Chapter V. Laws of Variation

Habit is hereditary with plants, as in the period of flowering, in the time of sleep, in the amount of rain requisite for seeds to germinate, etc., and this leads me to say a few words on acclimatisation. As it is extremely common for distinct species belonging to the same genus to inhabit hot and cold countries, if it be true that all the species of the same genus are descended from a single parent-form, acclimatisation must be readily effected during a long course of descent. It is notorious that each species is adapted to the climate of its own home: species from an arctic or even from a temperate region cannot endure a tropical climate, or conversely. So again, many succulent plants cannot endure a damp climate. But the degree of adaptation of species to the climates under which they live is often overrated. We may infer this from our frequent inability to predict whether or not an imported plant will endure our climate, and from the number of plants and animals brought from different countries which are here perfectly healthy. We have reason to believe that species in a state of nature are closely limited in their ranges by the competition of other organic beings quite as much as, or more than, by adaptation to particular climates. But whether or not this adaptation is in most cases very close, we have evidence with some few plants, of their becoming, to a certain extent, naturally habituated to different temperatures; that is, they become acclimatised: thus the pines and rhododendrons, raised from seed collected by Dr. Hooker from the same species growing at different heights on the Himalayas, were found to possess in this country different constitutional powers of resisting cold. Mr. Thwaites informs me that he has observed similar facts in Ceylon; analogous observations have been made by Mr. H.C. Watson on European species of plants brought from the Azores to England; and I could give other cases. In regard to animals, several authentic instances could be adduced of species having largely extended, within historical times, their range from warmer to colder latitudes, and conversely; but we do not positively know that these animals were strictly adapted to their native climate, though in all ordinary cases we assume such to be the case; nor do we know that they have subsequently become specially acclimatised to their new homes, so as to be better fitted for them than they were at first.

As we may infer that our domestic animals were originally chosen by uncivilised man because they were useful, and because they bred readily under confinement, and not because they were subsequently found capable of far-extended transportation, the common and extraordinary capacity in our domestic animals of not only withstanding the most different climates, but of being perfectly fertile (a far severer test) under them, may be used as an argument that a large proportion of other animals now in a state of nature could easily be brought to bear widely different climates. We must not, however, push the foregoing argument too far, on account of the probable origin of some of our domestic animals from several wild stocks: the blood, for instance, of a tropical and arctic wolf may perhaps be mingled in our domestic breeds. The rat and mouse cannot be considered as domestic animals, but they have been transported by man to many parts of the world, and now have a far wider range than any other rodent; for they live under the cold climate of Faroe in the north and of the Falklands in the south, and on many an island in the torrid zones. Hence adaptation to any special climate may be looked at as a quality readily grafted on an innate wide flexibility of constitution, common to most animals. On this view, the capacity of enduring the most different climates by man himself and by his domestic animals, and the fact of the extinct elephant and rhinoceros having formerly endured a glacial climate, whereas the living species are now all tropical or sub-tropical in their habits, ought not to be looked at as anomalies, but as examples of a very common flexibility of constitution, brought, under peculiar circumstances, into action.

How much of the acclimatisation of species to any peculiar climate is due to mere habit, and how much to the natural selection of varieties having different innate constitutions, and how much to both means combined, is an obscure question. That habit or custom has some influence, I must believe, both from analogy and from the incessant advice given in agricultural works, even in the ancient Encyclopaedias of China, to be very cautious in transporting animals from one district to another. And as it is not likely that man should have succeeded in selecting so many breeds and sub-breeds with constitutions specially fitted for their own districts, the result must, I think, be due to habit. On the other hand, natural selection would inevitably tend to preserve those individuals which were born with constitutions best adapted to any country which they inhabited. In treatises on many kinds of cultivated plants, certain varieties are said to withstand certain climates better than others; this is strikingly shown in works on fruit-trees published in the United States, in which certain varieties are habitually recommended for the northern and others for the southern states; and as most of these varieties are of recent origin, they cannot owe their constitutional differences to habit. The case of the Jerusalem artichoke, which is never propagated in England by seed, and of which, consequently, new varieties have not been produced, has even been advanced, as proving that acclimatisation cannot be effected, for it is now as tender as ever it was! The case, also, of the kidney-bean has been often cited for a similar purpose, and with much greater weight; but until some one will sow, during a score of generations, his kidney-beans so early that a very large proportion are destroyed by frost, and then collect seed from the few survivors, with care to prevent accidental crosses, and then again get seed from these seedlings, with the same precautions, the experiment cannot be said to have been even tried. Nor let it be supposed that differences in the constitution of seedling kidney-beans never appear, for an account has been published how much more hardy some seedlings are than others; and of this fact I have myself observed striking instances.

On the whole, we may conclude that habit, or use and disuse, have, in some cases, played a considerable part in the modification of the constitution and structure; but that the effects have often been largely combined with, and sometimes overmastered by, the natural selection of innate variations.