Project Gutenberg's Darwin and Modern Science, by A. C. Seward and Others


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The publication of "The Origin of Species" placed the study of Botanical Geography on an entirely new basis. It is only necessary to study the monumental "Geographie Botanique raisonnee" of Alphonse De Candolle, published four years earlier (1855), to realise how profound and far-reaching was the change. After a masterly and exhaustive discussion of all available data De Candolle in his final conclusions could only arrive at a deadlock. It is sufficient to quote a few sentences:—

"L'opinion de Lamarck est aujourd'hui abandonee par tous les naturalistes qui ont etudie sagement les modifications possibles des etres organises...

"Et si l'on s'ecarte des exagerations de Lamarck, si l'on suppose un premier type de chaque genre, de chaque famille tout au moins, on se trouve encore a l'egard de l'origine de ces types en presence de la grande question de la creation.

"Le seul parti a prendre est donc d'envisager les etres organises comme existant depuis certaines epoques, avec leurs qualites particulieres." (Vol. II. page 1107.)

Reviewing the position fourteen years afterwards, Bentham remarked:—"These views, generally received by the great majority of naturalists at the time De Candolle wrote, and still maintained by a few, must, if adhered to, check all further enquiry into any connection of facts with causes," and he added, "there is little doubt but that if De Candolle were to revise his work, he would follow the example of so many other eminent naturalists, and... insist that the present geographical distribution of plants was in most instances a derivative one, altered from a very different former distribution." ("Pres. Addr." (1869) "Proc. Linn. Soc." 1868-69, page lxviii.)

Writing to Asa Gray in 1856, Darwin gave a brief preliminary account of his ideas as to the origin of species, and said that geographical distribution must be one of the tests of their validity. ("Life and Letters", II. page 78.) What is of supreme interest is that it was also their starting-point. He tells us:—"When I visited, during the voyage of H.M.S. "Beagle", the Galapagos Archipelago,... I fancied myself brought near to the very act of creation. I often asked myself how these many peculiar animals and plants had been produced: the simplest answer seemed to be that the inhabitants of the several islands had descended from each other, undergoing modification in the course of their descent." ("The Variation of Animals and Plants" (2nd edition), 1890, I. pages 9, 10.) We need not be surprised then, that in writing in 1845 to Sir Joseph Hooker, he speaks of "that grand subject, that almost keystone of the laws of creation, Geographical Distribution." ("Life and Letters", I. page 336.)

Yet De Candolle was, as Bentham saw, unconsciously feeling his way, like Lyell, towards evolution, without being able to grasp it. They both strove to explain phenomena by means of agencies which they saw actually at work. If De Candolle gave up the ultimate problem as insoluble:—"La creation ou premiere formation des etres organises echappe, par sa nature et par son anciennete, a nos moyens d'observation" (Loc. cit. page 1106.), he steadily endeavoured to minimise its scope. At least half of his great work is devoted to the researches by which he extricated himself from a belief in species having had a multiple origin, the view which had been held by successive naturalists from Gmelin to Agassiz. To account for the obvious fact that species constantly occupy dissevered areas, De Candolle made a minute study of their means of transport. This was found to dispose of the vast majority of cases, and the remainder he accounted for by geographical change. (Loc. cit. page 1116.)

But Darwin strenuously objected to invoking geographical change as a solution of every difficulty. He had apparently long satisfied himself as to the "permanence of continents and great oceans." Dana, he tells us "was, I believe, the first man who maintained" this ("Life and Letters", III. page 247. Dana says:—"The continents and oceans had their general outline or form defined in earliest time," "Manual of Geology", revised edition. Philadelphia, 1869, page 732. I have no access to an earlier edition.), but he had himself probably arrived at it independently. Modern physical research tends to confirm it. The earth's centre of gravity, as pointed out by Pratt from the existence of the Pacific Ocean, does not coincide with its centre of figure, and it has been conjectured that the Pacific Ocean dates its origin from the separation of the moon from the earth.

The conjecture appears to be unnecessary. Love shows that "the force that keeps the Pacific Ocean on one side of the earth is gravity, directed more towards the centre of gravity than the centre of the figure." ("Report of the 77th Meeting of the British Association" (Leicester, 1907), London, 1908, page 431.) I can only summarise the conclusions of a technical but masterly discussion. "The broad general features of the distribution of continent and ocean can be regarded as the consequences of simple causes of a dynamical character," and finally, "As regards the contour of the great ocean basins, we seem to be justified in saying that the earth is approximately an oblate spheroid, but more nearly an ellipsoid with three unequal axes, having its surface furrowed according to the formula for a certain spherical harmonic of the third degree" (Ibid. page 436.), and he shows that this furrowed surface must be produced "if the density is greater in one hemispheroid than in the other, so that the position of the centre of gravity is eccentric." (Ibid. page 431.) Such a modelling of the earth's surface can only be referred to a primitive period of plasticity. If the furrows account for the great ocean basins, the disposition of the continents seems equally to follow. Sir George Darwin has pointed out that they necessarily "arise from a supposed primitive viscosity or plasticity of the earth's mass. For during this course of evolution the earth's mass must have suffered a screwing motion, so that the polar regions have travelled a little from west to east relatively to the equator. This affords a possible explanation of the north and south trend of our great continents." ("Encycl. Brit." (9th edition), Vol. XXIII. "Tides", page 379.)

