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Part II.
The Descent of Man.

I may remark before proceeding that, under the present and next two classes of cases, the facts are so complex and the conclusions so doubtful, that any one who feels no especial interest in the subject had better pass them over.


The brilliant or conspicuous colours which characterise many birds in the present class, can rarely or never be of service to them as a protection; so that they have probably been gained by the males through sexual selection, and then transferred to the females and the young. It is, however, possible that the males may have selected the more attractive females; and if these transmitted their characters to their offspring of both sexes, the same results would follow as from the selection of the more attractive males by the females. But there is evidence that this contingency has rarely, if ever, occurred in any of those groups of birds in which the sexes are generally alike; for, if even a few of the successive variations had failed to be transmitted to both sexes, the females would have slightly exceeded the males in beauty. Exactly the reverse occurs under nature; for, in almost every large group in which the sexes generally resemble each other, the males of some few species are in a slight degree more brightly coloured than the females. It is again possible that the females may have selected the more beautiful males, these males having reciprocally selected the more beautiful females; but it is doubtful whether this double process of selection would be likely to occur, owing to the greater eagerness of one sex than the other, and whether it would be more efficient than selection on one side alone. It is, therefore, the most probable view that sexual selection has acted, in the present class, as far as ornamental characters are concerned, in accordance with the general rule throughout the animal kingdom, that is, on the males; and that these have transmitted their gradually-acquired colours, either equally or almost equally, to their offspring of both sexes.

Another point is more doubtful, namely, whether the successive variations first appeared in the males after they had become nearly mature, or whilst quite young. In either case sexual selection must have acted on the male when he had to compete with rivals for the possession of the female; and in both cases the characters thus acquired have been transmitted to both sexes and all ages. But these characters, if acquired by the males when adult, may have been transmitted at first to the adults alone, and at some subsequent period transferred to the young. For it is known that, when the law of inheritance at corresponding ages fails, the offspring often inherit characters at an earlier age than that at which they first appeared in their parents.[1] Cases apparently of this kind have been observed with birds in a state of nature. For instance Mr. Blyth has seen specimens of Lanius rufus and of Colymbus glacialis which had assumed whilst young, in a quite anomalous manner, the adult plumage of their parents.[2] Again, the young of the common swan (Cygnus olor) do not cast off their dark feathers and become white until eighteen months or two years old; but Dr. F. Forel has described the case of three vigorous young birds, out of a brood of four, which were born pure white. These young birds


  1. 'Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,' vol. ii. p. 79
  2. Charlesworths' 'Mag. of Nat. Hist.' vol. i, 1837, pp. 305, 306.