The Origin of Species – Day 100 of 119

We must not, therefore, in classifying, trust to resemblances in parts of the organisation, however important they may be for the welfare of the being in relation to the outer world. Perhaps from this cause it has partly arisen, that almost all naturalists lay the greatest stress on resemblances in organs of high vital or physiological importance. No doubt this view of the classificatory importance of organs which are important is generally, but by no means always, true. But their importance for classification, I believe, depends on their greater constancy throughout large groups of species; and this constancy depends on such organs having generally been subjected to less change in the adaptation of the species to their conditions of life. That the mere physiological importance of an organ does not determine its classificatory value, is almost shown by the one fact, that in allied groups, in which the same organ, as we have every reason to suppose, has nearly the same physiological value, its classificatory value is widely different. No naturalist can have worked at any group without being struck with this fact; and it has been most fully acknowledged in the writings of almost every author. It will suffice to quote the highest authority, Robert Brown, who in speaking of certain organs in the Proteaceae, says their generic importance, “like that of all their parts, not only in this but, as I apprehend, in every natural family, is very unequal, and in some cases seems to be entirely lost.” Again in another work he says, the genera of the Connaraceae “differ in having one or more ovaria, in the existence or absence of albumen, in the imbricate or valvular aestivation. Any one of these characters singly is frequently of more than generic importance, though here even when all taken together they appear insufficient to separate Cnestis from Connarus.” To give an example amongst insects, in one great division of the Hymenoptera, the antennae, as Westwood has remarked, are most constant in structure; in another division they differ much, and the differences are of quite subordinate value in classification; yet no one probably will say that the antennae in these two divisions of the same order are of unequal physiological importance. Any number of instances could be given of the varying importance for classification of the same important organ within the same group of beings.

Again, no one will say that rudimentary or atrophied organs are of high physiological or vital importance; yet, undoubtedly, organs in this condition are often of high value in classification. No one will dispute that the rudimentary teeth in the upper jaws of young ruminants, and certain rudimentary bones of the leg, are highly serviceable in exhibiting the close affinity between Ruminants and Pachyderms. Robert Brown has strongly insisted on the fact that the rudimentary florets are of the highest importance in the classification of the Grasses.

Numerous instances could be given of characters derived from parts which must be considered of very trifling physiological importance, but which are universally admitted as highly serviceable in the definition of whole groups. For instance, whether or not there is an open passage from the nostrils to the mouth, the only character, according to Owen, which absolutely distinguishes fishes and reptiles–the inflection of the angle of the jaws in Marsupials–the manner in which the wings of insects are folded–mere colour in certain Algae–mere pubescence on parts of the flower in grasses–the nature of the dermal covering, as hair or feathers, in the Vertebrata. If the Ornithorhynchus had been covered with feathers instead of hair, this external and trifling character would, I think, have been considered by naturalists as important an aid in determining the degree of affinity of this strange creature to birds and reptiles, as an approach in structure in any one internal and important organ.

The importance, for classification, of trifling characters, mainly depends on their being correlated with several other characters of more or less importance. The value indeed of an aggregate of characters is very evident in natural history. Hence, as has often been remarked, a species may depart from its allies in several characters, both of high physiological importance and of almost universal prevalence, and yet leave us in no doubt where it should be ranked. Hence, also, it has been found, that a classification founded on any single character, however important that may be, has always failed; for no part of the organisation is universally constant. The importance of an aggregate of characters, even when none are important, alone explains, I think, that saying of Linnaeus, that the characters do not give the genus, but the genus gives the characters; for this saying seems founded on an appreciation of many trifling points of resemblance, too slight to be defined. Certain plants, belonging to the Malpighiaceae, bear perfect and degraded flowers; in the latter, as A. de Jussieu has remarked, “the greater number of the characters proper to the species, to the genus, to the family, to the class, disappear, and thus laugh at our classification.” But when Aspicarpa produced in France, during several years, only degraded flowers, departing so wonderfully in a number of the most important points of structure from the proper type of the order, yet M. Richard sagaciously saw, as Jussieu observes, that this genus should still be retained amongst the Malpighiaceae. This case seems to me well to illustrate the spirit with which our classifications are sometimes necessarily founded.

Practically when naturalists are at work, they do not trouble themselves about the physiological value of the characters which they use in defining a group, or in allocating any particular species. If they find a character nearly uniform, and common to a great number of forms, and not common to others, they use it as one of high value; if common to some lesser number, they use it as of subordinate value. This principle has been broadly confessed by some naturalists to be the true one; and by none more clearly than by that excellent botanist, Aug. St. Hilaire. If certain characters are always found correlated with others, though no apparent bond of connexion can be discovered between them, especial value is set on them. As in most groups of animals, important organs, such as those for propelling the blood, or for aerating it, or those for propagating the race, are found nearly uniform, they are considered as highly serviceable in classification; but in some groups of animals all these, the most important vital organs, are found to offer characters of quite subordinate value.

We can see why characters derived from the embryo should be of equal importance with those derived from the adult, for our classifications of course include all ages of each species. But it is by no means obvious, on the ordinary view, why the structure of the embryo should be more important for this purpose than that of the adult, which alone plays its full part in the economy of nature. Yet it has been strongly urged by those great naturalists, Milne Edwards and Agassiz, that embryonic characters are the most important of any in the classification of animals; and this doctrine has very generally been admitted as true. The same fact holds good with flowering plants, of which the two main divisions have been founded on characters derived from the embryo,–on the number and position of the embryonic leaves or cotyledons, and on the mode of development of the plumule and radicle. In our discussion on embryology, we shall see why such characters are so valuable, on the view of classification tacitly including the idea of descent.

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