Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection


It appears probable that disuse has been the main agent in rendering organs rudimentary. It would at first lead by slow steps to the more and more complete reduction of a part, until at last it became rudimentary--as in the case of the eyes of animals inhabiting dark caverns, and of the wings of birds inhabiting oceanic islands, which have seldom been forced by beasts of prey to take flight, and have ultimately lost the power of flying. Again, an organ, useful under certain conditions, might become injurious under others, as with the wings of beetles living on small and exposed islands; and in this case natural selection will have aided in reducing the organ, until it was rendered harmless and rudimentary.

Any change in structure and function, which can be effected by small stages, is within the power of natural selection; so that an organ rendered, through changed habits of life, useless or injurious for one purpose, might be modified and used for another purpose. An organ might, also, be retained for one alone of its former functions. Organs, originally formed by the aid of natural selection, when rendered useless may well be variable, for their variations can no longer be checked by natural selection. All this agrees well with what we see under nature. Moreover, at whatever period of life either disuse or selection reduces an organ, and this will generally be when the being has come to maturity and to exert its full powers of action, the principle of inheritance at corresponding ages will tend to reproduce the organ in its reduced state at the same mature age, but will seldom affect it in the embryo. Thus we can understand the greater size of rudimentary organs in the embryo relatively to the adjoining parts, and their lesser relative size in the adult. If, for instance, the digit of an adult animal was used less and less during many generations, owing to some change of habits, or if an organ or gland was less and less functionally exercised, we may infer that it would become reduced in size in the adult descendants of this animal, but would retain nearly its original standard of development in the embryo.

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