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If the Ornithorhynchus had been covered with feathers instead of hair, this external and trifling character would, I think, have been considered by naturalists as important an aid in determining the degree of affinity of this strange creature to birds and reptiles, as an approach in structure in any one internal and important organ.
The importance, for classification, of trifling characters, mainly depends on their being correlated with several other characters of more or less importance. The value indeed of an aggregate of characters is very evident in
species may depart from its allies in several characters, both of high physiological importance and of almost universal prevalence, and yet leave us in no doubt where it should be ranked. Hence, also, it has been found, that a classification founded on any single character, however important that may be, has always failed; for no part of the organisation is universally constant. The importance of an aggregate of characters, even when none are important, alone explains, I think, that saying of Linnaeus, that the characters do not give the genus, but the genus gives the characters; for this saying seems founded on an appreciation of many trifling points of resemblance, too slight to be defined. Certain plants, belonging to the Malpighiaceae, bear perfect and degraded flowers; in the latter, as A. de Jussieu has remarked, "the greater number of the characters proper to the species, to the genus, to the family, to the class, disappear, and thus laugh at our classification." But when Aspicarpa produced in France, during several years, only degraded flowers, departing so wonderfully in a number of the most important points of structure from the proper type of the order, yet M. Richard sagaciously saw, as Jussieu observes, that this
genus should still be retained amongst the Malpighiaceae. his case seems to me well to illustrate the spirit with which our classifications are sometimes necessarily founded.
Practically when naturalists are at work, they do not trouble themselves about the physiological value of the characters which they use in defining a group, or in allocating any particular species. If they find a character
nearly uniform, and common to a great number of forms, and not common to others, they use it as one of high value; if common to some lesser number, they use it as of subordinate value. This principle has been broadly confessed by some naturalists to be the true one; and by none more clearly than by that excellent botanist, Aug. St. Ililaire. If certain characters are always found correlated with others, though no apparent bond of connexion can be discovered between them, especial value is set on them. As in most groups of animals, important organs, such as those for propelling the blood, or for aerating it, or those for propagating the race, are found nearly uniform, they are considered as highly serviceable in classification; but in some groups of animals all these, the most important vital organs, are found to offer characters of quite subordinate value.
We can see why characters derived from the embryo should be of equal importance with those derived from the adult, for our classifications of course include all ages of each species. But it is by no means obvious, on the ordinary view, why the structure of the embryo should be more important for this purpose than that of the adult, which alone plays its full part in the economy of nature. Yet it has been strongly urged by those great naturalists, Milne Edwards and Agassiz, that embryonic characters are the most important of any in the classification of animals; and this doctrine has very generally been admitted as true. The same fact holds good with flowering plants, of which the two main divisions have been founded on characters derived from the embryo,—on the number and position of the embryonic leaves or cotyledons, and on the mode of development of the plumule and radicle. In our discussion on embryology, we shall see why such characters are so valuable, on the view of classification tacitly including the idea of descent.
Our classifications are often plainly influenced by chains of affinities. Nothing can be easier than to define a number of characters common to all birds; but in the case of crustaceans, such definition has hitherto been found impossible. There are crustaceans at the opposite ends of the series, which have hardly a character in common; yet the species at both ends, from being plainly allied to others, and these to others, and so onwards, can be recognised as unequivocally belonging to this, and to no other class of the Articulata.
Geographical distribution has often been used, though perhaps not quite logically, in classification, more especially in very large groups of closely allied forms. Teniminck insists on the utility or even necessity of this practice in certain groups of birds; and it has been followed by several entomologists and botanists.
Finally, with respect to the comparative value of the various groups of species, such as orders, sub-orders, families, sub-families and genera, they seem to be, at least at present, almost arbitrary. Several of the best botanists, such as Mr. Bentham, and others, have strongly insisted on their arbitrary value. Instances could be given amongst plants and insects, of a group of forms, first ranked by practised naturalists as only a genus, and then raised to the rank of a sub-family or family; and this has been done, not be
differences, at first overlooked, but because numerous allied species, with slightly different grades of difference, have been subsequently discovered.
All the foregoing rules and aids and difficulties in classification are explained, if I do not greatly deceive myself, on the view that the natural system is founded on descent with modification; that the characters which naturalists consider as showing true affinity between any two or more species, are those which have been inherited from a common parent, and, in so far, all true classification is genealogical; that community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking, and not some unknown plan of creation, or the enunciation of general propositions, and the mere putting together and separating objects more or less alike.
But I must explain my meaning more fully. I believe that the arrangement of the groups within each class, in due subordination and relation to the other groups, must be strictly genealogical in order to be natural; but
detected important structural that the amount of difference in the several branches or groups, though allied in the same degree in blood to their common progenitor, may differ greatly, being due to the different degrees of modification which they have undergone; and this is expressed by the forms being ranked under different genera, families, sections, or orders. The reader will best understand what is meant, if he will take the trouble of referring to the diagram in the fourth chapter. We will suppose the letters A to L to represent allied genera, which lived during the Silurian epoch, and these have descended from a species which existed at an unknown anterior period. Species of three of these genera (A, F, and I) have transmitted modified descendants to. the present day, represented by the fifteen genera (a" to z'*) on the uppermost horizontal line. Now all these modified descendants from a single species, are represented as related in blood or descent to the same degree; they may metaphorically be called cousins to the same millionth degree; yet theydiffer widely and in different degrees from each other. The forms descended from A, now broken up into two or three families, constitute a distinct order from those descended from I, also broken up into two families. Nor can the existing species, descended from A, be ranked in the same genus with the parent A; or those from I, with the parent I. But the existing genus F" may be supposed to have been but slightly modified; and it will then rank with the parentgenus F; just as some few still living organic beings belong to Silurian genera. So that the amount or value of the differences between organic beings all related to each other in the same degree in blood, has come to be widely different. Nevertheless their genealogical 'arrangemerit remains strictly true, not only at the present time, but at each successive period of descent. All the modified descendants from A will have inherited something in common from their common parent, as will all the descendants from I; so will it be with each subordinate branch of descendants, at each successive period. If, however, we choose to suppose that any of the descendants of A »r of I have been so much modified as to have more or less completely lost traces of their parentage, in this case, their places in a natural classification will have been more or less completely lost,—as sometimes seems to have occurred with existing organisms. All the descendants of the genus F, along its whole line of descent, are supposed to have been but little modified, and they yet form a single genus. But this genus, though much isolated, will stiff occupy its proper intermediate position; for F originally was intermediate in character between A and I, and the several genera descended from these two genera will have inherited to a certain extent their characters. This natural arrangement is shown, as far as is possible on paper, in the diagram, but in much too simple a manner. If a branching diagram had not been used, and only the names of the groups had been written in a linear series, it would have been still less possible to have given a natural arrangement; and it is notoriously not possible to represent in a series, on a flat surface, the affinities which we discover in nature amongst the beings of the same group. Thus, on the view which I hold, the natural system is genealogical in its arrangement, like a pedigree; but the degrees of modification which the different groups have undergone, have to be expressed by ranking them under different so-called genera, sub-families, families, sections, orders, and classes.
It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some very ancient language had altered little, and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the