It would be trespassing on the province of the geologist to pursue the subject at any length. But as Wallace ("Island Life" (2nd edition), 1895, page 103.), who has admirably vindicated Darwin's position, points out, the "question of the permanence of our continents... lies at the root of all our inquiries into the great changes of the earth and its inhabitants." But he proceeds: "The very same evidence which has been adduced to prove the GENERAL stability and permanence of our continental areas also goes to prove that they have been subjected to wonderful and repeated changes in DETAIL." (Loc. cit. page 101.) Darwin of course would have admitted this, for with a happy expression he insisted to Lyell (1856) that "the skeletons, at least, of our continents are ancient." ("More Letters", II. page 135.) It is impossible not to admire the courage and tenacity with which he carried on the conflict single-handed. But he failed to convince Lyell. For we still find him maintaining in the last edition of the "Principles": "Continents therefore, although permanent for whole geological epochs, shift their positions entirely in the course of ages." (Lyell's "Principles of Geology" (11th edition), London, 1872, I. page 258.)

Evidence, however, steadily accumulates in Darwin's support. His position still remains inexpugnable that it is not permissible to invoke geographical change to explain difficulties in distribution without valid geological and physical support. Writing to Mellard Reade, who in 1878 had said, "While believing that the ocean-depths are of enormous age, it is impossible to reject other evidences that they have once been land," he pointed out "the statement from the 'Challenger' that all sediment is deposited within one or two hundred miles from the shores." ("More Letters", II. page 146.) The following year Sir Archibald Geikie ("Geographical Evolution", "Proc. R. Geogr. Soc." 1879, page 427.) informed the Royal Geographical Society that "No part of the results obtained by the 'Challenger' expedition has a profounder interest for geologists and geographers than the proof which they furnish that the floor of the ocean basins has no real analogy among the sedimentary formations which form most of the framework of the land."

Nor has Darwin's earlier argument ever been upset. "The fact which I pointed out many years ago, that all oceanic islands are volcanic (except St Paul's, and now that is viewed by some as the nucleus of an ancient volcano), seem to me a strong argument that no continent ever occupied the great oceans." ("More Letters", II. page 146.)

Dr Guppy, who devoted several years to geological and botanical investigations in the Pacific, found himself forced to similar conclusions. "It may be at once observed," he says, "that my belief in the general principle that islands have always been islands has not been shaken," and he entirely rejects "the hypothesis of a Pacific continent." He comes back, in full view of the problems on the spot, to the position from which, as has been seen, Darwin started: "If the distribution of a particular group of plants or animals does not seem to accord with the present arrangement of the land, it is by far the safest plan, even after exhausting all likely modes of explanation, not to invoke the intervention of geographical changes; and I scarcely think that our knowledge of any one group of organisms is ever sufficiently precise to justify a recourse to hypothetical alterations in the present relations of land and sea." ("Observations of a Naturalist in the Pacific between 1896 and 1899", London, 1903, I. page 380.) Wallace clinches the matter when he finds "almost the whole of the vast areas of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans, without a solitary relic of the great islands or continents supposed to have sunk beneath their waves." ("Island Life", page 105.)

Writing to Wallace (1876), Darwin warmly approves the former's "protest against sinking imaginary continents in a quite reckless manner, as was stated by Forbes, followed, alas, by Hooker, and caricatured by Wollaston and (Andrew) Murray." ("Life and Letters", III. page 230.) The transport question thus became of enormously enhanced importance. We need not be surprised then at his writing to Lyell in 1856:—"I cannot avoid thinking that Forbes's 'Atlantis' was an ill-service to science, as checking a close study of means of dissemination" (Ibid. II. page 78.), and Darwin spared no pains to extend our knowledge of them. He implores Hooker, ten years later, to "admit how little is known on the subject," and summarises with some satisfaction what he had himself achieved:—"Remember how recently you and others thought that salt water would soon kill seeds... Remember that no one knew that seeds would remain for many hours in the crops of birds and retain their vitality; that fish eat seeds, and that when the fish are devoured by birds the seeds can germinate, etc. Remember that every year many birds are blown to Madeira and to the Bermudas. Remember that dust is blown 1000 miles across the Atlantic." ("More Letters", I. page 483.)

It has always been the fashion to minimise Darwin's conclusions, and these have not escaped objection. The advocatus diaboli has a useful function in science. But in attacking Darwin his brief is generally found to be founded on a slender basis of facts. Thus Winge and Knud Andersen have examined many thousands of migratory birds and found "that their crops and stomachs were always empty. They never observed any seeds adhering to the feathers, beaks or feet of the birds." (R.F. Scharff, "European Animals", page 64, London, 1907.) The most considerable investigation of the problem of Plant Dispersal since Darwin is that of Guppy. He gives a striking illustration of how easily an observer may be led into error by relying on negative evidence.

"When Ekstam published, in 1895, the results of his observations on the plants of Nova Zembla, he observed that he possessed no data to show whether swimming and wading birds fed on berries; and he attached all importance to dispersal by winds. On subsequently visiting Spitzbergen he must have been at first inclined, therefore, to the opinion of Nathorst, who, having found only a solitary species of bird (a snow-sparrow) in that region, naturally concluded that birds had been of no importance as agents in the plant-stocking. However, Ekstam's opportunities were greater, and he tells us that in the craws of six specimens of Lagopus hyperboreus shot in Spitzbergen in August he found represented almost 25 per cent. of the usual phanerogamic flora of that region in the form of fruits, seeds, bulbils, flower-buds, leaf-buds, etc... "

"The result of Ekstam's observations in Spitzbergen was to lead him to attach a very considerable importance in plant dispersal to the agency of birds; and when in explanation of the Scandinavian elements in the Spitzbergen flora he had to choose between a former land connection and the agency of birds, he preferred the bird." (Guppy, op. cit. II. pages 511, 512.)

Darwin objected to "continental extensions" on geological grounds, but he also objected to Lyell that they do not "account for all the phenomena of distribution on islands" ("Life and Letters", II. page 77.), such for example as the absence of Acacias and Banksias in New Zealand. He agreed with De Candolle that "it is poor work putting together the merely POSSIBLE means of distribution." But he also agreed with him that they were the only practicable door of escape from multiple origins. If they would not work then "every one who believes in single centres will have to admit continental extensions" (Ibid. II. page 82.), and that he regarded as a mere counsel of despair:—"to make continents, as easily as a cook does pancakes." (Ibid. II. page 74.)

