The Descent of Man – Day 63 of 151

Summary and Concluding Remarks

From the foregoing discussion on the various laws of inheritance, we learn that the characters of the parents often, or even generally, tend to become developed in the offspring of the same sex, at the same age, and periodically at the same season of the year, in which they first appeared in the parents. But these rules, owing to unknown causes, are far from being fixed. Hence during the modification of a species, the successive changes may readily be transmitted in different ways; some to one sex, and some to both; some to the offspring at one age, and some to the offspring at all ages. Not only are the laws of inheritance extremely complex, but so are the causes which induce and govern variability. The variations thus induced are preserved and accumulated by sexual selection, which is in itself an extremely complex affair, depending, as it does, on the ardour in love, the courage, and the rivalry of the males, as well as on the powers of perception, the taste, and will of the female. Sexual selection will also be largely dominated by natural selection tending towards the general welfare of the species. Hence the manner in which the individuals of either or both sexes have been affected through sexual selection cannot fail to be complex in the highest degree.

When variations occur late in life in one sex, and are transmitted to the same sex at the same age, the other sex and the young are left unmodified. When they occur late in life, but are transmitted to both sexes at the same age, the young alone are left unmodified. Variations, however, may occur at any period of life in one sex or in both, and be transmitted to both sexes at all ages, and then all the individuals of the species are similarly modified. In the following chapters it will be seen that all these cases frequently occur in nature.

Sexual selection can never act on any animal before the age for reproduction arrives. From the great eagerness of the male it has generally acted on this sex and not on the females. The males have thus become provided with weapons for fighting with their rivals, with organs for discovering and securely holding the female, and for exciting or charming her. When the sexes differ in these respects, it is also, as we have seen, an extremely general law that the adult male differs more or less from the young male; and we may conclude from this fact that the successive variations, by which the adult male became modified, did not generally occur much before the age for reproduction. Whenever some or many of the variations occurred early in life, the young males would partake more or less of the characters of the adult males; and differences of this kind between the old and young males may be observed in many species of animals.

It is probable that young male animals have often tended to vary in a manner which would not only have been of no use to them at an early age, but would have been actually injurious–as by acquiring bright colours, which would render them conspicuous to their enemies, or by acquiring structures, such as great horns, which would expend much vital force in their development. Variations of this kind occurring in the young males would almost certainly be eliminated through natural selection. With the adult and experienced males, on the other hand, the advantages derived from the acquisition of such characters, would more than counterbalance some exposure to danger, and some loss of vital force.

As variations which give to the male a better chance of conquering other males, or of finding, securing, or charming the opposite sex, would, if they happened to arise in the female, be of no service to her, they would not be preserved in her through sexual selection. We have also good evidence with domesticated animals, that variations of all kinds are, if not carefully selected, soon lost through intercrossing and accidental deaths. Consequently in a state of nature, if variations of the above kind chanced to arise in the female line, and to be transmitted exclusively in this line, they would be extremely liable to be lost. If, however, the females varied and transmitted their newly acquired characters to their offspring of both sexes, the characters which were advantageous to the males would be preserved by them through sexual selection, and the two sexes would in consequence be modified in the same manner, although such characters were of no use to the females: but I shall hereafter have to recur to these more intricate contingencies. Lastly, the females may acquire, and apparently have often acquired by transference, characters from the male sex.

As variations occurring later in life, and transmitted to one sex alone, have incessantly been taken advantage of and accumulated through sexual selection in relation to the reproduction of the species; therefore it appears, at first sight, an unaccountable fact that similar variations have not frequently been accumulated through natural selection, in relation to the ordinary habits of life. If this had occurred, the two sexes would often have been differently modified, for the sake, for instance, of capturing prey or of escaping from danger. Differences of this kind between the two sexes do occasionally occur, especially in the lower classes. But this implies that the two sexes follow different habits in their struggles for existence, which is a rare circumstance with the higher animals. The case, however, is widely different with the reproductive functions, in which respect the sexes necessarily differ. For variations in structure which are related to these functions, have often proved of value to one sex, and from having arisen at a late period of life, have been transmitted to one sex alone; and such variations, thus preserved and transmitted, have given rise to secondary sexual characters.

In the following chapters, I shall treat of the secondary sexual characters in animals of all classes, and shall endeavour in each case to apply the principles explained in the present chapter. The lowest classes will detain us for a very short time, but the higher animals, especially birds, must be treated at considerable length. It should be borne in mind that for reasons already assigned, I intend to give only a few illustrative instances of the innumerable structures by the aid of which the male finds the female, or, when found, holds her. On the other hand, all structures and instincts by the aid of which the male conquers other males, and by which he allures or excites the female, will be fully discussed, as these are in many ways the most interesting.

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