The Descent of Man – Day 69 of 151

Chapter IX: Secondary Sexual Characters in the Lower Classes of the Animal Kingdom

  • These characters absent in the lowest classes
  • Brilliant colours
  • Mollusca
  • Annelids
  • Crustacea, secondary sexual characters strongly developed; dimorphism; colour; characters not acquired before maturity
  • Spiders, sexual colours of; stridulation by the males
  • Myriapoda

With animals belonging to the lower classes, the two sexes are not rarely united in the same individual, and therefore secondary sexual characters cannot be developed. In many cases where the sexes are separate, both are permanently attached to some support, and the one cannot search or struggle for the other. Moreover it is almost certain that these animals have too imperfect senses and much too low mental powers to appreciate each other’s beauty or other attractions, or to feel rivalry.

Hence in these classes or sub-kingdoms, such as the Protozoa, Coelenterata, Echinodermata, Scolecida, secondary sexual characters, of the kind which we have to consider, do not occur: and this fact agrees with the belief that such characters in the higher classes have been acquired through sexual selection, which depends on the will, desire, and choice of either sex. Nevertheless some few apparent exceptions occur; thus, as I hear from Dr. Baird, the males of certain Entozoa, or internal parasitic worms, differ slightly in colour from the females; but we have no reason to suppose that such differences have been augmented through sexual selection. Contrivances by which the male holds the female, and which are indispensable for the propagation of the species, are independent of sexual selection, and have been acquired through ordinary selection.

Many of the lower animals, whether hermaphrodites or with separate sexes, are ornamented with the most brilliant tints, or are shaded and striped in an elegant manner; for instance, many corals and sea-anemones (Actiniae), some jelly-fish (Medusae, Porpita, etc.), some Planariae, many star-fishes, Echini, Ascidians, etc.; but we may conclude from the reasons already indicated, namely, the union of the two sexes in some of these animals, the permanently affixed condition of others, and the low mental powers of all, that such colours do not serve as a sexual attraction, and have not been acquired through sexual selection. It should be borne in mind that in no case have we sufficient evidence that colours have been thus acquired, except where one sex is much more brilliantly or conspicuously coloured than the other, and where there is no difference in habits between the sexes sufficient to account for their different colours. But the evidence is rendered as complete as it can ever be, only when the more ornamented individuals, almost always the males, voluntarily display their attractions before the other sex; for we cannot believe that such display is useless, and if it be advantageous, sexual selection will almost inevitably follow. We may, however, extend this conclusion to both sexes, when coloured alike, if their colours are plainly analogous to those of one sex alone in certain other species of the same group.

How, then, are we to account for the beautiful or even gorgeous colours of many animals in the lowest classes? It appears doubtful whether such colours often serve as a protection; but that we may easily err on this head, will be admitted by every one who reads Mr. Wallace’s excellent essay on this subject. It would not, for instance, at first occur to any one that the transparency of the Medusae, or jelly-fish, is of the highest service to them as a protection; but when we are reminded by Haeckel that not only the Medusae, but many floating Mollusca, crustaceans, and even small oceanic fishes partake of this same glass-like appearance, often accompanied by prismatic colours, we can hardly doubt that they thus escape the notice of pelagic birds and other enemies. M. Giard is also convinced (1. ‘Archives de Zoolog. Exper.’ Oct. 1872, p. 563.) that the bright tints of certain sponges and ascidians serve as a protection. Conspicuous colours are likewise beneficial to many animals as a warning to their would-be devourers that they are distasteful, or that they possess some special means of defence; but this subject will be discussed more conveniently hereafter.

We can, in our ignorance of most of the lowest animals, only say that their bright tints result either from the chemical nature or the minute structure of their tissues, independently of any benefit thus derived. Hardly any colour is finer than that of arterial blood; but there is no reason to suppose that the colour of the blood is in itself any advantage; and though it adds to the beauty of the maiden’s cheek, no one will pretend that it has been acquired for this purpose. So again with many animals, especially the lower ones, the bile is richly coloured; thus, as I am informed by Mr. Hancock, the extreme beauty of the Eolidae (naked sea-slugs) is chiefly due to the biliary glands being seen through the translucent integuments–this beauty being probably of no service to these animals. The tints of the decaying leaves in an American forest are described by every one as gorgeous; yet no one supposes that these tints are of the least advantage to the trees. Bearing in mind how many substances closely analogous to natural organic compounds have been recently formed by chemists, and which exhibit the most splendid colours, it would have been a strange fact if substances similarly coloured had not often originated, independently of any useful end thus gained, in the complex laboratory of living organisms.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)