On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
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Chapter XI

Geographical Distribution

Present distribution cannot be accounted for by differences in physical conditions -- Importance of barriers -- Affinity of the productions of the same continent -- Centres of creation -- Means of dispersal, by changes of climate and of the level of the land, and by occasional means -- Dispersal during the Glacial period co-extensive with the world.

In considering the distribution of organic beings over the face of the globe, the first great fact which strikes us is, that neither the similarity nor the dissimilarity of the inhabitants of various regions can be accounted for by their climatal and other physical conditions. Of late, almost every author who has studied the subject has come to this conclusion. The case of America alone would almost suffice to prove its truth: for if we exclude the northern parts where the circumpolar land is almost continuous, all authors agree that one of the most fundamental divisions in geographical distribution is that between the New and Old Worlds; yet if we travel over the vast American continent, from the central parts of the United States to its extreme southern point, we meet with the most diversified conditions; the most humid districts, arid deserts, lofty mountains, grassy plains, forests, marshes, lakes, and great rivers, under almost every temperature. There is hardly a climate or condition in the Old World which cannot be paralleled in the New--at least as closely as the same species generally require; for it is a most rare case to find a group of organisms confined to any small spot, having conditions peculiar in only a slight degree; for instance, small areas in the Old World could be pointed out hotter than any in the New World, yet these are not inhabited by a peculiar fauna or flora. Notwithstanding this parallelism in the conditions of the Old and New Worlds, how widely different are their living productions!

In the southern hemisphere, if we compare large tracts of land in Australia, South Africa, and western South America, between latitudes 25 deg and 35 deg, we shall find parts extremely similar in all their conditions, yet it would not be possible to point out three faunas and floras more utterly dissimilar. Or again we may compare the productions of South America south of lat. 35 deg with those north of 25 deg, which consequently inhabit a considerably different climate, and they will be found incomparably more closely related to each other, than they are to the productions of Australia or Africa under nearly the same climate. Analogous facts could be given with respect to the inhabitants of the sea.

A second great fact which strikes us in our general review is, that barriers of any kind, or obstacles to free migration, are related in a close and important manner to the differences between the productions of various regions. We see this in the great difference of nearly all the terrestrial productions of the New and Old Worlds, excepting in the northern parts, where the land almost joins, and where, under a slightly different climate, there might have been free migration for the northern temperate forms, as there now is for the strictly arctic productions. We see the same fact in the great difference between the inhabitants of Australia, Africa, and South America under the same latitude: for these countries are almost as much isolated from each other as is possible. On each continent, also, we see the same fact; for on the opposite sides of lofty and continuous mountain-ranges, and of great deserts, and sometimes even of large rivers, we find different productions; though as mountain chains, deserts, &c., are not as impassable, or likely to have endured so long as the oceans separating continents, the differences are very inferior in degree to those characteristic of distinct continents.

Turning to the sea, we find the same law. No two marine faunas are more distinct, with hardly a fish, shell, or crab in common, than those of the eastern and western shores of South and Central America; yet these great faunas are separated only by the narrow, but impassable, isthmus of Panama. Westward of the shores of America, a wide space of open ocean extends, with not an island as a halting-place for emigrants; here we have a barrier of another kind, and as soon as this is passed we meet in the eastern islands of the Pacific, with another and totally distinct fauna. So that here three marine faunas range far northward and southward, in parallel lines not far from each other, under corresponding climates; but from being separated from each other by impassable barriers, either of land or open sea, they are wholly distinct. On the other hand, proceeding still further westward from the eastern islands of the tropical parts of the Pacific, we encounter no impassable barriers, and we have innumerable islands as halting-places, until after travelling over a hemisphere we come to the shores of Africa; and over this vast space we meet with no well-defined and distinct marine faunas. Although hardly one shell, crab or fish is common to the above-named three approximate faunas of Eastern and Western America and the eastern Pacific islands, yet many fish range from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean, and many shells are common to the eastern islands of the Pacific and the eastern shores of Africa, on almost exactly opposite meridians of longitude.

