Published letter (WCP5357.5996)

[1] [p. 227]

9 St. Marks Crescent, N.W. September 27, 1868

Dear Darwin,— Your view seems to be that variations occurring in one sex are transmitted either to that sex exclusively or to both sexes equally, or more rarely partially transferred. But we have every gradation of sexual colours from total dissimilarity to perfect identity. If this is explained solely by the laws of inheritance, then the colours of one or other sex will be always (in relation to their environment) a matter of chance. I cannot think this. I think Selection more powerful than laws of inheritance, of which it makes use, as shown by cases of two, three or four forms of female butterflies, all of which have, I have little doubt, been specialised for protection.

[2] [p. 228] To answer your first question is most difficult, if not impossible, because we have no sufficient evidence in individual cases of slight sexual difference, to determine whether the male alone has acquired his superior brightness by sexual selection, or the female been made duller by need of protection, or whether the two causes have acted. Many of the sexual differences of existing species may be inherited differences from parent forms who existed under different conditions and had greater or less need of protection.

I think I admitted before the general tendency (probably) of males to acquire brighter tints. Yet this cannot be universal, for many female birds and quadrupeds have equally bright tints.

I think the case of ♀ Pieris pyrrha proves that females alone can be greatly modified for protection.

To your second question I can reply more decidedly. I do think the females of the Gallinaceae you mention have been modified or been prevented from acquiring the brighter plumage of the male by need of protection. I know that the Gallus bankiva frequents drier and more open situations than the pea-hen of Java, which is found among grassy and leafy vegetation corresponding with the colours of the two. So the Argus pheasant, ♂ and ♀, are, I feel sure, protected by their tints corresponding to the dead leaves of the lofty forest in which they dwell, and the female of the gorgeous fire-back pheasant, Lophura viellottii, is of a very similar rich brown colour. I do not, however, at all think the question can be settled by individual cases, but only by large masses of facts.

The colours of the mass of female birds seem to me strictly analogous to the colours of both sexes of snipes, woodcocks, plovers, etc., which are undoubtedly protective.

Now, supposing, on your view, that the colours of a [3] [p. 229] male bird become more and more brilliant by sexual selection, and a good deal of that colour is transmitted to the female till it becomes positively injurious to her during incubation and the race is in danger of extinction, do you not think that all the females who had acquired less of the male’s bright colours or who themselves varied in a protective direction would be preserved, and that thus a good protective colouring would be acquired? If you admit that this could occur, then we no longer differ, for this is the main point of my view.

Have you ever thought of the red wax-tips if the Bombycilla beautifully imitating the red fructification of lichens used in the nest, and therefore the females have it too? Yet this is a very sexual-looking character.

We begin printing this week. — Yours very faithfully,

Alfred R. Wallace.

P.S.— Pray don’t distress yourself on this subject. It will all come right in the end, and after all it is only an episode in your great work.— A.R.W.

Please cite as “WCP5357,” in Beccaloni, G. W. (ed.), Ɛpsilon: The Alfred Russel Wallace Collection accessed on 7 June 2023, https://epsilon.ac.uk/view/wallace/letters/WCP5357