The question of multiple origins however presented itself in another shape where the solution was much more difficult. The problem, as stated by Darwin, is this:—"The identity of many plants and animals, on mountain-summits, separated from each other by hundreds of miles of lowlands... without the apparent possibility of their having migrated from one point to the other." He continues, "even as long ago as 1747, such facts led Gmelin to conclude that the same species must have been independently created at several distinct points; and we might have remained in this same belief, had not Agassiz and others called vivid attention to the Glacial period, which affords... a simple explanation of the facts." ("Origin of Species" (6th edition) page 330.)

The "simple explanation" was substantially given by E. Forbes in 1846. It is scarcely too much to say that it belongs to the same class of fertile and far-reaching ideas as "natural selection" itself. It is an extraordinary instance, if one were wanted at all, of Darwin's magnanimity and intense modesty that though he had arrived at the theory himself, he acquiesced in Forbes receiving the well-merited credit. "I have never," he says, "of course alluded in print to my having independently worked out this view." But he would have been more than human if he had not added:—"I was forestalled in... one important point, which my vanity has always made me regret." ("Life and Letters", I. page 88.)

Darwin, however, by applying the theory to trans-tropical migration, went far beyond Forbes. The first enunciation to this is apparently contained in a letter to Asa Gray in 1858. The whole is too long to quote, but the pith is contained in one paragraph. "There is a considerable body of geological evidence that during the Glacial epoch the whole world was colder; I inferred that,... from erratic boulder phenomena carefully observed by me on both the east and west coast of South America. Now I am so bold as to believe that at the height of the Glacial epoch, AND WHEN ALL TROPICAL PRODUCTIONS MUST HAVE BEEN CONSIDERABLY DISTRESSED, several temperate forms slowly travelled into the heart of the Tropics, and even reached the southern hemisphere; and some few southern forms penetrated in a reverse direction northward." ("Life and Letters", II. page 136.) Here again it is clear that though he credits Agassiz with having called vivid attention to the Glacial period, he had himself much earlier grasped the idea of periods of refrigeration.

Putting aside the fact, which has only been made known to us since Darwin's death, that he had anticipated Forbes, it is clear that he gave the theory a generality of which the latter had no conception. This is pointed out by Hooker in his classical paper "On the Distribution of Arctic Plants" (1860). "The theory of a southern migration of northern types being due to the cold epochs preceding and during the glacial, originated, I believe, with the late Edward Forbes; the extended one, of the trans-tropical migration, is Mr Darwin's." ("Linn. Trans." XXIII. page 253. The attempt appears to have been made to claim for Heer priority in what I may term for short the arctic-alpine theory (Scharff, "European Animals", page 128). I find no suggestion of his having hit upon it in his correspondence with Darwin or Hooker. Nor am I aware of any reference to his having done so in his later publications. I am indebted to his biographer, Professor Schroter, of Zurich, for an examination of his earlier papers with an equally negative result.) Assuming that local races have derived from a common ancestor, Hooker's great paper placed the fact of the migration on an impregnable basis. And, as he pointed out, Darwin has shown that "such an explanation meets the difficulty of accounting for the restriction of so many American and Asiatic arctic types to their own peculiar longitudinal zones, and for what is a far greater difficulty, the representation of the same arctic genera by most closely allied species in different longitudes."

The facts of botanical geography were vital to Darwin's argument. He had to show that they admitted of explanation without assuming multiple origins for species, which would be fatal to the theory of Descent. He had therefore to strengthen and extend De Candolle's work as to means of transport. He refused to supplement them by hypothetical geographical changes for which there was no independent evidence: this was simply to attempt to explain ignotum per ignotius. He found a real and, as it has turned out, a far-reaching solution in climatic change due to cosmical causes which compelled the migration of species as a condition of their existence. The logical force of the argument consists in dispensing with any violent assumption, and in showing that the principle of descent is adequate to explain the ascertained facts.

It does not, I think, detract from the merit of Darwin's conclusions that the tendency of modern research has been to show that the effects of the Glacial period were less simple, more localised and less general than he perhaps supposed. He admitted that "equatorial refrigeration... must have been small." ("More Letters", I. page 177.) It may prove possible to dispense with it altogether. One cannot but regret that as he wrote to Bates:—"the sketch in the 'Origin' gives a very meagre account of my fuller MS. essay on this subject." (Loc. cit.) Wallace fully accepted "the effect of the Glacial epoch in bringing about the present distribution of Alpine and Arctic plants in the NORTHERN HEMISPHERE," but rejected "the lowering of the temperature of the tropical regions during the Glacial period" in order to account for their presence in the SOUTHERN hemisphere. ("More Letters", II. page 25 (footnote 1).) The divergence however does not lie very deep. Wallace attaches more importance to ordinary means of transport. "If plants can pass in considerable numbers and variety over wide seas and oceans, it must be yet more easy for them to traverse continuous areas of land, wherever mountain-chains offer suitable stations." ("Island Life" (2nd edition), London, 1895, page 512.) And he argues that such periodical changes of climate, of which the Glacial period may be taken as a type, would facilitate if not stimulate the process. (Loc. cit. page 518.)