A third great fact, partly included in the foregoing statements, is the affinity of the productions of the same continent or sea, though the species themselves are distinct at different points and stations. It is a law of the widest generality, and every continent offers innumerable instances. Nevertheless the naturalist in travelling, for instance, from north to south never fails to be struck by the manner in which successive groups of beings, specifically distinct, yet clearly related, replace each other. He hears from closely allied, yet distinct kinds of birds, notes nearly similar, and sees their nests similarly constructed, but not quite alike, with eggs coloured in nearly the same manner. The plains near the Straits of Magellan are inhabited by one species of Rhea (American ostrich), and northward the plains of La Plata by another species of the same genus; and not by a true ostrich or emeu, like those found in Africa and Australia under the same latitude. On these same plains of La Plata, we see the agouti and bizcacha, animals having nearly the same habits as our hares and rabbits and belonging to the same order of Rodents, but they plainly display an American type of structure. We ascend the lofty peaks of the Cordillera and we find an alpine species of bizcacha; we look to the waters, and we do not find the beaver or musk-rat, but the coypu and capybara, rodents of the American type. Innumerable other instances could be given. If we look to the islands off the American shore, however much they may differ in geological structure, the inhabitants, though they may be all peculiar species, are essentially American. We may look back to past ages, as shown in the last chapter, and we find American types then prevalent on the American continent and in the American seas. We see in these facts some deep organic bond, prevailing throughout space and time, over the same areas of land and water, and independent of their physical conditions. The naturalist must feel little curiosity, who is not led to inquire what this bond is.

This bond, on my theory, is simply inheritance, that cause which alone, as far as we positively know, produces organisms quite like, or, as we see in the case of varieties nearly like each other. The dissimilarity of the inhabitants of different regions may be attributed to modification through natural selection, and in a quite subordinate degree to the direct influence of different physical conditions. The degree of dissimilarity will depend on the migration of the more dominant forms of life from one region into another having been effected with more or less ease, at periods more or less remote;--on the nature and number of the former immigrants;--and on their action and reaction, in their mutual struggles for life;--the relation of organism to organism being, as I have already often remarked, the most important of all relations. Thus the high importance of barriers comes into play by checking migration; as does time for the slow process of modification through natural selection. Widely-ranging species, abounding in individuals, which have already triumphed over many competitors in their own widely-extended homes will have the best chance of seizing on new places, when they spread into new countries. In their new homes they will be exposed to new conditions, and will frequently undergo further modification and improvement; and thus they will become still further victorious, and will produce groups of modified descendants. On this principle of inheritance with modification, we can understand how it is that sections of genera, whole genera, and even families are confined to the same areas, as is so commonly and notoriously the case.

I believe, as was remarked in the last chapter, in no law of necessary development. As the variability of each species is an independent property, and will be taken advantage of by natural selection, only so far as it profits the individual in its complex struggle for life, so the degree of modification in different species will be no uniform quantity. If, for instance, a number of species, which stand in direct competition with each other, migrate in a body into a new and afterwards isolated country, they will be little liable to modification; for neither migration nor isolation in themselves can do anything. These principles come into play only by bringing organisms into new relations with each other, and in a lesser degree with the surrounding physical conditions. As we have seen in the last chapter that some forms have retained nearly the same character from an enormously remote geological period, so certain species have migrated over vast spaces, and have not become greatly modified.

On these views, it is obvious, that the several species of the same genus, though inhabiting the most distant quarters of the world, must originally have proceeded from the same source, as they have descended from the same progenitor. In the case of those species, which have undergone during whole geological periods but little modification, there is not much difficulty in believing that they may have migrated from the same region; for during the vast geographical and climatal changes which will have supervened since ancient times, almost any amount of migration is possible. But in many other cases, in which we have reason to believe that the species of a genus have been produced within comparatively recent times, there is great difficulty on this head. It is also obvious that the individuals of the same species, though now inhabiting distant and isolated regions, must have proceeded from one spot, where their parents were first produced: for, as explained in the last chapter, it is incredible that individuals identically the same should ever have been produced through natural selection from parents specifically distinct.

