Darwin and Modern Science: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Charles Darwin and of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of the Origin of Species

By A. C. Seward | Go to book overview

IV
VARIATION

BY HUGO DE VRIES
Professor of Botany in the University of Amsterdam.


I.
Different kinds of variability.

BEFORE Darwin, little was known concerning the phenomena of variability. The fact, that hardly two leaves on a tree were exactly the same, could not escape observation: small deviations of the same kind were met with everywhere, among individuals as well as among the organs of the same plant. Larger aberrations, spoken of as monstrosities, were for a long time regarded as lying outside the range of ordinary phenomena. A special branch of inquiry, that of Teratology, was devoted to them, but it constituted a science by itself, sometimes connected with morphology, but having scarcely any bearing on the processes of evolution and heredity.

Darwin was the first to take a broad survey of the whole range of variations in the animal and vegetable kingdoms. His theory of Natural Selection is based on the fact of variability. In order that this foundation should be as strong as possible he collected all the facts, scattered in the literature of his time, and tried to arrange them in a scientific way. He succeeded in showing that variations may be grouped along a line of almost continuous gradations, beginning with simple differences in size and ending with monstrosities. He was struck by the fact that, as a rule, the smaller the deviations, the more frequently they appear, very abrupt breaks in characters being of rare occurrence.

Among these numerous degrees of variability Darwin was always on the look out for those which might, with the greatest probability, be considered as affording material for natural selection to act upon in the development of new species. Neither of the extremes complied with his conceptions. He often pointed out, that there are a good many small fluctuations, which in this respect must be absolutely

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