It is interesting to remark that Darwin drew from the facts of plant distribution one of his most ingenious arguments in support of this theory. (See "More Letters", I. page 424.) He tells us, "I was led to anticipate that the species of the larger genera in each country would oftener present varieties, than the species of the smaller genera." ("Origin", page 44.) He argues "where, if we may use the expression, the manufactory of species has been active, we ought generally to find the manufactory still in action." (Ibid. page 45.) This proved to be the case. But the labour imposed upon him in the study was immense. He tabulated local floras "belting the whole northern hemisphere" ("More Letters", I. page 107.), besides voluminous works such as De Candolle's "Prodromus". The results scarcely fill a couple of pages. This is a good illustration of the enormous pains which he took to base any statement on a secure foundation of evidence, and for this the world, till the publication of his letters, could not do him justice. He was a great admirer of Herbert Spencer, whose "prodigality of original thought" astonished him. "But," he says, "the reflection constantly recurred to me that each suggestion, to be of real value to service, would require years of work." (Ibid. II. page 235.)

At last the ground was cleared and we are led to the final conclusion. "If the difficulties be not insuperable in admitting that in the long course of time all the individuals of the same species belonging to the same genus, have proceeded from some one source; then all the grand leading facts of geographical distribution are explicable on the theory of migration, together with subsequent modification and the multiplication of new forms." ("Origin", page 360.) In this single sentence Darwin has stated a theory which, as his son F. Darwin has said with justice, has "revolutionized botanical geography." ("The Botanical Work of Darwin", "Ann. Bot." 1899, page xi.) It explains how physical barriers separate and form botanical regions; how allied species become concentrated in the same areas; how, under similar physical conditions, plants may be essentially dissimilar, showing that descent and not the surroundings is the controlling factor; how insular floras have acquired their peculiarities; in short how the most various and apparently uncorrelated problems fall easily and inevitably into line.

The argument from plant distribution was in fact irresistible. A proof, if one were wanted, was the immediate conversion of what Hooker called "the stern keen intellect" ("More Letters", I. page 134.) of Bentham, by general consent the leading botanical systematist at the time. It is a striking historical fact that a paper of his own had been set down for reading at the Linnean Society on the same day as Darwin's, but had to give way. In this he advocated the fixity of species. He withdrew it after hearing Darwin's. We can hardly realise now the momentous effect on the scientific thought of the day of the announcement of the new theory. Years afterwards (1882) Bentham, notwithstanding his habitual restraint, could not write of it without emotion. "I was forced, however reluctantly, to give up my long-cherished convictions, the results of much labour and study." The revelation came without preparation. Darwin, he wrote, "never made any communications to me in relation to his views and labours." But, he adds, "I... fully adopted his theories and conclusions, notwithstanding the severe pain and disappointment they at first occasioned me." ("Life and Letters", II. page 294.) Scientific history can have few incidents more worthy. I do not know what is most striking in the story, the pathos or the moral dignity of Bentham's attitude.

Darwin necessarily restricted himself in the "Origin" to establishing the general principles which would account for the facts of distribution, as a part of his larger argument, without attempting to illustrate them in particular cases. This he appears to have contemplated doing in a separate work. But writing to Hooker in 1868 he said:—"I shall to the day of my death keep up my full interest in Geographical Distribution, but I doubt whether I shall ever have strength to come in any fuller detail than in the "Origin" to this grand subject." ("More Letters", II. page 7.) This must be always a matter for regret. But we may gather some indication of his later speculations from the letters, the careful publication of which by F. Darwin has rendered a service to science, the value of which it is difficult to exaggerate. They admit us to the workshop, where we see a great theory, as it were, in the making. The later ideas that they contain were not it is true public property at the time. But they were communicated to the leading biologists of the day and indirectly have had a large influence.

If Darwin laid the foundation, the present fabric of Botanical Geography must be credited to Hooker. It was a happy partnership. The far-seeing, generalising power of the one was supplied with data and checked in conclusions by the vast detailed knowledge of the other. It may be permitted to quote Darwin's generous acknowledgment when writing the "Origin":—"I never did pick any one's pocket, but whilst writing my present chapter I keep on feeling (even when differing most from you) just as if I were stealing from you, so much do I owe to your writings and conversation, so much more than mere acknowledgements show." ("Life and Letters", II. page 148 (footnote).) Fourteen years before he had written to Hooker: "I know I shall live to see you the first authority in Europe on... Geographical Distribution." (Ibid. I. page 336.) We owe it to Hooker that no one now undertakes the flora of a country without indicating the range of the species it contains. Bentham tells us: "After De Candolle, independently of the great works of Darwin... the first important addition to the science of geographical botany was that made by Hooker in his "Introductory Essay to the Flora of Tasmania", which, though contemporaneous only with the "Origin of Species", was drawn up with a general knowledge of his friend's observations and views." (Pres. Addr. (1869), "Proc. Linn. Soc." 1868-69, page lxxiv.) It cannot be doubted that this and the great memoir on the "Distribution of Arctic Plants" were only less epoch-making than the "Origin" itself, and must have supplied a powerful support to the general theory of organic evolution.

Darwin always asserted his "entire ignorance of Botany." ("More Letters", I. page 400.) But this was only part of his constant half-humorous self-depreciation. He had been a pupil of Henslow, and it is evident that he had a good working knowledge of systematic botany. He could find his way about in the literature and always cites the names of plants with scrupulous accuracy. It was because he felt the want of such a work for his own researches that he urged the preparation of the "Index Kewensis", and undertook to defray the expense. It has been thought singular that he should have been elected a "correspondant" of the Academie des Sciences in the section of Botany, but it is not surprising that his work in Geographical Botany made the botanists anxious to claim him. His heart went with them. "It has always pleased me," he tells us, "to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings." ("Life and Letters", I. page 98.) And he declares that he finds "any proposition more easily tested in botanical works (Ibid. II. page 99.) than in zoological."

