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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Charles Darwin on "Gradualism"

From the end of Chapter 7 of The Origin of Species


Mr. Mivart is further inclined to believe, and some naturalists agree with him, that new species manifest themselves "with suddenness and by modifications appearing at once." For instance, he supposes that the differences between the extinct three-toed Hipparion and the horse arose suddenly. He thinks it difficult to believe that the wing of a bird "was developed in any other way than by a comparatively sudden modification of a marked and important kind;" and apparently he would extend the same view to the wings of bats and pterodactyles. This conclusion, which implies great breaks or discontinuity in the series, appears to me improbable in the highest degree.

Everyone who believes in slow and gradual evolution, will of course admit that specific changes may have been as abrupt and as great as any single variation which we meet with under nature, or even under domestication. But as species are more variable when domesticated or cultivated than under their natural conditions, it is not probable that such great and abrupt variations have often occurred under nature, as are known occasionally to arise under domestication. Of these latter variations several may be attributed to reversion; and the characters which thus reappear were, it is probable, in many cases at first gained in a gradual manner. A still greater number must be called monstrosities, such as six-fingered men, porcupine men, Ancon sheep, Niata cattle, etc.; and as they are widely different in character from natural species, they throw very little light on our subject. Excluding such cases of abrupt variations, the few which remain would at best constitute, if found in a state of nature, doubtful species, closely related to their parental types.

My reasons for doubting whether natural species have changed as abruptly as have occasionally domestic races, and for entirely disbelieving that they have changed in the wonderful manner indicated by Mr. Mivart, are as follows. According to our experience, abrupt and strongly marked variations occur in our domesticated productions, singly and at rather long intervals of time. If such occurred under nature, they would be liable, as formerly explained, to be lost by accidental causes of destruction and by subsequent intercrossing; and so it is known to be under domestication, unless abrupt variations of this kind are specially preserved and separated by the care of man. Hence, in order that a new species should suddenly appear in the manner supposed by Mr. Mivart, it is almost necessary to believe, in opposition to all analogy, that several wonderfully changed individuals appeared simultaneously within the same district. This difficulty, as in the case of unconscious selection by man, is avoided on the theory of gradual evolution, through the preservation of a large number of individuals, which varied more or less in any favourable direction, and of the destruction of a large number which varied in an opposite manner.

That many species have been evolved in an extremely gradual manner, there can hardly be a doubt. The species and even the genera of many large natural families are so closely allied together that it is difficult to distinguish not a few of them. On every continent, in proceeding from north to south, from lowland to upland, etc., we meet with a host of closely related or representative species; as we likewise do on certain distinct continents, which we have reason to believe were formerly connected. But in making these and the following remarks, I am compelled to allude to subjects hereafter to be discussed. Look at the many outlying islands round a continent, and see how many of their inhabitants can be raised only to the rank of doubtful species. So it is if we look to past times, and compare the species which have just passed away with those still living within the same areas; or if we compare the fossil species embedded in the sub-stages of the same geological formation. It is indeed manifest that multitudes of species are related in the closest manner to other species that still exist, or have lately existed; and it will hardly be maintained that such species have been developed in an abrupt or sudden manner. Nor should it be forgotten, when we look to the special parts of allied species, instead of to distinct species, that numerous and wonderfully fine gradations can be traced, connecting together widely different structures.

Many large groups of facts are intelligible only on the principle that species have been evolved by very small steps. For instance, the fact that the species included in the larger genera are more closely related to each other, and present a greater number of varieties than do the species in the smaller genera. The former are also grouped in little clusters, like varieties round species; and they present other analogies with varieties, as was shown in our second chapter. On this same principle we can understand how it is that specific characters are more variable than generic characters; and how the parts which are developed in an extraordinary degree or manner are more variable than other parts of the same species. Many analogous facts, all pointing in the same direction, could be added.

Although very many species have almost certainly been produced by steps not greater than those separating fine varieties; yet it may be maintained that some have been developed in a different and abrupt manner. Such an admission, however, ought not to be made without strong evidence being assigned. The vague and in some respects false analogies, as they have been shown to be by Mr. Chauncey Wright, which have been advanced in favour of this view, such as the sudden crystallisation of inorganic substances, or the falling of a facetted spheroid from one facet to another, hardly deserve consideration. One class of facts, however, namely, the sudden appearance of new and distinct forms of life in our geological formations supports at first sight the belief in abrupt development. But the value of this evidence depends entirely on the perfection of the geological record, in relation to periods remote in the history of the world. If the record is as fragmentary as many geologists strenuously assert, there is nothing strange in new forms appearing as if suddenly developed.

Unless we admit transformations as prodigious as those advocated by Mr. Mivart, such as the sudden development of the wings of birds or bats, or the sudden conversion of a Hipparion into a horse, hardly any light is thrown by the belief in abrupt modifications on the deficiency of connecting links in our geological formations. But against the belief in such abrupt changes, embryology enters a strong protest. It is notorious that the wings of birds and bats, and the legs of horses or other quadrupeds, are undistinguishable at an early embryonic period, and that they become differentiated by insensibly fine steps. Embryological resemblances of all kinds can be accounted for, as we shall hereafter see, by the progenitors of our existing species having varied after early youth, and having transmitted their newly-acquired characters to their offspring, at a corresponding age. The embryo is thus left almost unaffected, and serves as a record of the past condition of the species. Hence it is that existing species during the early stages of their development so often resemble ancient and extinct forms belonging to the same class. On this view of the meaning of embryological resemblances, and indeed on any view, it is incredible that an animal should have undergone such momentous and abrupt transformations as those above indicated, and yet should not bear even a trace in its embryonic condition of any sudden modification, every detail in its structure being developed by insensibly fine steps.

He who believes that some ancient form was transformed suddenly through an internal force or tendency into, for instance, one furnished with wings, will be almost compelled to assume, in opposition to all analogy, that many individuals varied simultaneously. It cannot be denied that such abrupt and great changes of structure are widely different from those which most species apparently have undergone. He will further be compelled to believe that many structures beautifully adapted to all the other parts of the same creature and to the surrounding conditions, have been suddenly produced; and of such complex and wonderful co-adaptations, he will not be able to assign a shadow of an explanation. He will be forced to admit that these great and sudden transformations have left no trace of their action on the embryo. To admit all this is, as it seems to me, to enter into the realms of miracle, and to leave those of science.

Darwin, C. (1872) The Origin of Species. Sixth Edition. The Modern Library, New York.


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