We have seen that the members of the same class, independently of their habits of life, resemble each other in the general plan of their organisation. This resemblance is often expressed by the term "unity of type;" or by saying that the several parts and organs in the different species of the class are homologous. The whole subject is included under the general term of Morphology. This is one of the most interesting departments of natural history, and may almost be said to be its very soul. What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include similar bones, in the same relative positions? How curious it is, to give a subordinate though striking instance, that the hind feet of the kangaroo, which are so well fitted for bounding over the open plains—those of the climbing, leaf-eating koala, equally well fitted for grasping the branches of trees—those of the ground-dwelling, insect or root-eating, bandicoots—and those of some other Australian marsupials— should all be constructed on the same extraordinary type, namely with the bones of the second and third digits extremely slender and enveloped within the same skin, so that they appear like a single toe furnished with two claws. Notwithstanding this similarity of pattern, it is obvious that the hind feet of these several animals are used for as widely different purposes as it is possible to conceive. The case is rendered all the more striking by the American opossums, which follow nearly the same habits of life as some of their Australian relatives, having feet constructed on the ordinary plan. Professor Flower, from whom these statements are taken, remarks in conclusion: "We may call this conformity to type, without getting much nearer to an explanation of the phenomenon;" and he then adds "but is it not powerfully suggestive of true relationship, of inheritance from a common ancestor?"
Geoffroy St. Hilaire has strongly insisted on the high importance of relative position or connexion in homologous parts; they may differ to almost any extent in form and size, and yet remain connected together in the same invariable order. We never find, for instance, the bones of the arm and forearm, or of the thigh and leg, transposed. Hence the same names can be given to the homologous bones in widely different animals. We see the same great law in the construction of the mouths of insects: what can be more different than the immensely long spiral proboscis of a sphinx-moth, the curious folded one of a bee or bug, and the great jaws of a beetle? Yet all these organs, serving for such widely different purposes, are formed by infinitely numerous modifications of an upper lip, mandibles, and two pairs of maxillae. The same law governs the construction of the mouths and limbs of crustaceans. So it is with the flowers of plants.
Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes. The hopelessness of the attempt has been expressly admitted by Owen in his most interesting work on the "Nature of Limbs." On the ordinary view of the independent creation of each being, we can only say that so it is; that it has pleased the Creator to construct all the animals and plants in each great class on a uniform plan; but this is not a scientific explanation.
The explanation is to a large extent simple, on the theory of the selection of successive slight modifications, each being profitable in some way to the modified form, but often affecting by correlation other parts of the organisation. In changes of this nature, there will be little or no tendency to alter the original pattern, or to transpose the parts. The bones of a limb might be shortened and flattened to any extent, becoming at the same time enveloped in thick membrane, so as to serve as a fin; or a webbed hand might have all its bones, or certain bones, lengthened to any extent, with the membrane connecting them increased, so as to serve as a wing; yet all these modifications would not tend to alter the framework of the bones or the relative connexion of the parts. If we suppose that an early progenitor—the archetype, as it may be called—of all mammals, birds and reptiles, had its limbs constructed on the existing general pattern, for whatever purpose they served, we can at once perceive the plain signification of the homologous construction of the limbs throughout the class. So with the mouths of insects, we have only to suppose that their common progenitor had an upper lip, mandibles, and two pairs of maxillae, these parts being perhaps very simple in form; and then natural selection will account for the infinite diversity in structure and function of the mouths of insects. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the general pattern of an organ might become so much obscured as to be finally lost, by the reduction and ultimately by the complete abortion of certain parts, by the fusion of other parts, and by the doubling or multiplication of others, variations which we know to be within the limits of possibility. In the paddles of the gigantic extinct sea-lizards, and in the mouths of certain suctorial crustaceans, the general pattern seems thus to have become partially obscured.
There is another and equally curious branch of our subject; namely, serial homologies, or the comparison of the different parts or organs in the same individual, and not of the same parts or organs in different members of the same class. Most physiologists believe that the bones of the skull are homologous—that is, correspond in number and in relative connexion—with the elemental parts of a certain number of vertebrae. The anterior and posterior limbs in all the higher vertebrate classes are plainly homologous. So it is with the wonderfully complex jaws and legs of crustaceans. It is familiar to almost every one, that in a flower the relative position of the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils, as well as their intimate structure, are intelligible on the view that they consist of metamorphosed leaves, arranged in a spire. In monstrous plants, we often get direct evidence of the possibility of one organ being transformed into another; and we can actually see, during the early or embryonic stages of development in flowers, as well as in crustaceans and many other animals, that organs, which when mature become extremely different are at first exactly alike.