In the "Introductory Essay" Hooker dwelt on the "continuous current of vegetation from Scandinavia to Tasmania" ("Introductory Essay to the Flora of Tasmania", London, 1859. Reprinted from the "Botany of the Antarctic Expedition", Part III., "Flora of Tasmania", Vol I. page ciii.), but finds little evidence of one in the reverse direction. "In the New World, Arctic, Scandinavian, and North American genera and species are continuously extended from the north to the south temperate and even Antarctic zones; but scarcely one Antarctic species, or even genus advances north beyond the Gulf of Mexico" (page civ.). Hooker considered that this negatived "the idea that the Southern and Northern Floras have had common origin within comparatively modern geological epochs." (Loc. cit.) This is no doubt a correct conclusion. But it is difficult to explain on Darwin's view alone, of alternating cold in the two hemispheres, the preponderant migration from the north to the south. He suggests, therefore, that it "is due to the greater extent of land in the north and to the northern forms... having... been advanced through natural selection and competition to a higher stage of perfection or dominating power." ("Origin of Species" (6th edition), page 340; cf. also "Life and Letters", II. page 142.) The present state of the Flora of New Zealand affords a striking illustration of the correctness of this view. It is poor in species, numbering only some 1400, of which three-fourths are endemic. They seem however quite unable to resist the invasion of new comers and already 600 species of foreign origin have succeeded in establishing themselves.

If we accept the general configuration of the earth's surface as permanent a continuous and progressive dispersal of species from the centre to the circumference, i.e. southwards, seems inevitable. If an observer were placed above a point in St George's Channel from which one half of the globe was visible he would see the greatest possible quantity of land spread out in a sort of stellate figure. The maritime supremacy of the English race has perhaps flowed from the central position of its home. That such a disposition would facilitate a centrifugal migration of land organisms is at any rate obvious, and fluctuating conditions of climate operating from the pole would supply an effective means of propulsion. As these became more rigorous animals at any rate would move southwards to escape them. It would be equally the case with plants if no insuperable obstacle interposed. This implies a mobility in plants, notwithstanding what we know of means of transport which is at first sight paradoxical. Bentham has stated this in a striking way: "Fixed and immovable as is the individual plant, there is no class in which the race is endowed with greater facilities for the widest dispersion... Plants cast away their offspring in a dormant state, ready to be carried to any distance by those external agencies which we may deem fortuitous, but without which many a race might perish from the exhaustion of the limited spot of soil in which it is rooted." (Pres. Addr.(1869), "Proc. Linn. Soc." 1868-69, pages lxvi, lxvii.)

I have quoted this passage from Bentham because it emphasises a point which Darwin for his purpose did not find it necessary to dwell upon, though he no doubt assumed it. Dispersal to a distance is, so to speak, an accidental incident in the life of a species. Lepidium Draba, a native of South-eastern Europe, owes its prevalence in the Isle of Thanet to the disastrous Walcheren expedition; the straw-stuffing of the mattresses of the fever-stricken soldiers who were landed there was used by a farmer for manure. Sir Joseph Hooker ("Royal Institution Lecture", April 12, 1878.) tells us that landing on Lord Auckland's Island, which was uninhabited, "the first evidence I met with of its having been previously visited by man was the English chickweed; and this I traced to a mound that marked the grave of a British sailor, and that was covered with the plant, doubtless the offspring of seed that had adhered to the spade or mattock with which the grave had been dug."

Some migration from the spot where the individuals of a species have germinated is an essential provision against extinction. Their descendants otherwise would be liable to suppression by more vigorous competitors. But they would eventually be extinguished inevitably, as pointed out by Bentham, by the exhaustion of at any rate some one necessary constituent of the soil. Gilbert showed by actual analysis that the production of a "fairy ring" is simply due to the using up by the fungi of the available nitrogen in the enclosed area which continually enlarges as they seek a fresh supply on the outside margin. Anyone who cultivates a garden can easily verify the fact that every plant has some adaptation for varying degrees of seed-dispersal. It cannot be doubted that slow but persistent terrestrial migration has played an enormous part in bringing about existing plant-distribution, or that climatic changes would intensify the effect because they would force the abandonment of a former area and the occupation of a new one. We are compelled to admit that as an incident of the Glacial period a whole flora may have moved down and up a mountain side, while only some of its constituent species would be able to take advantage of means of long-distance transport.

I have dwelt on the importance of what I may call short-distance dispersal as a necessary condition of plant life, because I think it suggests the solution of a difficulty which leads Guppy to a conclusion with which I am unable to agree. But the work which he has done taken as a whole appears to me so admirable that I do so with the utmost respect. He points out, as Bentham had already done, that long-distance dispersal is fortuitous. And being so it cannot have been provided for by previous adaptation. He says (Guppy, op. cit. II. page 99.): "It is not conceivable that an organism can be adapted to conditions outside its environment." To this we must agree; but, it may be asked, do the general means of plant dispersal violate so obvious a principle? He proceeds: "The great variety of the modes of dispersal of seeds is in itself an indication that the dispersing agencies avail themselves in a hap-hazard fashion of characters and capacities that have been developed in other connections." (Loc. cit. page 102.) "Their utility in these respects is an accident in the plant's life." (Loc. cit. page 100.) He attributes this utility to a "determining agency," an influence which constantly reappears in various shapes in the literature of Evolution and is ultra-scientific in the sense that it bars the way to the search for material causes. He goes so far as to doubt whether fleshy fruits are an adaptation for the dispersal of their contained seeds. (Loc. cit. page 102.) Writing as I am from a hillside which is covered by hawthorn bushes sown by birds, I confess I can feel little doubt on the subject myself. The essential fact which Guppy brings out is that long-distance unlike short-distance dispersal is not universal and purposeful, but selective and in that sense accidental. But it is not difficult to see how under favouring conditions one must merge into the other.

