The Origin of Species – Day 12 of 119

Hence, in determining whether a form should be ranked as a species or a variety, the opinion of naturalists having sound judgment and wide experience seems the only guide to follow. We must, however, in many cases, decide by a majority of naturalists, for few well-marked and well-known varieties can be named which have not been ranked as species by at least some competent judges.

That varieties of this doubtful nature are far from uncommon cannot be disputed. Compare the several floras of Great Britain, of France or of the United States, drawn up by different botanists, and see what a surprising number of forms have been ranked by one botanist as good species, and by another as mere varieties. Mr. H. C. Watson, to whom I lie under deep obligation for assistance of all kinds, has marked for me 182 British plants, which are generally considered as varieties, but which have all been ranked by botanists as species; and in making this list he has omitted many trifling varieties, but which nevertheless have been ranked by some botanists as species, and he has entirely omitted several highly polymorphic genera. Under genera, including the most polymorphic forms, Mr. Babington gives 251 species, whereas Mr. Bentham gives only 112,–a difference of 139 doubtful forms! Amongst animals which unite for each birth, and which are highly locomotive, doubtful forms, ranked by one zoologist as a species and by another as a variety, can rarely be found within the same country, but are common in separated areas. How many of those birds and insects in North America and Europe, which differ very slightly from each other, have been ranked by one eminent naturalist as undoubted species, and by another as varieties, or, as they are often called, as geographical races! Many years ago, when comparing, and seeing others compare, the birds from the separate islands of the Galapagos Archipelago, both one with another, and with those from the American mainland, I was much struck how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties. On the islets of the little Madeira group there are many insects which are characterized as varieties in Mr. Wollaston’s admirable work, but which it cannot be doubted would be ranked as distinct species by many entomologists. Even Ireland has a few animals, now generally regarded as varieties, but which have been ranked as species by some zoologists. Several most experienced ornithologists consider our British red grouse as only a strongly-marked race of a Norwegian species, whereas the greater number rank it as an undoubted species peculiar to Great Britain. A wide distance between the homes of two doubtful forms leads many naturalists to rank both as distinct species; but what distance, it has been well asked, will suffice? if that between America and Europe is ample, will that between the Continent and the Azores, or Madeira, or the Canaries, or Ireland, be sufficient? It must be admitted that many forms, considered by highly-competent judges as varieties, have so perfectly the character of species that they are ranked by other highly-competent judges as good and true species. But to discuss whether they are rightly called species or varieties, before any definition of these terms has been generally accepted, is vainly to beat the air.

Many of the cases of strongly-marked varieties or doubtful species well deserve consideration; for several interesting lines of argument, from geographical distribution, analogical variation, hybridism, etc., have been brought to bear on the attempt to determine their rank. I will here give only a single instance,–the well-known one of the primrose and cowslip, or Primula veris and elatior. These plants differ considerably in appearance; they have a different flavour and emit a different odour; they flower at slightly different periods; they grow in somewhat different stations; they ascend mountains to different heights; they have different geographical ranges; and lastly, according to very numerous experiments made during several years by that most careful observer Gartner, they can be crossed only with much difficulty. We could hardly wish for better evidence of the two forms being specifically distinct. On the other hand, they are united by many intermediate links, and it is very doubtful whether these links are hybrids; and there is, as it seems to me, an overwhelming amount of experimental evidence, showing that they descend from common parents, and consequently must be ranked as varieties.

Close investigation, in most cases, will bring naturalists to an agreement how to rank doubtful forms. Yet it must be confessed, that it is in the best-known countries that we find the greatest number of forms of doubtful value. I have been struck with the fact, that if any animal or plant in a state of nature be highly useful to man, or from any cause closely attract his attention, varieties of it will almost universally be found recorded. These varieties, moreover, will be often ranked by some authors as species. Look at the common oak, how closely it has been studied; yet a German author makes more than a dozen species out of forms, which are very generally considered as varieties; and in this country the highest botanical authorities and practical men can be quoted to show that the sessile and pedunculated oaks are either good and distinct species or mere varieties.

When a young naturalist commences the study of a group of organisms quite unknown to him, he is at first much perplexed to determine what differences to consider as specific, and what as varieties; for he knows nothing of the amount and kind of variation to which the group is subject; and this shows, at least, how very generally there is some variation. But if he confine his attention to one class within one country, he will soon make up his mind how to rank most of the doubtful forms. His general tendency will be to make many species, for he will become impressed, just like the pigeon or poultry-fancier before alluded to, with the amount of difference in the forms which he is continually studying; and he has little general knowledge of analogical variation in other groups and in other countries, by which to correct his first impressions. As he extends the range of his observations, he will meet with more cases of difficulty; for he will encounter a greater number of closely-allied forms. But if his observations be widely extended, he will in the end generally be enabled to make up his own mind which to call varieties and which species; but he will succeed in this at the expense of admitting much variation,–and the truth of this admission will often be disputed by other naturalists. When, moreover, he comes to study allied forms brought from countries not now continuous, in which case he can hardly hope to find the intermediate links between his doubtful forms, he will have to trust almost entirely to analogy, and his difficulties will rise to a climax.

Certainly no clear line of demarcation has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species–that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between sub-species and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.

Hence I look at individual differences, though of small interest to the systematist, as of high importance for us, as being the first step towards such slight varieties as are barely thought worth recording in works on natural history. And I look at varieties which are in any degree more distinct and permanent, as steps leading to more strongly marked and more permanent varieties; and at these latter, as leading to sub-species, and to species. The passage from one stage of difference to another and higher stage may be, in some cases, due merely to the long-continued action of different physical conditions in two different regions; but I have not much faith in this view; and I attribute the passage of a variety, from a state in which it differs very slightly from its parent to one in which it differs more, to the action of natural selection in accumulating (as will hereafter be more fully explained) differences of structure in certain definite directions. Hence I believe a well-marked variety may be justly called an incipient species; but whether this belief be justifiable must be judged of by the general weight of the several facts and views given throughout this work.

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