We are thus brought to the question which has been largely discussed by naturalists, namely, whether species have been created at one or more points of the earth's surface. Undoubtedly there are very many cases of extreme difficulty, in understanding how the same species could possibly have migrated from some one point to the several distant and isolated points, where now found. Nevertheless the simplicity of the view that each species was first produced within a single region captivates the mind. He who rejects it, rejects the vera causa of ordinary generation with subsequent migration, and calls in the agency of a miracle. It is universally admitted, that in most cases the area inhabited by a species is continuous; and when a plant or animal inhabits two points so distant from each other, or with an interval of such a nature, that the space could not be easily passed over by migration, the fact is given as something remarkable and exceptional. The capacity of migrating across the sea is more distinctly limited in terrestrial mammals, than perhaps in any other organic beings; and, accordingly, we find no inexplicable cases of the same mammal inhabiting distant points of the world. No geologist will feel any difficulty in such cases as Great Britain having been formerly united to Europe, and consequently possessing the same quadrupeds. But if the same species can be produced at two separate points, why do we not find a single mammal common to Europe and Australia or South America? The conditions of life are nearly the same, so that a multitude of European animals and plants have become naturalised in America and Australia; and some of the aboriginal plants are identically the same at these distant points of the northern and southern hemispheres? The answer, as I believe, is, that mammals have not been able to migrate, whereas some plants, from their varied means of dispersal, have migrated across the vast and broken interspace. The great and striking influence which barriers of every kind have had on distribution, is intelligible only on the view that the great majority of species have been produced on one side alone, and have not been able to migrate to the other side. Some few families, many sub-families, very many genera, and a still greater number of sections of genera are confined to a single region; and it has been observed by several naturalists, that the most natural genera, or those genera in which the species are most closely related to each other, are generally local, or confined to one area. What a strange anomaly it would be, if, when coming one step lower in the series, to the individuals of the same species, a directly opposite rule prevailed; and species were not local, but had been produced in two or more distinct areas!

Hence it seems to me, as it has to many other naturalists, that the view of each species having been produced in one area alone, and having subsequently migrated from that area as far as its powers of migration and subsistence under past and present conditions permitted, is the most probable. Undoubtedly many cases occur, in which we cannot explain how the same species could have passed from one point to the other. But the geographical and climatal changes, which have certainly occurred within recent geological times, must have interrupted or rendered discontinuous the formerly continuous range of many species. So that we are reduced to consider whether the exceptions to continuity of range are so numerous and of so grave a nature, that we ought to give up the belief, rendered probable by general considerations, that each species has been produced within one area, and has migrated thence as far as it could. It would be hopelessly tedious to discuss all the exceptional cases of the same species, now living at distant and separated points; nor do I for a moment pretend that any explanation could be offered of many such cases. But after some preliminary remarks, I will discuss a few of the most striking classes of facts; namely, the existence of the same species on the summits of distant mountain-ranges, and at distant points in the arctic and antarctic regions; and secondly (in the following chapter), the wide distribution of freshwater productions; and thirdly, the occurrence of the same terrestrial species on islands and on the mainland, though separated by hundreds of miles of open sea. If the existence of the same species at distant and isolated points of the earth's surface, can in many instances be explained on the view of each species having migrated from a single birthplace; then, considering our ignorance with respect to former climatal and geographical changes and various occasional means of transport, the belief that this has been the universal law, seems to me incomparably the safest.

In discussing this subject, we shall be enabled at the same time to consider a point equally important for us, namely, whether the several distinct species of a genus, which on my theory have all descended from a common progenitor, can have migrated (undergoing modification during some part of their migration) from the area inhabited by their progenitor. If it can be shown to be almost invariably the case, that a region, of which most of its inhabitants are closely related to, or belong to the same genera with the species of a second region, has probably received at some former period immigrants from this other region, my theory will be strengthened; for we can clearly understand, on the principle of modification, why the inhabitants of a region should be related to those of another region, whence it has been stocked. A volcanic island, for instance, upheaved and formed at the distance of a few hundreds of miles from a continent, would probably receive from it in the course of time a few colonists, and their descendants, though modified, would still be plainly related by inheritance to the inhabitants of the continent. Cases of this nature are common, and are, as we shall hereafter more fully see, inexplicable on the theory of independent creation. This view of the relation of species in one region to those in another, does not differ much (by substituting the word variety for species) from that lately advanced in an ingenious paper by Mr. Wallace, in which he concludes, that 'every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.' And I now know from correspondence, that this coincidence he attributes to generation with modification.