Guppy has raised one novel point which can only be briefly referred to but which is of extreme interest. There are grounds for thinking that flowers and insects have mutually reacted upon one another in their evolution. Guppy suggests that something of the same kind may be true of birds. I must content myself with the quotation of a single sentence. "With the secular drying of the globe and the consequent differentiation of climate is to be connected the suspension to a great extent of the agency of birds as plant dispersers in later ages, not only in the Pacific Islands but all over the tropics. The changes of climate, birds and plants have gone on together, the range of the bird being controlled by the climate, and the distribution of the plant being largely dependent on the bird." (Loc.cit. II. page 221.)

Darwin was clearly prepared to go further than Hooker in accounting for the southern flora by dispersion from the north. Thus he says: "We must, I suppose, admit that every yard of land has been successively covered with a beech-forest between the Caucasus and Japan." ("More Letters", II. page 9.) Hooker accounted for the dissevered condition of the southern flora by geographical change, but this Darwin could not admit. He suggested to Hooker that the Australian and Cape floras might have had a point of connection through Abyssinia (Ibid. I. page 447.), an idea which was promptly snuffed out. Similarly he remarked to Bentham (1869): "I suppose you think that the Restiaceae, Proteaceae, etc., etc. once extended over the whole world, leaving fragments in the south." (Ibid. I. page 380.) Eventually he conjectured "that there must have been a Tertiary Antarctic continent, from which various forms radiated to the southern extremities of our present continents." ("Life and Letters", III. page 231.) But characteristically he could not admit any land connections and trusted to "floating ice for transporting seed." ("More Letters", I. page 116.) I am far from saying that this theory is not deserving of serious attention, though there seems to be no positive evidence to support it, and it immediately raises the difficulty how did such a continent come to be stocked?

We must, however, agree with Hooker that the common origin of the northern and southern floras must be referred to a remote past. That Darwin had this in his mind at the time of the publication of the "Origin" is clear from a letter to Hooker. "The view which I should have looked at as perhaps most probable (though it hardly differs from yours) is that the whole world during the Secondary ages was inhabited by marsupials, araucarias (Mem.—Fossil wood of this nature in South America), Banksia, etc.; and that these were supplanted and exterminated in the greater area of the north, but were left alive in the south." (Ibid. I. page 453.) Remembering that Araucaria, unlike Banksia, belongs to the earlier Jurassic not to the angiospermous flora, this view is a germinal idea of the widest generality.

The extraordinary congestion in species of the peninsulas of the Old World points to the long-continued action of a migration southwards. Each is in fact a cul-de-sac into which they have poured and from which there is no escape. On the other hand the high degree of specialisation in the southern floras and the little power the species possess of holding their own in competition or in adaptation to new conditions point to long-continued isolation. "An island... will prevent free immigration and competition, hence a greater number of ancient forms will survive." (Ibid. I. page 481.) But variability is itself subject to variation. The nemesis of a high degree of protected specialisation is the loss of adaptability. (See Lyell, "The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man", London, 1863, page 446.) It is probable that many elements of the southern flora are doomed: there is, for example, reason to think that the singular Stapelieae of S. Africa are a disappearing group. The tree Lobelias which linger in the mountains of Central Africa, in Tropical America and in the Sandwich Islands have the aspect of extreme antiquity. I may add a further striking illustration from Professor Seward: "The tall, graceful fronds of Matonia pectinata, forming miniature forests on the slopes of Mount Ophir and other districts in the Malay Peninsula in association with Dipteris conjugata and Dipteris lobbiana, represent a phase of Mesozoic life which survives 'Like a dim picture of the drowned past.'" ("Report of the 73rd Meeting of the British Assoc." (Southport, 1903), London, 1904, page 844.)

The Matonineae are ferns with an unusually complex vascular system and were abundant "in the northern hemisphere during the earlier part of the Mesozoic era."

It was fortunate for science that Wallace took up the task which his colleague had abandoned. Writing to him on the publication of his "Geographical Distribution of Animals" Darwin said: "I feel sure that you have laid a broad and safe foundation for all future work on Distribution. How interesting it will be to see hereafter plants treated in strict relation to your views." ("More Letters", II. page 12.) This hope was fulfilled in "Island Life". I may quote a passage from it which admirably summarises the contrast between the northern and the southern floras.

"Instead of the enormous northern area, in which highly organised and dominant groups of plants have been developed gifted with great colonising and aggressive powers, we have in the south three comparatively small and detached areas, in which rich floras have been developed with SPECIAL adaptations to soil, climate, and organic environment, but comparatively impotent and inferior beyond their own domain." (Wallace, "Island Life", pages 527, 528.)

It will be noticed that in the summary I have attempted to give of the history of the subject, efforts have been concentrated on bringing into relation the temperate floras of the northern and southern hemispheres, but no account has been taken of the rich tropical vegetation which belts the world and little to account for the original starting-point of existing vegetation generally. It must be remembered on the one hand that our detailed knowledge of the floras of the tropics is still very incomplete and far inferior to that of temperate regions; on the other hand palaeontological discoveries have put the problem in an entirely new light. Well might Darwin, writing to Heer in 1875, say: "Many as have been the wonderful discoveries in Geology during the last half-century, I think none have exceeded in interest your results with respect to the plants which formerly existed in the arctic regions." ("More Letters", II. page 240.)

As early as 1848 Debey had described from the Upper Cretaceous rocks of Aix-la-Chapelle Flowering plants of as high a degree of development as those now existing. The fact was commented upon by Hooker ("Introd. Essay to the Flora of Tasmania", page xx.), but its full significance seems to have been scarcely appreciated. For it implied not merely that their evolution must have taken place but the foundations of existing distribution must have been laid in a preceding age. We now know from the discoveries of the last fifty years that the remains of the Neocomian flora occur over an area extending through 30 deg of latitude. The conclusion is irresistible that within this was its centre of distribution and probably of origin.

