any species, a bird for instance, and divide the females inhabiting a district into two equal bodies, the one consisting of the more vigorous and better-nourished individuals, and the other of the less vigorous and healthy. The former, there can be little doubt, would be ready to breed in the spring before the others; and this is the opinion of Mr. Jenner Weir, who has carefully attended to the habits of birds during many years. There can also be no doubt that the most vigorous, best-nourished and earliest breeders would on an average succeed in rearing the largest number of fine offspring. (7. Here is excellent evidence on the character of the offspring from an experienced ornithologist. Mr. J.A. Allen, in speaking (‘Mammals and Winter Birds of E. Florida,’ p. 229) of the later broods, after the accidental destruction of the first, says, that these “are found to be smaller and paler-coloured than those hatched earlier in the season. In cases where several broods are reared each year, as a general rule the birds of the earlier broods seem in all respects the most perfect and vigorous.”) The males, as we have seen, are generally ready to breed before the females; the strongest, and with some species the best armed of the males, drive away the weaker; and the former would then unite with the more vigorous and better-nourished females, because they are the first to breed. (8. Hermann Muller has come to this same conclusion with respect to those female bees which are the first to emerge from the pupa each year. See his remarkable essay, ‘Anwendung der Darwin’schen Lehre auf Bienen,’ ‘Verh. d. V. Jahrg.’ xxix. p. 45.) Such vigorous pairs would surely rear a larger number of offspring than the retarded females, which would be compelled to unite with the conquered and less powerful males, supposing the sexes to be numerically equal; and this is all that is wanted to add, in the course of successive generations, to the size, strength and courage of the males, or to improve their weapons.

But in very many cases the males which conquer their rivals, do not obtain possession of the females, independently of the choice of the latter. The courtship of animals is by no means so simple and short an affair as might be thought. The females are most excited by, or prefer pairing with, the more ornamented males, or those which are the best songsters, or play the best antics; but it is obviously probable that they would at the same time prefer the more vigorous and lively males, and this has in some cases been confirmed by actual observation. (9. With respect to poultry, I have received information, hereafter to be given, to this effect. Even birds, such as pigeons, which pair for life, the female, as I hear from Mr. Jenner Weir, will desert her mate if he is injured or grows weak.) Thus the more vigorous females, which are the first to breed, will have the choice of many males; and though they may not always select the strongest or best armed, they will select those which are vigorous and well armed, and in other respects the most attractive. Both sexes, therefore, of such early pairs would as above explained, have an advantage over others in rearing offspring; and this apparently has sufficed during a long course of generations to add not only to the strength and fighting powers of the males, but likewise to their various ornaments or other attractions.

In the converse and much rarer case of the males selecting particular females, it is plain that those which were the most vigorous and had conquered others, would have the freest choice; and it is almost certain that they would select vigorous as well as attractive females. Such pairs would have an advantage in rearing offspring, more especially if the male had the power to defend the female during the pairing-season as occurs with some of the higher animals, or aided her in providing for the young. The same principles would apply if each sex preferred and selected certain individuals of the opposite sex; supposing that they selected not only the more attractive, but likewise the more vigorous individuals.

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