The Origin of Species – Day 105 of 119

Naturalists frequently speak of the skull as formed of metamorphosed vertebrae: the jaws of crabs as metamorphosed legs; the stamens and pistils of flowers as metamorphosed leaves; but it would in these cases probably be more correct, as Professor Huxley has remarked, to speak of both skull and vertebrae, both jaws and legs, etc.,–as having been metamorphosed, not one from the other, but from some common element. Naturalists, however, use such language only in a metaphorical sense: they are far from meaning that during a long course of descent, primordial organs of any kind–vertebrae in the one case and legs in the other–have actually been modified into skulls or jaws. Yet so strong is the appearance of a modification of this nature having occurred, that naturalists can hardly avoid employing language having this plain signification. On my view these terms may be used literally; and the wonderful fact of the jaws, for instance, of a crab retaining numerous characters, which they would probably have retained through inheritance, if they had really been metamorphosed during a long course of descent from true legs, or from some simple appendage, is explained.


It has already been casually remarked that certain organs in the individual, which when mature become widely different and serve for different purposes, are in the embryo exactly alike. The embryos, also, of distinct animals within the same class are often strikingly similar: a better proof of this cannot be given, than a circumstance mentioned by Agassiz, namely, that having forgotten to ticket the embryo of some vertebrate animal, he cannot now tell whether it be that of a mammal, bird, or reptile. The vermiform larvae of moths, flies, beetles, etc., resemble each other much more closely than do the mature insects; but in the case of larvae, the embryos are active, and have been adapted for special lines of life. A trace of the law of embryonic resemblance, sometimes lasts till a rather late age: thus birds of the same genus, and of closely allied genera, often resemble each other in their first and second plumage; as we see in the spotted feathers in the thrush group. In the cat tribe, most of the species are striped or spotted in lines; and stripes can be plainly distinguished in the whelp of the lion. We occasionally though rarely see something of this kind in plants: thus the embryonic leaves of the ulex or furze, and the first leaves of the phyllodineous acaceas, are pinnate or divided like the ordinary leaves of the leguminosae.

The points of structure, in which the embryos of widely different animals of the same class resemble each other, often have no direct relation to their conditions of existence. We cannot, for instance, suppose that in the embryos of the vertebrata the peculiar loop-like course of the arteries near the branchial slits are related to similar conditions,–in the young mammal which is nourished in the womb of its mother, in the egg of the bird which is hatched in a nest, and in the spawn of a frog under water. We have no more reason to believe in such a relation, than we have to believe that the same bones in the hand of a man, wing of a bat, and fin of a porpoise, are related to similar conditions of life. No one will suppose that the stripes on the whelp of a lion, or the spots on the young blackbird, are of any use to these animals, or are related to the conditions to which they are exposed.

The case, however, is different when an animal during any part of its embryonic career is active, and has to provide for itself. The period of activity may come on earlier or later in life; but whenever it comes on, the adaptation of the larva to its conditions of life is just as perfect and as beautiful as in the adult animal. From such special adaptations, the similarity of the larvae or active embryos of allied animals is sometimes much obscured; and cases could be given of the larvae of two species, or of two groups of species, differing quite as much, or even more, from each other than do their adult parents. In most cases, however, the larvae, though active, still obey more or less closely the law of common embryonic resemblance. Cirripedes afford a good instance of this: even the illustrious Cuvier did not perceive that a barnacle was, as it certainly is, a crustacean; but a glance at the larva shows this to be the case in an unmistakeable manner. So again the two main divisions of cirripedes, the pedunculated and sessile, which differ widely in external appearance, have larvae in all their several stages barely distinguishable.

The embryo in the course of development generally rises in organisation: I use this expression, though I am aware that it is hardly possible to define clearly what is meant by the organisation being higher or lower. But no one probably will dispute that the butterfly is higher than the caterpillar. In some cases, however, the mature animal is generally considered as lower in the scale than the larva, as with certain parasitic crustaceans. To refer once again to cirripedes: the larvae in the first stage have three pairs of legs, a very simple single eye, and a probosciformed mouth, with which they feed largely, for they increase much in size. In the second stage, answering to the chrysalis stage of butterflies, they have six pairs of beautifully constructed natatory legs, a pair of magnificent compound eyes, and extremely complex antennae; but they have a closed and imperfect mouth, and cannot feed: their function at this stage is, to search by their well-developed organs of sense, and to reach by their active powers of swimming, a proper place on which to become attached and to undergo their final metamorphosis. When this is completed they are fixed for life: their legs are now converted into prehensile organs; they again obtain a well-constructed mouth; but they have no antennae, and their two eyes are now reconverted into a minute, single, and very simple eye-spot. In this last and complete state, cirripedes may be considered as either more highly or more lowly organised than they were in the larval condition. But in some genera the larvae become developed either into hermaphrodites having the ordinary structure, or into what I have called complemental males: and in the latter, the development has assuredly been retrograde; for the male is a mere sack, which lives for a short time, and is destitute of mouth, stomach, or other organ of importance, excepting for reproduction.

We are so much accustomed to see differences in structure between the embryo and the adult, and likewise a close similarity in the embryos of widely different animals within the same class, that we might be led to look at these facts as necessarily contingent in some manner on growth. But there is no obvious reason why, for instance, the wing of a bat, or the fin of a porpoise, should not have been sketched out with all the parts in proper proportion, as soon as any structure became visible in the embryo. And in some whole groups of animals and in certain members of other groups, the embryo does not at any period differ widely from the adult: thus Owen has remarked in regard to cuttle-fish, “there is no metamorphosis; the cephalopodic character is manifested long before the parts of the embryo are completed;” and again in spiders, “there is nothing worthy to be called a metamorphosis.” The larvae of insects, whether adapted to the most diverse and active habits, or quite inactive, being fed by their parents or placed in the midst of proper nutriment, yet nearly all pass through a similar worm-like stage of development; but in some few cases, as in that of Aphis, if we look to the admirable drawings by Professor Huxley of the development of this insect, we see no trace of the vermiform stage.

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