Darwin was immensely impressed with the outburst on the world of a fully fledged angiospermous vegetation. He warmly approved the brilliant theory of Saporta that this happened "as soon (as) flower-frequenting insects were developed and favoured intercrossing." ("More Letters", II. page 21.) Writing to him in 1877 he says: "Your idea that dicotyledonous plants were not developed in force until sucking insects had been evolved seems to me a splendid one. I am surprised that the idea never occurred to me, but this is always the case when one first hears a new and simple explanation of some mysterious phenomenon." ("Life and Letters", III. page 285. Substantially the same idea had occurred earlier to F.W.A. Miquel. Remarking that "sucking insects (Haustellata)... perform in nature the important duty of maintaining the existence of the vegetable kingdom, at least as far as the higher orders are concerned," he points our that "the appearance in great numbers of haustellate insects occurs at and after the Cretaceous epoch, when the plants with pollen and closed carpels (Angiosperms) are found, and acquire little by little the preponderance in the vegetable kingdom." "Archives Neerlandaises", III. (1868). English translation in "Journ. of Bot." 1869, page 101.)

Even with this help the abruptness still remains an almost insoluble problem, though a forecast of floral structure is now recognised in some Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous plants. But the gap between this and the structural complexity and diversity of angiosperms is enormous. Darwin thought that the evolution might have been accomplished during a period of prolonged isolation. Writing to Hooker (1881) he says: "Nothing is more extraordinary in the history of the Vegetable Kingdom, as it seems to me, than the APPARENTLY very sudden or abrupt development of the higher plants. I have sometimes speculated whether there did not exist somewhere during long ages an extremely isolated continent, perhaps near the South Pole." ("Life and Letters", III. page 248.)

The present trend of evidence is, however, all in favour of a northern origin for flowering plants, and we can only appeal to the imperfection of the geological record as a last resource to extricate us from the difficulty of tracing the process. But Darwin's instinct that at some time or other the southern hemisphere had played an important part in the evolution of the vegetable kingdom did not mislead him. Nothing probably would have given him greater satisfaction than the masterly summary in which Seward has brought together the evidence for the origin of the Glossopteris flora in Gondwana land.

"A vast continental area, of which remnants are preserved in Australia, South Africa and South America... A tract of enormous extent occupying an area, part of which has since given place to a southern ocean, while detached masses persist as portions of more modern continents, which have enabled us to read in their fossil plants and ice-scratched boulders the records of a lost continent, in which the Mesozoic vegetation of the northern continent had its birth." ("Encycl. Brit." (10th edition 1902), Vol. XXXI. ("Palaeobotany; Mesozoic"), page 422.) Darwin would probably have demurred on physical grounds to the extent of the continent, and preferred to account for the transoceanic distribution of its flora by the same means which must have accomplished it on land.

It must in fairness be added that Guppy's later views give some support to the conjectural existence of the "lost continent." "The distribution of the genus Dammara" (Agathis) led him to modify his earlier conclusions. He tells us:—"In my volume on the geology of Vanua Levu it was shown that the Tertiary period was an age of submergence in the Western Pacific, and a disbelief in any previous continental condition was expressed. My later view is more in accordance with that of Wichmann, who, on geological grounds, contended that the islands of the Western Pacific were in a continental condition during the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic periods, and that their submergence and subsequent emergence took place in Tertiary times." (Guppy, op. cit. II. page 304.)

The weight of the geological evidence I am unable to scrutinise. But though I must admit the possibility of some unconscious bias in my own mind on the subject, I am impressed with the fact that the known distribution of the Glossopteris flora in the southern hemisphere is precisely paralleled by that of Proteaceae and Restiaceae in it at the present time. It is not unreasonable to suppose that both phenomena, so similar, may admit of the same explanation. I confess it would not surprise me if fresh discoveries in the distribution of the Glossopteris flora were to point to the possibility of its also having migrated southwards from a centre of origin in the northern hemisphere.

Darwin, however, remained sceptical "about the travelling of plants from the north EXCEPT DURING THE TERTIARY PERIOD." But he added, "such speculations seem to me hardly scientific, seeing how little we know of the old floras." ("Life and Letters", III. page 247.) That in later geological times the south has been the grave of the weakened offspring of the aggressive north can hardly be doubted. But if we look to the Glossopteris flora for the ancestry of Angiosperms during the Secondary period, Darwin's prevision might be justified, though he has given us no clue as to how he arrived at it.

It may be true that technically Darwin was not a botanist. But in two pages of the "Origin" he has given us a masterly explanation of "the relationship, with very little identity, between the productions of North America and Europe." (Pages 333, 334.) He showed that this could be accounted for by their migration southwards from a common area, and he told Wallace that he "doubted much whether the now called Palaearctic and Neartic regions ought to be separated." ("Life and Letters", III. page 230.) Catkin-bearing deciduous trees had long been seen to justify Darwin's doubt: oaks, chestnuts, beeches, hazels, hornbeams, birches, alders, willows and poplars are common both to the Old and New World. Newton found that the separate regions could not be sustained for birds, and he is now usually followed in uniting them as the Holartic. One feels inclined to say in reading the two pages, as Lord Kelvin did to a correspondent who asked for some further development of one of his papers, It is all there. We have only to apply the principle to previous geological ages to understand why the flora of the Southern United States preserves a Cretaceous facies. Applying it still further we can understand why, when the northern hemisphere gradually cooled through the Tertiary period, the plants of the Eocene "suggest a comparison of the climate and forests with those of the Malay Archipelago and Tropical America." (Clement Reid, "Encycl. Brit." (10th edition), Vol. XXXI. ("Palaeobotany; Tertiary"), page 435.) Writing to Asa Gray in 1856 with respect to the United States flora, Darwin said that "nothing has surprised me more than the greater generic and specific affinity with East Asia than with West America." ("More Letters", I. page 434.) The recent discoveries of a Tulip tree and a Sassafras in China afford fresh illustrations. A few years later Asa Gray found the explanation in both areas being centres of preservation of the Cretaceous flora from a common origin. It is interesting to note that the paper in which this was enunciated at once established his reputation.