How inexplicable are the cases of serial homologies on the ordinary view of creation! Why should the brain be enclosed in a box composed of such numerous and such extraordinarily shaped pieces of bone apparently representing vertebrae? As Owen has remarked, the benefit derived from the yielding of the separate pieces in the act of parturition by mammals, will by no means explain the same construction in the skulls of birds and reptiles. Why should similar bones have been created to form the wing and the leg of a bat, used as they are for such totally different purposes, namely flying and walking? Why should one crustacean, which has an extremely complex mouth formed of many parts, consequently always have fewer legs; or conversely, those with many legs have simpler mouths? Why should the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils, in each flower, though fitted for such distinct purposes, be all constructed on the same pattern?
On the theory of natural selection, we can, to a certain extent, answer these questions. We need not here consider how the bodies of some animals first became divided into a series of segments, or how they became divided into right and left sides, with corresponding organs, for such questions are almost beyond investigation. It is, however, probable that some serial structures are the result of cells multiplying by division, entailing the multiplication of the parts developed from such cells. It must suffice for our purpose to bear in mind that an indefinite repetition of the same part or organ is the common characteristic, as Owen has remarked, of all low or little specialised forms; therefore the unknown progenitor of the Vertebrata probably possessed many vertebrae; the unknown progenitor of the Articulata, many segments; and the unknown progenitor of flowering plants, many leaves arranged in one or more spires. We have also formerly seen that parts many times repeated are eminently liable to vary, not only in number, but in form. Consequently such parts, being already present in considerable numbers, and being highly variable, would naturally afford the materials for adaptation to the most different purposes; yet they would generally retain, through the force of inheritance, plain traces of their original or fundamental resemblance. They would retain this resemblance all the more, as the variations, which afforded the basis for their subsequent modification through natural selection, would tend from the first to be similar; the parts being at an early stage of growth alike, and being subjected to nearly the same conditions. Such parts, whether more or less modified, unless their common origin became wholly obscured, would be serially homologous.
In the great class of molluscs, though the parts in distinct species can be shown to be homologous, only a few serial homologies; such as the valves of Chitons, can be indicated; that is, we are seldom enabled to say that one part is homologous with another part in the same individual. And we can understand this fact; for in molluscs, even in the lowest members of the class, we do not find nearly so much indefinite repetition of any one part as we find in the other great classes of the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
But morphology is a much more complex subject than it at first appears, as has lately been well shown in a remarkable paper by Mr. E. Ray Lankester, who has drawn an important distinction between certain classes of cases which have all been equally ranked by naturalists as homologous. He proposes to call the structures which resemble each other in distinct animals, owing to their descent from a common progenitor with subsequent modification, "homogenous"; and the resemblances which cannot thus be accounted for, he proposes to call "homoplastic". For instance, he believes that the hearts of birds and mammals are as a whole homogenous— that is, have been derived from a common progenitor; but that the four cavities of the heart in the two classes are homoplastic—that is, have been independently developed. Mr. Lankester also adduces the close resemblance of the parts on the right and left sides of the body, and in the successive segments of the same individual animal; and here we have parts commonly called homologous which bear no relation to the descent of distinct species from a common progenitor. Homoplastic structures are the same with those which I have classed, though in a very imperfect manner, as analogous modifications or resemblances. Their formation may be attributed in part to distinct organisms, or to distinct parts of the same organism, having varied in an analogous manner; and in part to similar modifications, having been preserved for the same general purpose or function, of which many instances have been given.
Naturalists frequently speak of the skull as formed of metamorphosed vertebrae; the jaws of crabs as metamorphosed legs; the stamens and pistils in flowers as metamorphosed leaves; but it would in most cases be more correct, as Professor Huxley has remarked, to speak of both skull and vertebrae, jaws and legs, etc., as having been metamorphosed, not one from the other, as they now exist, but from some common and simpler element. Most naturalists, however, use such language only in a metaphorical sense: they are far from meaning that during a long course of descent, primordial organs of any kind—vertebrae in the one case and legs in the other—have actually been converted into skulls or jaws. Yet so strong is the appearance of this having occurred that naturalists can hardly avoid employing language having this plain signification. According to the views here maintained, such language may be used literally; and the wonderful fact of the jaws, for instance, of a crab retaining numerous characters, which they probably would have retained through inheritance, if they had really been metamorphosed from true though extremely simple legs, is in part explained.