The variation of animals and plants under domestication (1868)
Charles Darwin



On the Good derived from slight Changes in the Conditions of Life.—IN considering whether any facts were known which might throw light on the conclusion arrived at in the last chapter, namely, that benefits ensue from crossing, and that it is a law of nature that all organic beings should occasionally cross, it appeared to me probable that the good derived from slight changes in the conditions of life, from being an analogous phenomenon, might serve this purpose. No two individuals, and still less no two varieties, are absolutely alike in constitution and structure; and when the germ of one is fertilised by the male element of another, we may believe that it is acted on in a somewhat similar manner as an individual when exposed to slightly changed conditions. Now, every one must have observed the remarkable influence on convalescents of a change of residence, and no medical man doubts the truth of this fact. Small farmers who hold but little land are convinced that their cattle derive great benefit from a change of pasture. In the case of plants, the evidence is strong that a great advantage is derived from exchanging seeds, tubers, bulbs, and cuttings from one soil or place to another as different as possible.

1 For England, see below. For Germany, see Metzger, 'Getreidearten,' 1841, s. 63. For France, Loiseleur-Deslongchamps ('Consid. sur les Céréales,' 1843, p. 200) gives numerous references on this subject. For Southern France, see Godron, 'Florula Juvenalis,' 1854, p. 28.
2 'A General Treatise of Husbandry,' vol. 3 p. 58.
3 'Gardener's Chronicle and Agricult. Gazette,' 1858, p. 247; and for the second statement, Ibid., 1850, p. 702. On this same subject see also Rev. D. Walker's 'Prize Essay of Highland Agricult. Soc.' vol. ii. p. 200. Also Marshall 'Minutes of Agriculture,' November, 1775.

The belief that plants are thus benefited, whether or not well founded, has been firmly maintained from the time of Columella, who wrote shortly after the Christian era, to the present day; and it now prevails in England, France, and Germany.1 A sagacious observer, Bradley, writing in 1724,2 says, "When we once become Masters of a good Sort of Seed, we should at least put it into Two or Three Hands, where the Soils and Situations are as different as possible; and every Year the Parties should change with one another; by which Means, I find the Goodness of the Seed will be maintained for several Years. For Want of this Use many Farmers have failed in their Crops and been great Losers." He then gives his own practical experience on this head. A modern writer3 asserts, "Nothing can be more clearly established in agriculture than that the continual growth of any one variety in the same district makes it liable to deterioration either in quality or quantity." Another writer states that he sowed close together in the same field two lots of wheat-seed, the product of the same original stock, one of which had been grown on the same land and the other at a distance, and the difference in favour of the crop from the latter seed was remarkable. A gentleman in Surrey who has long made it his business to raise wheat to sell for seed, and who has constantly realised in the market higher prices than others, assures me that he finds it indispensable continually to change his seed; and that for this purpose he keeps two farms differing much in soil and elevation.

4 Oberlin's 'Memoirs,' Eng. translat., p. 73. For Lancashire see Marshall's 'Review of Reports,' 1808, p. 295.

With respect to the tubers of the potato, I find that at the present day the practice of exchanging sets is almost everywhere followed. The great growers of potatoes in Lancashire formerly used to get tubers from Scotland, but they found that "a change from the moss-lands, and vice versa, was generally sufficient." In former times in France the crop of potatoes in the Vosges had become reduced in the course of fifty or sixty years in the proportion from 120-150 to 30-40 bushels; and the famous Oberlin attributed the surprising good which he effected in large part to changing the sets.4

5 'Cottage Gardener,' 1856, p. 186. For Mr. Robson's subsequent statements, see 'Journal of Horticulture,' Feb. 18, 1866, p. 121. For Mr. Abbey's remarks on grafting, etc., Ibid., July 18, 1865, p. 44.

A well-known practical gardener, Mr. Robson5 positively states that he has himself witnessed decided advantage from obtaining bulbs of the onion, tubers of the potato, and various seeds, all of the same kind, from different soils and distant parts of England. He further states that with plants propagated by cuttings, as with the Pelargonium, and especially the Dahlia, manifest advantage is derived from getting plants of the same variety, which have been cultivated in another place; or, "where the extent of the place allows, to take cuttings from one description of soil to plant on another, so as to afford the change that seems so necessary to the well-being of the plants." He maintains that after a time an exchange of this nature is "forced on the grower, whether he be prepared for it or not." Similar remarks have been made by another excellent gardener, Mr. Fish, namely, that cuttings of the same variety of Calceolaria, which he obtained from a neighbour, "showed much greater vigour than some of his own that were "treated in exactly the same manner," and he attributed this solely to his own plants having become "to a certain extent worn out or tired of their quarters." Something of this kind apparently occurs in grafting and budding fruit-trees; for, according to Mr. Abbey, grafts or buds generally take with greater facility on a distinct variety or even species, or on a stock previously grafted, than on stocks raised from seeds of the variety which is to be grafted; and he believes this cannot be altogether explained by the stocks in question being better adapted to the soil and climate of the place. It should, however, be added, that varieties grafted or budded on very distinct kinds, though they may take more readily and grow at first more vigorously than when grafted on closely allied stocks, afterwards often become unhealthy.

6 'Mém. de l'Acad. des Sciences,' 1790, p. 209.
7 'On the Varieties of Wheat,' p. 52.

I have studied M. Tessier's careful and elaborate experiments6 made to disprove the common belief that good is derived from a change of seed; and he certainly shows that the same seed may with care be cultivated on the same farm (it is not stated whether on exactly the same soil) for ten consecutive years without loss. Another excellent observer, Colonel Le Couteur7 has come to the same conclusion; but then he expressly adds, if the same seed be used, "that which is grown on land manured from the mixen one year becomes seed for land prepared with lime, and that again becomes seed for land dressed with ashes, then for land dressed with mixed manure, and so on." But this in effect is a systematic exchange of seed, within the limits of the same farm.

8 Mr. Spencer has fully and ably discussed this whole subject in his 'Principles of Biology,' 1864, vol. ii. ch. x. In the first edition of my 'Origin of Species,' 1859, p. 267, I spoke of the good effects from slight changes in the conditions of life and from cross-breeding, and of the evil effects from great changes in the conditions and from crossing widely distinct forms, as a series of facts "connected together by some common but unknown bond, which is essentially related to the principle of life.

On the whole the belief, which has long been held by many cultivators, that good follows from exchanging seed, tubers, etc., seems to be fairly well founded. It seems hardly credible that the advantage thus derived can be due to the seeds, especially if very small ones, obtaining in one soil some chemical element deficient in the other and in sufficient quantity to influence the whole after-growth of the plant. As plants after once germinating are fixed to the same spot, it might have been anticipated that they would show the good effects of a change more plainly than do animals which continually wander about; and this apparently is the case. Life depending on, or consisting in, an incessant play of the most complex forces, it would appear that their action is in some way stimulated by slight changes in the circumstances to which each organism is exposed. All forces throughout nature, as Mr. Herbert Spencer8 remarks, tend towards an equilibrium, and for the life of each organism it is necessary that this tendency should be checked. These views and the foregoing facts probably throw light, on the one hand, on the good effects of crossing the breed, for the germ will be thus slightly modified or acted on by new forces; and on the other hand, on the evil effects of close interbreeding prolonged during many generations, during which the germ will be acted on by a male having almost identically the same constitution.