Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
Chapter V. Laws of Variation
A part developed in any species in an extraordinary degree or manner, in comparison with the same part in allied species, tends to be highly variable
Several years ago I was much struck by a remark to the above effect made by Mr. Waterhouse. Professor Owen, also, seems to have come to a nearly similar conclusion. It is hopeless to attempt to convince any one of the truth of the above proposition without giving the long array of facts which I have collected, and which cannot possibly be here introduced. I can only state my conviction that it is a rule of high generality. I am aware of several causes of error, but I hope that I have made due allowances for them. It should be understood that the rule by no means applies to any part, however unusually developed, unless it be unusually developed in one species or in a few species in comparison with the same part in many closely allied species. Thus, the wing of the bat is a most abnormal structure in the class of mammals; but the rule would not apply here, because the whole group of bats possesses wings; it would apply only if some one species had wings developed in a remarkable manner in comparison with the other species of the same genus. The rule applies very strongly in the case of secondary sexual characters, when displayed in any unusual manner. The term, secondary sexual characters, used by Hunter, relates to characters which are attached to one sex, but are not directly connected with the act of reproduction. The rule applies to males and females; but more rarely to females, as they seldom offer remarkable secondary sexual characters. The rule being so plainly applicable in the case of secondary sexual characters, may be due to the great variability of these characters, whether or not displayed in any unusual manner--of which fact I think there can be little doubt. But that our rule is not confined to secondary sexual characters is clearly shown in the case of hermaphrodite cirripedes; I particularly attended to Mr. Waterhouse's remark, whilst investigating this order, and I am fully convinced that the rule almost always holds good. I shall, in a future work, give a list of all the more remarkable cases. I will here give only one, as it illustrates the rule in its largest application. The opercular valves of sessile cirripedes (rock barnacles) are, in every sense of the word, very important structures, and they differ extremely little even in distinct genera; but in the several species of one genus, Pyrgoma, these valves present a marvellous amount of diversification; the homologous valves in the different species being sometimes wholly unlike in shape; and the amount of variation in the individuals of the same species is so great that it is no exaggeration to state that the varieties of the same species differ more from each other in the characters derived from these important organs, than do the species belonging to other distinct genera.
As with birds the individuals of the same species, inhabiting the same country, vary extremely little, I have particularly attended to them; and the rule certainly seems to hold good in this class. I cannot make out that it applies to plants, and this would have seriously shaken my belief in its truth, had not the great variability in plants made it particularly difficult to compare their relative degrees of variability.
When we see any part or organ developed in a remarkable degree or manner in a species, the fair presumption is that it is of high importance to that species: nevertheless it is in this case eminently liable to variation. Why should this be so? On the view that each species has been independently created, with all its parts as we now see them, I can see no explanation. But on the view that groups of species are descended from some other species, and have been modified through natural selection, I think we can obtain some light. First let me make some preliminary remarks. If, in our domestic animals, any part or the whole animal be neglected, and no selection be applied, that part (for instance, the comb in the Dorking fowl) or the whole breed will cease to have a uniform character: and the breed may be said to be degenerating. In rudimentary organs, and in those which have been but little specialised for any particular purpose, and perhaps in polymorphic groups, we see a nearly parallel case; for in such cases natural selection either has not or cannot come into full play, and thus the organisation is left in a fluctuating condition. But what here more particularly concerns us is, that those points in our domestic animals, which at the present time are undergoing rapid change by continued selection, are also eminently liable to variation. Look at the individuals of the same breed of the pigeon; and see what a prodigious amount of difference there is in the beak of tumblers, in the beak and wattle of carriers, in the carriage and tail of fantails, etc., these being the points now mainly attended to by English fanciers. Even in the same sub-breed, as in that of the short-faced tumbler, it is notoriously difficult to breed nearly perfect birds, many departing widely from the standard. There may truly be said to be a constant struggle going on between, on the one hand, the tendency to reversion to a less perfect state, as well as an innate tendency to new variations, and, on the other hand, the power of steady selection to keep the breed true. In the long run selection gains the day, and we do not expect to fail so completely as to breed a bird as coarse as a common tumbler pigeon from a good short-faced strain. But as long as selection is rapidly going on, much variability in the parts undergoing modification may always be expected.
Now let us turn to nature. When a part has been developed in an extraordinary manner in any one species, compared with the other species of the same genus, we may conclude that this part has undergone an extraordinary amount of modification since the period when the several species branched off from the common progenitor of the genus. This period will seldom be remote in any extreme degree, as species rarely endure for more than one geological period. An extraordinary amount of modification implies an unusually large and long-continued amount of variability, which has continually been accumulated by natural selection for the benefit of the species. But as the variability of the extraordinarily developed part or organ has been so great and long-continued within a period not excessively remote, we might, as a general rule, still expect to find more variability in such parts than in other parts of the organisation which have remained for a much longer period nearly constant. And this, I am convinced, is the case. That the struggle between natural selection on the one hand, and the tendency to reversion and variability on the other hand, will in the course of time cease; and that the most abnormally developed organs may be made constant, I see no reason to doubt. Hence, when an organ, however abnormal it may be, has been transmitted in approximately the same condition to many modified descendants, as in the case of the wing of the bat, it must have existed, according to our theory, for an immense period in nearly the same state; and thus it has come not to be more variable than any other structure. It is only in those cases in which the modification has been comparatively recent and extraordinarily great that we ought to find the generative variability, as it may be called, still present in a high degree. For in this case the variability will seldom as yet have been fixed by the continued selection of the individuals varying in the required manner and degree, and by the continued rejection of those tending to revert to a former and less modified condition.