The Descent of Man – Day 61 of 151

On the Relation Between the Period of Development of a Character and Its Transmission to One Sex or to Both Sexes

Why certain characters should be inherited by both sexes, and other characters by one sex alone, namely by that sex in which the character first appeared, is in most cases quite unknown. We cannot even conjecture why with certain sub-breeds of the pigeon, black striae, though transmitted through the female, should be developed in the male alone, whilst every other character is equally transferred to both sexes. Why, again, with cats, the tortoise-shell colour should, with rare exceptions, be developed in the female alone. The very same character, such as deficient or supernumerary digits, colour-blindness, etc., may with mankind be inherited by the males alone of one family, and in another family by the females alone, though in both cases transmitted through the opposite as well as through the same sex. (38. References are given in my ‘Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,’ vol. ii. p. 72.) Although we are thus ignorant, the two following rules seem often to hold good–that variations which first appear in either sex at a late period of life, tend to be developed in the same sex alone; whilst variations which first appear early in life in either sex tend to be developed in both sexes. I am, however, far from supposing that this is the sole determining cause. As I have not elsewhere discussed this subject, and it has an important bearing on sexual selection, I must here enter into lengthy and somewhat intricate details.

It is in itself probable that any character appearing at an early age would tend to be inherited equally by both sexes, for the sexes do not differ much in constitution before the power of reproduction is gained. On the other hand, after this power has been gained and the sexes have come to differ in constitution, the gemmules (if I may again use the language of pangenesis) which are cast off from each varying part in the one sex would be much more likely to possess the proper affinities for uniting with the tissues of the same sex, and thus becoming developed, than with those of the opposite sex.

I was first led to infer that a relation of this kind exists, from the fact that whenever and in whatever manner the adult male differs from the adult female, he differs in the same manner from the young of both sexes. The generality of this fact is quite remarkable: it holds good with almost all mammals, birds, amphibians, and fishes; also with many crustaceans, spiders, and some few insects, such as certain orthoptera and libellulae. In all these cases the variations, through the accumulation of which the male acquired his proper masculine characters, must have occurred at a somewhat late period of life; otherwise the young males would have been similarly characterised; and conformably with our rule, the variations are transmitted to and developed in the adult males alone. When, on the other hand, the adult male closely resembles the young of both sexes (these, with rare exceptions, being alike), he generally resembles the adult female; and in most of these cases the variations through which the young and old acquired their present characters, probably occurred, according to our rule, during youth. But there is here room for doubt, for characters are sometimes transferred to the offspring at an earlier age than that at which they first appeared in the parents, so that the parents may have varied when adult, and have transferred their characters to their offspring whilst young. There are, moreover, many animals, in which the two sexes closely resemble each other, and yet both differ from their young: and here the characters of the adults must have been acquired late in life; nevertheless, these characters, in apparent contradiction to our rule, are transferred to both sexes. We must not however, overlook the possibility or even probability of successive variations of the same nature occurring, under exposure to similar conditions, simultaneously in both sexes at a rather late period of life; and in this case the variations would be transferred to the offspring of both sexes at a corresponding late age; and there would then be no real contradiction to the rule that variations occurring late in life are transferred exclusively to the sex in which they first appeared. This latter rule seems to hold true more generally than the second one, namely, that variations which occur in either sex early in life tend to be transferred to both sexes. As it was obviously impossible even to estimate in how large a number of cases throughout the animal kingdom these two propositions held good, it occurred to me to investigate some striking or crucial instances, and to rely on the result.

An excellent case for investigation is afforded by the Deer family. In all the species, but one, the horns are developed only in the males, though certainly transmitted through the females, and capable of abnormal development in them. In the reindeer, on the other hand, the female is provided with horns; so that in this species, the horns ought, according to our rule, to appear early in life, long before the two sexes are mature and have come to differ much in constitution. In all the other species the horns ought to appear later in life, which would lead to their development in that sex alone, in which they first appeared in the progenitor of the whole Family. Now in seven species, belonging to distinct sections of the family and inhabiting different regions, in which the stags alone bear horns, I find that the horns first appear at periods, varying from nine months after birth in the roebuck, to ten, twelve or even more months in the stags of the six other and larger species. (39. I am much obliged to Mr. Cupples for having made enquiries for me in regard to the Roebuck and Red Deer of Scotland from Mr. Robertson, the experienced head-forester to the Marquis of Breadalbane. In regard to Fallow-deer, I have to thank Mr. Eyton and others for information. For the Cervus alces of N. America, see ‘Land and Water,’ 1868, pp. 221 and 254; and for the C. Virginianus and strongyloceros of the same continent, see J.D. Caton, in ‘Ottawa Acad. of Nat. Sc.’ 1868, p. 13. For Cervus Eldi of Pegu, see Lieut. Beaven, ‘Proccedings of the Zoological Society,’ 1867, p. 762.) But with the reindeer the case is widely different; for, as I hear from Prof. Nilsson, who kindly made special enquiries for me in Lapland, the horns appear in the young animals within four or five weeks after birth, and at the same time in both sexes. So that here we have a structure, developed at a most unusually early age in one species of the family, and likewise common to both sexes in this one species alone.