The previous remarks on 'single and multiple centres of creation' do not directly bear on another allied question,--namely whether all the individuals of the same species have descended from a single pair, or single hermaphrodite, or whether, as some authors suppose, from many individuals simultaneously created. With those organic beings which never intercross (if such exist), the species, on my theory, must have descended from a succession of improved varieties, which will never have blended with other individuals or varieties, but will have supplanted each other; so that, at each successive stage of modification and improvement, all the individuals of each variety will have descended from a single parent. But in the majority of cases, namely, with all organisms which habitually unite for each birth, or which often intercross, I believe that during the slow process of modification the individuals of the species will have been kept nearly uniform by intercrossing; so that many individuals will have gone on simultaneously changing, and the whole amount of modification will not have been due, at each stage, to descent from a single parent. To illustrate what I mean: our English racehorses differ slightly from the horses of every other breed; but they do not owe their difference and superiority to descent from any single pair, but to continued care in selecting and training many individuals during many generations.

Before discussing the three classes of facts, which I have selected as presenting the greatest amount of difficulty on the theory of 'single centres of creation,' I must say a few words on the means of dispersal.

Means of Dispersal. -- Sir C. Lyell and other authors have ably treated this subject. I can give here only the briefest abstract of the more important facts. Change of climate must have had a powerful influence on migration: a region when its climate was different may have been a high road for migration, but now be impassable; I shall, however, presently have to discuss this branch of the subject in some detail. Changes of level in the land must also have been highly influential: a narrow isthmus now separates two marine faunas; submerge it, or let it formerly have been submerged, and the two faunas will now blend or may formerly have blended: where the sea now extends, land may at a former period have connected islands or possibly even continents together, and thus have allowed terrestrial productions to pass from one to the other. No geologist will dispute that great mutations of level have occurred within the period of existing organisms. Edward Forbes insisted that all the islands in the Atlantic must recently have been connected with Europe or Africa, and Europe likewise with America. Other authors have thus hypothetically bridged over every ocean, and have united almost every island to some mainland. If indeed the arguments used by Forbes are to be trusted, it must be admitted that scarcely a single island exists which has not recently been united to some continent. This view cuts the Gordian knot of the dispersal of the same species to the most distant points, and removes many a difficulty: but to the best of any judgment we are not authorized in admitting such enormous geographical changes within the period of existing species. It seems to me that we have abundant evidence of great oscillations of level in our continents; but not of such vast changes in their position and extension, as to have united them within the recent period to each other and to the several intervening oceanic islands. I freely admit the former existence of many islands, now buried beneath the sea, which may have served as halting places for plants and for many animals during their migration. In the coral-producing oceans such sunken islands are now marked, as I believe, by rings of coral or atolls standing over them. Whenever it is fully admitted, as I believe it will some day be, that each species has proceeded from a single birthplace, and when in the course of time we know something definite about the means of distribution, we shall be enabled to speculate with security on the former extension of the land. But I do not believe that it will ever be proved that within the recent period continents which are now quite separate, have been continuously, or almost continuously, united with each other, and with the many existing oceanic islands. Several facts in distribution,--such as the great difference in the marine faunas on the opposite sides of almost every continent,--the close relation of the tertiary inhabitants of several lands and even seas to their present inhabitants,--a certain degree of relation (as we shall hereafter see) between the distribution of mammals and the depth of the sea,--these and other such facts seem to me opposed to the admission of such prodigious geographical revolutions within the recent period, as are necessitated on the view advanced by Forbes and admitted by his many followers. The nature and relative proportions of the inhabitants of oceanic islands likewise seem to me opposed to the belief of their former continuity with continents. Nor does their almost universally volcanic composition favour the admission that they are the wrecks of sunken continents;--if they had originally existed as mountain-ranges on the land, some at least of the islands would have been formed, like other mountain-summits, of granite, metamorphic schists, old fossiliferous or other such rocks, instead of consisting of mere piles of volcanic matter.

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