Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Darwin on the Cattle of the Falkland Islands

[ Originally posted on July 20, 2009 ]

The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the births of three great men:  Edgar Allan Poe,  Charles Darwin,  Abraham Lincoln.   Notice has already been taken of Poe and also of Darwin, if only indirectly, but his three major works are definitely worth reading again.  A hundred years ago when Charles Eliot compiled the set of 54 volumes that came to be known as the "Harvard Classics," Darwin's significance was recognized by including in the set  two of his works, The Origin of Species (1859) and The Voyage of the Beagle (1838).  Only his much-longer work, The Descent of Man (1871), was left out, probably because of its length.  Of the three works, The Descent of Man is most worthy of a second reading, although one might not want to read through again all of the examples of sexual selection, a portion of the work which comprises more than half of it.

The Descent of Man is the most controversial of Darwin's works, for obvious reasons.  Even in The Voyage of the Beagle, however, controversy is not absent.  Consider, for example, Darwin's observations on the cattle of the Falkland Islands.  The cattle, like the horses, were imported into the Falklands.  While the horses grew smaller in size, the cattle seemed to thrive.  The following is Darwin's account of them:

" The cattle, instead of having degenerated like the horses, seem, as before remarked, to have increased in size, and they are much more numerous than the horses.  Capt. Sullivan informs me that they vary much less in the general form of their bodies and in the shape of their horns than English cattle.  In colour they differ much; and it is a remarkable circumstance, that in different parts of this one small island, different colours predominate.  Round Mount Usborne, at a height of from 1000 to 1500 feet above the sea, about half of some of the herds are mouse or lead-coloured, a tint which is not common in other parts of the island.  Near Point Pleasant dark brown prevails, whereas south of Choiseul Sound (which almost divides the island into two parts), white beasts with black heads and feet are the most common: in all parts black, and some spotted animals may be observed.  Capt. Sullivan remarks, that the difference in the prevailing colours was so obvious, that in looking for the herds near Point Pleasant, they appeared from a long distance like black spots, whilst south of Choiseul Sound they appeared like white spots on the hill-sides.  Capt. Sullivan thinks that the herds do not mingle; and it is a singular fact, that the mouse-coloured cattle, though living on the high land, calve about a month earlier in the season than the other coloured beasts on the lower land.  It is interesting thus to find the once domesticated cattle breaking into three colours, of which some one colour would in all probability ultimately prevail over the others, if the herds were left undisturbed for the next several centuries. "        

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