In several kinds of antelopes, only the males are provided with horns, whilst in the greater number both sexes bear horns. With respect to the period of development, Mr. Blyth informs me that there was at one time in the Zoological Gardens a young koodoo (Ant. strepsiceros), of which the males alone are horned, and also the young of a closely-allied species, the eland (Ant. oreas), in which both sexes are horned. Now it is in strict conformity with our rule, that in the young male koodoo, although ten months old, the horns were remarkably small, considering the size ultimately attained by them; whilst in the young male eland, although only three months old, the horns were already very much larger than in the koodoo. It is also a noticeable fact that in the prong-horned antelope (40. Antilocapra Americana. I have to thank Dr. Canfield for information with respect to the horns of the female: see also his paper in ‘Proceedings of the Zoological Society,’ 1866, p. 109. Also Owen, ‘Anatomy of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii. p. 627), only a few of the females, about one in five, have horns, and these are in a rudimentary state, though sometimes above four inches long: so that as far as concerns the possession of horns by the males alone, this species is in an intermediate condition, and the horns do not appear until about five or six months after birth. Therefore in comparison with what little we know of the development of the horns in other antelopes, and from what we do know with respect to the horns of deer, cattle, etc., those of the prong-horned antelope appear at an intermediate period of life,–that is, not very early, as in cattle and sheep, nor very late, as in the larger deer and antelopes. The horns of sheep, goats, and cattle, which are well developed in both sexes, though not quite equal in size, can be felt, or even seen, at birth or soon afterwards. (41. I have been assured that the horns of the sheep in North Wales can always be felt, and are sometimes even an inch in length, at birth. Youatt says (‘Cattle,’ 1834, p. 277), that the prominence of the frontal bone in cattle penetrates the cutis at birth, and that the horny matter is soon formed over it.) Our rule, however, seems to fail in some breeds of sheep, for instance merinos, in which the rams alone are horned; for I cannot find on enquiry (42. I am greatly indebted to Prof. Victor Carus for having made enquiries for me, from the highest authorities, with respect to the merino sheep of Saxony. On the Guinea coast of Africa there is, however, a breed of sheep in which, as with merinos, the rams alone bear horns; and Mr. Winwood Reade informs me that in one case observed by him, a young ram, born on Feb. 10th, first shewed horns on March 6th, so that in this instance, in conformity with rule, the development of the horns occurred at a later period of life than in Welsh sheep, in which both sexes are horned.), that the horns are developed later in life in this breed than in ordinary sheep in which both sexes are horned. But with domesticated sheep the presence or absence of horns is not a firmly fixed character; for a certain proportion of the merino ewes bear small horns, and some of the rams are hornless; and in most breeds hornless ewes are occasionally produced.

Dr. W. Marshall has lately made a special study of the protuberances so common on the heads of birds (43. ‘Uber die knochernen Schadelhocker der Vogel,’ in the ‘Niederland. Archiv fur Zoologie,’ B.i. Heft 2, 1872.), and he comes to the following conclusion:–that with those species in which they are confined to the males, they are developed late in life; whereas with those species in which they are common to the two sexes, they are developed at a very early period. This is certainly a striking confirmation of my two laws of inheritance.


  1. ScottS-M Identiconcomment_author_IP, $comment->comment_author); }else{echo $gravatar_link;}}*/ ?>

    ScottS-M wrote:

    Why, again, with cats, the tortoise-shell colour should, with rare exceptions, be developed in the female alone. The very same character, such as deficient or supernumerary digits, colour-blindness, etc., may with mankind be inherited by the males alone of one family, and in another family by the females alone, though in both cases transmitted through the opposite as well as through the same sex.

    Funnily, both tortoise shell cats and colorblindness are easily explained once you know about the X chromosome.

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