In Europe the latitudinal range of the great mountain chains gave the Miocene flora no chance of escape during the Glacial period, and the Mediterranean appears to have equally intercepted the flow of alpine plants to the Atlas. (John Ball in Appendix G, page 438, in "Journal of a Tour in Morocco and the Great Atlas", J.D. Hooker and J. Ball, London, 1878.) In Southern Europe the myrtle, the laurel, the fig and the dwarf-palm are the sole representatives of as many great tropical families. Another great tropical family, the Gesneraceae has left single representatives from the Pyrenees to the Balkans; and in the former a diminutive yam still lingers. These are only illustrations of the evidence which constantly accumulates and which finds no rational explanation except that which Darwin has given to it.

The theory of southward migration is the key to the interpretation of the geographical distribution of plants. It derived enormous support from the researches of Heer and has now become an accepted commonplace. Saporta in 1888 described the vegetable kingdom as "emigrant pour suivre une direction determinee et marcher du nord au sud, a la recherche de regions et de stations plus favorables, mieux appropriees aux adaptations acquises, a meme que la temperature terrestre perd ses conditions premieres." ("Origine Paleontologique des arbres", Paris, 1888, page 28.) If, as is so often the case, the theory now seems to be a priori inevitable, the historian of science will not omit to record that the first germ sprang from the brain of Darwin.

In attempting this sketch of Darwin's influence on Geographical Distribution, I have found it impossible to treat it from an external point of view. His interest in it was unflagging; all I could say became necessarily a record of that interest and could not be detached from it. He was in more or less intimate touch with everyone who was working at it. In reading the letters we move amongst great names. With an extraordinary charm of persuasive correspondence he was constantly suggesting, criticising and stimulating. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that from the quiet of his study at Down he was founding and directing a wide-world school.


Since this essay was put in type Dr Ernst's striking account of the "New Flora of the Volcanic Island of Krakatau" (Cambridge, 1909.) has reached me. All botanists must feel a debt of gratitude to Prof. Seward for his admirable translation of a memoir which in its original form is practically unprocurable and to the liberality of the Cambridge University Press for its publication. In the preceding pages I have traced the laborious research by which the methods of Plant Dispersal were established by Darwin. In the island of Krakatau nature has supplied a crucial experiment which, if it had occurred earlier, would have at once secured conviction of their efficiency. A quarter of a century ago every trace of organic life in the island was "destroyed and buried under a thick covering of glowing stones." Now, it is "again covered with a mantle of green, the growth being in places so luxuriant that it is necessary to cut one's way laboriously through the vegetation." (Op. cit. page 4.) Ernst traces minutely how this has been brought about by the combined action of wind, birds and sea currents, as means of transport. The process will continue, and he concludes:—"At last after a long interval the vegetation on the desolated island will again acquire that wealth of variety and luxuriance which we see in the fullest development which Nature has reached in the primaeval forest in the tropics." (Op. cit. page 72.) The possibility of such a result revealed itself to the insight of Darwin with little encouragement or support from contemporary opinion.

One of the most remarkable facts established by Ernst is that this has not been accomplished by the transport of seeds alone. "Tree stems and branches played an important part in the colonisation of Krakatau by plants and animals. Large piles of floating trees, stems, branches and bamboos are met with everywhere on the beach above high-water mark and often carried a considerable distance inland. Some of the animals on the island, such as the fat Iguana (Varanus salvator) which suns itself in the beds of streams, may have travelled on floating wood, possibly also the ancestors of the numerous ants, but certainly plants." (Op. cit. page 56.) Darwin actually had a prevision of this. Writing to Hooker he says:—"Would it not be a prodigy if an unstocked island did not in the course of ages receive colonists from coasts whence the currents flow, trees are drifted and birds are driven by gales?" ("More Letters", I. page 483.) And ten years earlier:—"I must believe in the... whole plant or branch being washed into the sea; with floods and slips and earthquakes; this must continually be happening." ("Life and Letters", II. pages 56, 57.) If we give to "continually" a cosmic measure, can the fact be doubted? All this, in the light of our present knowledge, is too obvious to us to admit of discussion. But it seems to me nothing less than pathetic to see how in the teeth of the obsession as to continental extension, Darwin fought single-handed for what we now know to be the truth.

Guppy's heart failed him when he had to deal with the isolated case of Agathis which alone seemed inexplicable by known means of transport. But when we remember that it is a relic of the pre-Angiospermous flora, and is of Araucarian ancestry, it cannot be said that the impossibility, in so prolonged a history, of the bodily transference of cone-bearing branches or even of trees, compels us as a last resort to fall back on continental extension to account for its existing distribution.

When Darwin was in the Galapagos Archipelago, he tells us that he fancied himself "brought near to the very act of creation." He saw how new species might arise from a common stock. Krakatau shows us an earlier stage and how by simple agencies, continually at work, that stock might be supplied. It also shows us how the mixed and casual elements of a new colony enter into competition for the ground and become mutually adjusted. The study of Plant Distribution from a Darwinian standpoint has opened up a new field of research in Ecology. The means of transport supply the materials for a flora, but their ultimate fate depends on their equipment for the "struggle for existence." The whole subject can no longer be regarded as a mere statistical inquiry which has seemed doubtless to many of somewhat arid interest. The fate of every element of the earth's vegetation has sooner or later depended on its ability to travel and to hold its own under new conditions. And the means by which it has secured success is an each case a biological problem which demands and will reward the most attentive study. This is the lesson which Darwin has bequeathed to us. It is summed up in the concluding paragraph of the "Origin" ("Origin of Species" (6th edition), page 429.):—"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us."

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