The Life and Letters of Darwin, Volume 2 HTML version

Fertilisation Of Flowers
[In the letters already given we have had occasion to notice the general bearing of a
number of botanical problems on the wider question of Evolution. The detailed work in
botany which my father accomplished by the guidance of the light cast on the study of
natural history by his own work on Evolution remains to be noticed. In a letter to Mr.
Murray, September 24th, 1861, speaking of his book on the 'Fertilisation of Orchids,' he
says: "It will perhaps serve to illustrate how Natural History may be worked under the
belief of the modification of species." This remark gives a suggestion as to the value and
interest of his botanical work, and it might be expressed in far more emphatic language
without danger of exaggeration.
In the same letter to Mr. Murray, he says: "I think this little volume will do good to the
'Origin,' as it will show that I have worked hard at details." It is true that his botanical
work added a mass of corroborative detail to the case for Evolution, but the chief support
to his doctrines given by these researches was of another kind. They supplied an
argument against those critics who have so freely dogmatised as to the uselessness of
particular structures, and as to the consequent impossibility of their having been
developed by means of natural selection. His observations on Orchids enabled him to say:
"I can show the meaning of some of the apparently meaningless ridges, horns, who will
now venture to say that this or that structure is useless?" A kindred point is expressed in a
letter to Sir J.D. Hooker (May 14th, 1862:)--
"When many parts of structure, as in the woodpecker, show distinct adaptation to external
bodies, it is preposterous to attribute them to the effects of climate, etc., but when a single
point alone, as a hooked seed, it is conceivable it may thus have arisen. I have found the
study of Orchids eminently useful in showing me how nearly all parts of the flower are
co-adapted for fertilization by insects, and therefore the results of natural selection--even
the most trifling details of structure."
One of the greatest services rendered by my father to the study of Natural History is the
revival of Teleology. The evolutionist studies the purpose or meaning of organs with the
zeal of the older Teleology, but with far wider and more coherent purpose. He has the
invigorating knowledge that he is gaining not isolated conceptions of the economy of the
present, but a coherent view of both past and present. And even where he fails to discover
the use of any part, he may, by a knowledge of its structure, unravel the history of the
past vicissitudes in the life of the species. In this way a vigour and unity is given to the
study of the forms of organised beings, which before it lacked. This point has already
been discussed in Mr. Huxley's chapter on the 'Reception of the "Origin of Species",' and
need not be here considered. It does, however, concern us to recognize that this "great
service to natural science," as Dr. Gray describes it, was effected almost as much by his
special botanical work as by the 'Origin of Species.'